Daniel Hamilton is a Partner at Bell Pottinger and a Conservative candidate for the European Parliament in the North-West region
In the past 48 hours, Ukraine has gone full-circle.
From the grim spectacle of snipers executing demonstrators in the centre of Kyiv and the images of bodies piled high in the lobby of the Hotel Ukraine to the public shaming of a vainglorious President and triumphant scenes of a returning hero, history has truly been made.
For the past nearly three months, millions of protestors across the Ukraine have massed into squares in cities across the country ostensibly to demand closer links to the European Union. While the push for closer EU links was the spark that ignited the fire, the significant of the Euro Maidan movement had far more to do with challenging the country’s corrupt political elite who have revelled in excessive wealth while the rest of the country has teetered on the brink of economic and social collapse.
Even the briefest of visits to Ukraine is enough to demonstrate the gaping divide between the people and the powerful. In little more than an hour, one can drive from avenues with nicknames like “Kyiv’s Montmartre” lined with the xixi eateries and bijou boutiques beloved of former First Lady Lyudmilla Yanukovych to muddy, barren villages where subsistence farming and unemployment is the order of the day.
Just as Ukraine is a country of contrasts, it would be wrong to try and paint the protestors as forming a uniform block. While many I met in the crowds massing on Independence Square were indeed highly educated, well-travelled and English-speaking, they were easily outnumbered by a loose coalition of industrial and agrarian workers, war veterans, churchy types and pensioners’ rights campaigners. In short, this wasn’t your typical kind of protest: beards, gritty rhetoric and machine oil-splattered cassocks were more in vogue on the square than student-penned poetry and starry-eyed idealism.
In securing the removal of Viktor Yakukovych, the demonstrators have secure their chief objective. What comes next, however, is far less clear. While the pro-West movement is currently in the ascendancy, Ukraine remains a painfully divided country. Bridging that divide will be the country’s main primary challenge in the coming months.
Ukraine is currently without an elected President and appears likely to be so until elections are held later this year. While many of the leading figures in the Euro Maidan movement are likely to enter the race in the coming weeks, the only declared candidate so far is Yulia Tymoshenko.
Tymoshenko undoubtedly possesses the oratorical skills, the passion and the rolodex of powerful contacts in Brussels and Washington DC that would make her an attractive candidate for the top job. Her back story, including her disgraceful politically-motivated detention, is compelling. She is, however, a figure from the “old Ukraine”. For the Euro Maidan movement to result in Tymoshenko in the President’s office would be a grave mistake, and a tremendous missed opportunity for a country badly in need of a fresh start.
The reasons for this are numerous.
Tymoshenko is a divider, not a uniter – a figure adored by a third of the country, yet disliked and distrusted by the rest. As Prime Minister, she presided over an incompetent administration that effectively destroyed the country’s financial standing. While she has reinvented herself as a pro-western figure in recent years, it was her political alliance with her latter for Viktor Yanukovych that derailed the pro-NATO Presidency of Viktor Yuschchenko. She too signed the accords with Russia that extended the country’s lease on the Black Sea naval base in the Crimea.
One might have expected her arrival at the Euro Maidan protest yesterday evening to be met with rapturous applause – but it was rather more muted than that. While Mrs Tymoshenko was politely heard and warmly clapped by the crowd, the following speaker, the Polish MEP Jacek Saryusz-Wolski, ignited more enthusiasm from the crowd.
Politicians are not a group known for being able to set aside their egos, but what Ukraine needs at present is a government of national unity, encompassing all parts of the Euro Maidan movement. The leaders of the Batkivshchyna, UDAR and Svoboda should field a joint Presidential candidate – potentially drawn from the academic community – to effectively act as a “referee” and “honest broker” overseeing a cabinet comprised of figures from all political parties. Tymoshenko should be part of that process – but not the leader of it.
The next key issue that must be addressed is the ethnic dimension of Ukrainian politics. It has not escaped the attention of political analysts that the east and west of the country has split, almost down the middle, between Russian speakers who favour closer ties to Moscow and the Ukrainian-speaking West.
The situation in the South East of the country, where a number of local assemblies have already indicated they wish to be annexed by Russia, is particularly concerning. The Euro Maidan movement must immediately act to prevent this situation spiralling into a conflict that causes the country to divide in two.
As an immediate step, the incoming government must pass legislation in the National Assembly that reinforces Russian language and cultural rights inside the Ukrainian state. With evidence mounting that the Russian Government is pushing propaganda in Eastern Ukraine claiming that Russian speakers will be the target of retribution from the Euro Maidan government, such a move would be a powerful confidence-building measure and statement of commitment to a multi-ethnic Ukraine.
Additionally, a programme of financial aid must also be urgently adopted – with the support of the European Union and United States – to provide support for the vast industrial complexes in Eastern Ukraine that rely on Russia for the bulk of their trade so as to ensure the region is not decimated by unemployment. Some will question the financial cost of this transaction (of which more later), but it would be minuscule compared to the sums that would need be spent remedying the effects of an armed conflict.
In the longer term, a constitutional amendment should be moved to create the position of Vice-President, the expectation being that such a post would be allocated to a member of the Russian-speaking community. The Euro Maidan movement cannot be allowed to become only an ethnic Ukrainian success story.
The next issue the new government must address is corruption. The images of former President’s Yanukovych’s private zoo, Galleon and marble-lined massage parlour speak to his personal corruption – but he was far from alone. A special commission should be established by the Euro Maidan government to investigate and make examples of figures from all political parties who have habitually raided the state coffers for their own gain. This should be done fairly and proportionately with support from international judges – and with the understanding from all political parties their own activists will not be immune from prosecution.
One of the major failings of the 2004 Orange Revolution – or “false dawn” as it ought to be known – that brought Viktor Yushchenko to power was the fact that, in the eyes of Ukrainians, all it did was replace corrupt pro-Russians with corrupt pro-western politicians. For the sake of Ukrainian democracy, history cannot be allowed to repeat itself.
Six months ago, President Yanukovych appeared all set to sign the Eastern Partnership Agreement which would have opened up the country’s economy to tariff-free access to EU markets. The chief reason for Yanukovych’s volte face on the issue and decision to align his country with Russia’s Customs Union was a short-term financial calculation – both personally and politically.
Western powers must recognise the power of financial inducements in Ukraine. Outside of its major cities, Ukraine effectively lies in ruins; with poorly-maintained roads, a largely inoperable rail network and thousands of mothballed factories established in the Soviet era to satisfy Russian priorities. There’s no denying it: the money promised to the Yanukovych administration by the Kremlin towards the end of last year would have provided a temporary sticking plaster for these problems.
Ukraine’s external debt payments are due to reach around $13 billion this year. Without financial aid from western governments, the country will either be forced to default and be plunged into economic meltdown or go cap in hand to Moscow (and capitulate to all of its associated demands) in order to pay its bills – a step that would undermine the entire purpose of Euro Maidan.
If the West is serious about securing Ukraine’s long-term political reorientation, the United States and European Union must create some form of modern-day Marshall Plan to upgrade the country’s infrastructure and wean it off its dependance on Russian gas supplies to fuel the economy. Such a plan would not only benefit Ukraine but the scores of foreign firms that could be attracted by opportunities in the country’s burgeoning natural resources sector.
The next few days should rightly be dedicated to remembering the martyrs of the Euro Maidan movement and celebrating the country’s rejection of autocracy. Optimism though, must be balanced by the realisation of the scale of the challenges facing the new government.
From ethnic unrest in Crimea to an uncertain economic future, this is not the end of Ukraine’s path to democracy – it’s only the end of the beginning.