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Ukraine

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Putin the Immortal?

Five years ago somebody posted photographs on the internet showing a man who looked a lot like Vladimir Putin in photographs from 1920 and 1941. In both shots he was in military uniform, defending the interests of the Russian people then as he still does today.

But how can this be? He wasn’t even born until 1952. So the wave of faux speculation starts that Putin is an immortal hero who returns at intervals to save Russia. Or maybe just that he’s an immortal vampire. At any rate, he’ll be around forever. It was nonsense then, and it’s nonsense now.

Last week the Russian president announced a wave of constitutional reforms, and the vast majority of foreign observers, especially in the West, immediately jumped to the conclusion that Putin is changing the system so that he can stay in power forever.

Twenty years in power (his current term as president expires in 2024) is not enough for Putin, the foreign pundits insist. He can’t risk leaving power, they explain, or Russians would start asking where his vast illicit wealth came from. And then the pundits spin off into lengthy tirades about how he is Evil Incarnate, even comparing him to Stalin.

Joseph Stalin, who ruled the old Soviet Union from 1924 until his death in 1953, was a mass murderer without a conscience. Nobody was safe from his paranoia: he even killed most of the other heroes of the Bolshevik Revolution. He was probably responsible for the deaths of ten million Russians.

And Vladimir Putin? Here’s Simon Tisdall, columnist and former foreign editor of The Guardian: “Like Stalin, (Putin) has made many enemies and caused untold misery….cronyism and corruption on a vast scale…military aggression and disruption abroad…..Again like Stalin, retirement is not a safe option for the ex-KGB spy who normalised assassination as a modern-day tool of state policy.”

Where to start? Perhaps with the obvious point that Stalin killed tens of thousands for every death that can be attributed to Putin. Moreover, corruption in Putin’s Russia is far less than it was in the 1990s under the first post-Communist president, the Western-backed Boris Yeltsin, a drunken puppet who made ordinary Russians cringe.

‘Military aggression and disruption abroad’? Guilty as charged, in the illegal restoration of Crimea to Russian control (though most people in Crimea welcomed it), and in backing anti-government rebels in eastern Ukraine.

But there is a litany of Western invasions and military interventions (Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Serbia, Syria, Yemen) that didn’t meet the highest legal standards either, and had equally messy outcomes. Nor do Western governments lag behind on the assassination front.

More importantly, Russia’s western border is a thousand kilometres east of where it was in 1914. It is a minimum of 300 km. east of where it was as recently as 1991. Putin has not challenged that new frontier once (with the partial exception of Ukraine) in 21 years in office. You could have a much more frightening and disruptive person than Putin in the Kremlin.

The old KGB was a ruthless organisation, but also a rational and realistic one. Putin is a man steeped in that tradition, not an adventurer or a fantasist, and we should probably be grateful for that. So what are the odds that he will still be running things after 2024?

He will be 72 years old in 2024: definitely time to start thinking about what happens after he’s gone. And I’m going to make a bold assumption here: that he is a Russian patriot.

Being Russian means that he fears disorder above all else: Russians sometimes call themselves “Italians of the North”, and they don’t mean it in a good way. So he wants a strong state, run with a firm hand, even after he has retired, which means that a clear and orderly succession is very important.

However, living on under somebody else’s firm hand is not an attractive prospect for Putin. He may or may not have fabulous sums of stolen money tucked away – the evidence for that is unclear – but you make a lot of enemies in a quarter-century in power, and they could hurt you badly after you have relinquished it.

So what Putin needs is a position that gives him the final constitutional say when big changes loom, but lets him withdraw from the daily exercise of power. Something like the chairmanship of a strengthened State Council that can overrule both president and prime minister when necessary (but does so very rarely).

And lo! That appears to be exactly what he has in mind. The details of his proposed reforms are not yet clear, but a weaker president, a stronger prime minister, and a State Council presiding serenely from afar are all part of the package.

I’m not saying that’s what will actually happen, but I think it’s what he’d like to happen.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 1 and 2. (“Five…now”)

Ukraine: A Cold Peace?

After Monday’s first encounter between Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and Russia’s President Vladimir Putin in Paris, there were the inevitable accusations that Putin had taken the inexperienced Zelenskiy to the cleaners. After all, what chance did an ex-television comedian have against a wily former intelligence officer?

Wrong question. It’s not about how clever the players are, it’s about what cards they hold – and not even a diplomatic team that included Talleyrand, Metternich and Henry Kissinger could have beaten Putin’s hand. Russia won the war years ago, although people continued to die every week along the front line in southeastern Ukraine.

Zelenskiy’s task, which is still very hard to accomplish, is to close the war down without losing anything more to Russia, and without giving Putin decisive influence over the future course of Ukraine’s politics.

After 68 months of fighting and 13,000 deaths, the military stalemate in eastern Ukraine seems permanent, but that is an illusion. The Ukrainian army cannot break it, clearly, or it would have done so and recovered the lost territory already. But Russia could move forward any time it wants.

What deters Russia from advancing further is the huge diplomatic price it would pay, including a dramatic reinforcement of NATO’s forces along its western border and even more severe sanctions. Besides, ruling over tens of millions of resentful and impoverished Ukrainians is deeply unattractive to Moscow, and could easily turn into an interminable anti-Russian guerilla war. So Russia doesn’t want any more of Ukraine.

Any realistic Ukrainian would want to close the war down, cut Ukraine’s losses in the breakaway provinces of Donetsk and Lugansk, and get on with building a better future for the other 95% of the country. A peace deal between Moscow and Kyiv is therefore possible, but it is not inevitable or even indispensable.

The real measure of Zelenskiy’s realism is his Plan B. He can’t discuss it aloud himself, because he would be condemned as a defeatist and a traitor by Ukrainian super-patriots who simply ignore the realities of the situation. However, his adviser Andriy Yermak was quite frank about it at a meeting in London last week.

Ukraine’s preferred peace deal would restore the breakaway provinces, grant them wide local autonomy, and get the Russian troops out, but would not create a federal state in which those two provinces held a veto over central government policies. But if Zelenskiy can’t persuade Russia to accept that deal, then Kyiv will just walk away from the talks.

“If we don’t see readiness from Russia to…move towards a peaceful solution with a clear-cut time frame,” said Yermak, “we’ll be building a wall, and life will continue.” What kind of wall? He didn’t go into details, but it would clearly have to be both political and physical. Ukraine would abandon the breakaway provinces, wall them off, and get on with the rest of its life.

Since most of the people who remain in the Russian-controlled parts of those two provinces would really prefer to be part of Russia (one-and-a-half million people who prefer to be Ukrainian have already left), this would not constitute a great betrayal of innocent Ukrainian citizens. And it would free Ukraine from an unwinnable and therefore pointless war.

Maybe this won’t be necessary. Maybe Putin will be willing to make a deal that restores Ukraine’s sovereignty over its lost territories in the east (although not over Crimea), and that gives those territories autonomy without granting them a veto over central government policies. But the odds are against it.

This whole conflict was Putin’s response to the ‘Meydan Revolution’ of February 2014 that overthrew a deeply corrupt and slavishly pro-Russian president of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych. To punish Ukraine, Putin seized Crimea the following month – and then in April he sponsored the breakaway revolt by pro-Russian groups in Donetsk and Lugansk provinces.

His objective was somehow to regain a dominant Russian influence over the government in Kyiv. That has not succeeded, and he is left holding the eastern half of those two provinces, a partially depopulated post-industrial wasteland. So maybe he will cut a deal that hands them back to Ukraine and restores reasonably civil relations between Moscow and Kyiv. Or maybe not.

In either case, the relationship will stay very cool, because Russian popular opinion would never allow Putin to hand back Crimea. It is historically Russian territory, and only got transferred to Ukraine in 1954 as a result of murky machinations within the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.

The best that can be hoped for is a cold peace, and even that is not guaranteed, but Zelenskiy’s Plan B shows that he is no fool. “I don’t know who [beat] whom,” he said after the Paris meeting. “I think it would be appropriate to be diplomatic as we’ve just started talking. Let’s say for now it’s a draw.”
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 11 and 14. (“Maybe…against it”; and “In either…Union”)

Ukraine: The Third Revolution

“No promises, so no disappointments,” said Ukraine’s Volodymyr Zelensky during the election campaign that made him the president last May. It was a daring, even cynical thing for a politician to say, but then he’s not a politician.

Zelensky is a television comedian who really doesn’t have much in the way of policies yet – but he does represent a fresh start for Ukraine, and that’s what voters wanted. After two non-violent popular revolutions in 2004 and 2014 that promised change, twice the country ended up back in the hands of the same old corrupt post-Soviet oligarchs. Zelensky didn’t need to make promises. He just needed to be different.

He hasn’t actually done much since he got elected, but that’s because he doesn’t have a majority in the Rada (parliament). In fact, he doesn’t have anybody in the Rada, because his party, Servant of the People, was only formed last year. So his first priority had to be a fresh election for a new parliament. It’s happening next Sunday.

Nobody expects Zelensky to get the astounding 73% victory that he got in the presidential election, but the public has become a good deal more positive about the future since his election. An opinion poll last week showed that optimism was up from 39% late last year to 71% now.

If Zelensky’s party doesn’t win an absolute majority in the Rada, it will at least get 45-48% of the vote. Then he just has to pick a coalition partner from among four smaller parties that will get 10% or less. The likeliest would be Holos, the new party founded by rock-star Svyatoslav Vakarchuk.

Yes, I know. Two showbiz figures, complete novices in politics, trying to run a country of 44 million people (which, by the way, is in a proxy war with Russia). What could possibly go wrong?

But if you are ready for generational turn-over, as Ukrainian voters obviously are, then by definition the politicians you back will be younger people – Zelensky is 41, and Vakarchuk is 44 – with little experience in politics.

They do have experience in other walks of life, though. Zelensky grew up in the mostly Russian-speaking steeltown of Krivoi Rog in the Ukrainian rustbelt, and managed to get a law degree before becoming a comedian and then building a successful TV production company.

Vakarchuk is not just a singer. He also has a doctorate in theoretical physics – and after the Orange Revolution of 2004-05 he actually sat as a deputy in the Rada for a short time before quitting in disgust at the corruption and infighting.

Most of the members of the new Rada will also be tyros. Vakarchuk’s party is so dedicated to changing the way things are done that it is not letting any member of the current parliament run on its list. Zelensky’s parliamentary list is more varied: about a one-third reformers, one-third people with personal or business ties to Zelensky – and one-third people with ties to Ihor Kolomoisky.

This is when the red lights start flashing, because Kolomoisky is a major oligarch who owns the TV channel that has been broadcasting Zelensky’s show, ‘Servant of the People’, for the past three years.

‘Servant of the People’ has a heart-warming plot in which Zelensky plays a high school teacher who is suddenly elevated to the presidency by the voters after his rant about the appalling state of Ukrainian politics, secretly taped by a student, goes viral.

Now Zelensky leads a real political party with that name, and he is living out the same miracle. Or is he just following a cunning strategy that he and Kolomoisky settled on around four years ago?

What did Kolomoisky stand to get out of it? Well, he was self-exiled in Israel because
of a huge business and legal dispute with Petro Poroshenko, another oligarch who was president at the time and might send him to jail. Kolomoisky could only go home if Poroshenko lost the next election.

But why would Zelensky play along with that? He was already very successful, and he could probably have sold that TV series to some other outlet. Did he just want to be president? And if so, did he really plan to do Kolomoisky’s bidding once he got the job?

Thinking too hard about this can drive you crazy. For example, Zelensky has just appointed Andriy Bohdan, once Kolomoisky’s lawyer, to the key job of head of administration in the president’s office. That’s pretty suspicious.

However, Bohdan has also served as lawyer to almost every other oligarch in the country, and he probably knows where all the bodies are buried. That would be very useful if Zelensky really plans to go after them all, which he must do if he intends to change the way the country is run. You can argue it both ways with equal plausibility.

Right or wrong, however, most Ukrainians currently believe that Zelensky is the real thing – and actually, so do I. Of course, I have been wrong a couple of times in the past.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 4, 8 and 9. (“Nobody…now”; and “They…infighhting”)

Gwynne Dyer’s new book is ‘Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work)’.

Ukraine: Nothing Left to Lose

Ukraine has a new president, and he’s a comedian! Oh, wait a minute, that’s not such a big deal. Guatemala was the first country to elect a comedian as president: Jimmy Morales, back in 2015. Although Morales turned sort of serious once he took office: he’s a right-wing nationalist who supports the death penalty and opposes abortion. Whereas Volodymyr Zelensky hasn’t turned.

Right through the presidential election campaign in Ukraine, Zelensky avoided speeches. Mostly he just toured the country with a comedy troupe, performed in skits, and did stand-up. And he’s not just a comedian, he’s a Jewish comedian, the very best kind. His style is south Ukrainian, sort of vaudeville, with a distinctive Jewish inflection, and people love it.

Congratulations to Ukraine, by the way, for having Jews as both president and prime minister (Volodymyr Groysman) at the same time, in the heart of traditionally anti-semitic Eastern Europe, and not even making a fuss about it. But what is Zelensky going to do for Ukraine now that he has been swept into office with a landslide majority (73 percent)? Nobody actually knows, and this may include Zelensky himself.

When Zelensky did offer more than jokes, in the short videos he released from time to time during the campaign, it still wasn’t policies. More like mood music, really.

“He’s from a family of Jewish Soviet intellectuals from a Russian-speaking industrial region [in eastern Ukraine],” Vyacheslav Likhachev of the National Minorities’ Rights Monitoring Group in Kyiv told the Haaretz newspaper. “He has repeatedly made fun of over-the-top [Ukrainian] national patriotic discourse.”

“Zelensky might make some symbolic gestures toward nationalist sentiment to fend off accusations that he’ll sell us out to Russia,” Likhachev continued, “but that seems unlikely to me. He probably realizes that it’ll be hard for him to win over the most nationalist-oriented part of society, so he’ll wash his hands of them so as not to alienate the majority.”

That will be a welcome change after five years of the pompous nationalist bilge of billionaire Petro Poroshenko, who won the presidency in 2014 after a popular revolt overthrew the pro-Russian stooge Viktor Yanukovych.

In a video Poroshenko released just before the sole presidential debate in Kiev’s huge Olympic Stadium last Friday, he tried to play the patriotic card: “There’s no room for jokes here. Being a president and supreme commander is not a game… it means being responsible for the people, for the country.” It would have sounded more persuasive if Poroshenko had done something about the corruption that has made oligarchs like him rich.

Zelensky’s response was lethal: “I’m not your opponent. I’m a verdict on you. I am the result of your mistakes.” And by a majority of almost three-to-one, Ukrainians voted to put their future in his hands. Although, to be frank, most of them doubt that he can really deliver the future of peace and prosperity that they hope for.

The only evidence they have of Zelensky’s dedication, honesty and wisdom is the television series he writes and stars in, ‘Servant of the People’. It’s a heart-warming story of a humble high-school history teacher whose rant about the dreadful state of the country is secretly recorded by his students, and goes viral when they upload it to You Tube. So he is elected president of Ukraine.

Zelensky is not a high-school teacher; he is a show-business millionaire with his own production company. He may be just as warm and sincere in person as Vasyl Petrovych Holoborodko, the former teacher and accidental president whom he plays in ‘Servant’. (It’s one of Ukraine’s most popular series, and is now nearing fifty episodes). Or he may not be.

Journalists are now working their way through all the box sets of ‘Servant of the People’, trying to glean some clues about what the new president has in mind. But that’s a thankless task, because a lot of the show is sheer fantasy (like the sequence where the frustrated Holoborodko machine-guns the entire parliament).

Ukrainian voters are not fools. They know they are buying a pig in an poke. But they calculate that things MIGHT change if Zelensky becomes president, whereas they certainly wouldn’t change if any of the usual suspects won the presidency. And things are certainly not good now.

Ukraine has become the poorest country in Europe – far poorer than Russia. Millions of Ukrainians have left the country seeking work in Poland or Russia, and the low-intensity war against the Russian-backed separatists in the east drags on endlessly. No post-Soviet leader of Ukraine has made even a dent in the corrupt rule of the oligarchs. Indeed, most of them have been oligarchs themselves.

So why not vote for Zelensky? Most Ukrainians feel that they have nothing left to lose.

To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 12. (“Zelensky…majority”; and “Journalists…parliament”)