Ukraine’s Political Instability Continues

April 11, 2016 The prime minister’s resignation highlights the discord among political factions in Kiev.

|April 11, 2016

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By Lili Bayer

Summary Revolutions make for strange bedfellows, and when they are over, power struggles among the victors begin. Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk announced his resignation on April 10, following a months-long political crisis in Kiev. The political instability and factional fighting that follow revolutions define the course of new regimes. Ukraine’s future depends in large part on the commitment of Western governments to supporting Kiev politically and financially. A weak and unstable government in Kiev presents challenges for the West and opportunities for Moscow. Although the West will remain influential in Ukraine, the U.S. and Russia will likely come to a compromise on the country’s neutrality.

Franz Kafka wrote that “every revolution evaporates and leaves behind only the slime of a new bureaucracy.” Many Ukrainians likely agree. Since coming to power in 2014, Ukraine’s leadership disappointed many citizens and Western governments by failing to effectively address corruption and revive the country’s economy. Yatsenyuk’s resignation is one element in an ongoing crisis plaguing the country’s fragile ruling coalition.

Ukraine’s political troubles are an example of a classic problem of revolution. Revolutions take place when an uprising of citizens leads to a change not only of a particular government, but of an entire regime. Revolutions usually require diverse social and political forces coming together. Once they defeat the regime, however, dynamics shifts. As Dr. George Friedman wrote in a 1991 essay, “Revolution is about the sublime and the sacred. Governing is about the prosaic and the profane.” Once the moment of revolution is over and the challenges of policy and everyday governing emerges, the revolutionary alliances generally fall apart. The different factions are then left fighting over the legacy of the revolution and how to move forward.

It was a little over two years ago when a group of Ukrainian public figures stood at Maidan Square encouraging the crowds to oppose then-President Viktor Yanukovych. Yatsenyuk, a seasoned economist and politician, was there representing his mentor and party leader, Yulia Tymoshenko, who was in prison. Also present were Petro Poroshenko, an oligarch with candy and media empires; Vitali Klitschko, a popular boxer with political aspirations; and Oleh Tyahnybok, a nationalist and openly anti-Semitic politician.

Like these politicians, the Ukrainians who came to protest against the regime were highly diverse, from pro-EU students and activists to nationalist youths. It is telling that, merely two years after the events of Maidan, there are different names for the revolution, reflecting the diverse priorities and perspectives of its supporters: some refer to it as the Euromaidan Revolution, others as simply the Revolution of Dignity. For some Ukrainians, the revolution was about becoming a part of Europe. For others, it was about combating corruption or about Ukraine as a nation.

The politicians who supported the Maidan protests and ultimately pushed for Yanukovych’s removal tried to present a united front, but under the surface, problems emerged even before Yanukovych fled the country. A tape leaked in early February 2014 revealed that U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland and the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, Geoffrey Pyatt, had been working to manage the complex relationships among Ukraine’s pro-Western leaders. In the recording, Nuland refers to “troubles in the marriage,” while Pyatt discusses efforts to “keep the moderate democrats together.” From the tape, it becomes clear that Nuland and Pyatt were highly aware that Yanukovych’s opponents struggle to work together and were balancing among the different personalities to ensure that there could be a working pro-Western political alliance.

Ukrainian politics are fractious, and factions often do not revolve around ideology but around business interests and complex webs of personal allegiances involving both politicians and oligarchs. As a result, Western governments now have two major fears when it comes to Ukraine’s leadership. The first is that Russia will regain influence in Kiev through dealing with Ukrainian elites. The second is that weak governments and instability in Kiev will undermine efforts to further integrate Ukraine with the West.

These two concerns are valid and present a challenge for Western strategy in the region, but fears that Ukraine will move away from the West are largely exaggerated. The Ukrainian population became more pro-Western, or at least more anti-Russian, as a result of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and fighting in Donbass. Moreover, despite their diverging interests, most Ukrainian political factions see the benefit of close ties with the West. Ukraine is highly dependent on funding from Western governments and institutions, giving Western governments the ability to push for reforms and anti-corruption measures as prerequisites for more financial assistance. When it comes to the country’s oligarchs, the picture is mixed. Many Ukrainian oligarchs suffer when Ukraine’s economy is in crisis, and thus also benefit indirectly from strong ties with the West. On the other hand, some reforms could significantly undermine oligarchs’ financial interests.

Ukraine’s future depends in large part on the level of political and financial commitment of Western governments. However, European governments are divided in terms of how highly they rank Ukraine as a priority. Dutch voters’ rejection of the EU association agreement with Ukraine, albeit in a minor vote with about 32 percent turnout, highlights that for some Europeans the question of Ukraine is subordinate to concerns like the direction of the EU. At a time when the EU is divided and facing its own internal challenges, the U.S. is the main external power involved in shaping Ukraine’s future. As we have outlined, Washington is working to maintain Kiev as politically pro-Western, but is at the same time seeking a compromise with Moscow over Ukraine’s status. The U.S. is willing to accept a militarily neutral Ukraine as it boosts its military presence along NATO’s eastern edge.

As U.S. officials recognized before Yanukovych’s government fell, the pro-Western figures in Ukraine, some of whom would ultimately join the new ruling coalition, are far from united in their political goals and aspirations. Revolutionary alliances fall apart, and give way to fierce political competition. The current situation presents Russia with opportunities to boost its own position as it seeks to, at the very least, make Ukraine neutral ground. Meanwhile, Western governments, in particular the U.S., will attempt to retain significant influence in Kiev to thwart Russia’s imperative to reclaim its traditional buffer territories. In the short term the two sides may be able to reach a de facto understanding, if not an official agreement. But Ukraine sits astride one of the world’s major geopolitical fault lines, between Russia and Europe, with American interests present as well. We can expect more instability in Kiev.