Ukraine vs. Ukrainium

"There are two battles for Ukraine. The home front demands dethroning oligarchs - and prosecuting prosecutors."

A file photo of a March 25 meeting between Poroshenko and Kolomoisky (Beta/AP, file)
A file photo of a March 25 meeting between Poroshenko and Kolomoisky (Beta/AP, file)

‘Welcome to the nation state of Ukraine,” says Mustafa Dzhemilev, a soft-spoken 71-year-old leader of the Crimean Tatars, gentle on the outside, hard as steel within. He was deported from Crimea on Stalin’s orders in 1944, when he was just six months old, along with so many fellow Tatars. Persecuted under Soviet rule, he once went on hunger strike for 303 days. A year ago, after Vladimir Putin’s annexation of Crimea, this quiet fighter was banned from re-entering the peninsula his forebears had inhabited for centuries, long before the Russians did. And now here he is in Kiev, welcoming us to a new Ukraine.

“Putin can win some battles but Ukraine will win the war – with our passion, with our willingness to die,” says Hanna Hopko. For now “we have the political nation”. Hopko, 33, is the chair of the Ukrainian parliament’s foreign affairs committee, one of a vanguard of young female MPs, self-professed heirs to the Euromaidan demonstrations, who now rattle off the details of political transformation plans faster than a rapper on speed.

Two very different life stories, but one and the same message: steely determination that Ukraine should become a sovereign, modern European country.

This is a story we often miss. In Berlin, Washington or Brussels we say “Ukraine”, but within 30 seconds we are talking about Putin, Nato and the EU. So let us consider, for once, the struggle for Ukraine, by Ukrainians, inside the majority of its territory still actually controlled by Ukraine. Even if there were no war, this would be a daunting task, for there is a breathtaking scale of corruption and oligarchic misrule, which has deformed the state ever since it gained formal independence nearly a quarter of a century ago.

The deputy finance minister says the grey or black economy may account for as much as 60% of the country’s overall economy. One example: we are told that of the 20,000 kiosks that are dotted along the streets of Kiev, selling various goods, only 6,000 are properly registered and pay some taxes. The other 14,000 may pay bribes and protection money, but not taxes. Here is a body politic so intravenously corrupted that those who should be its doctors are its poisoners. Perhaps we might call the radioactive poison in its bloodstream Ukrainium.

At the apex of this corruptistan are the oligarchs, usually with regional strongholds. A former investigative journalist turned reformist MP talks matter-of-factly of the “Donetsk clan”: the (Rinat) Akhmetov clan, the (Dmytro) Firtash clan, the (Ihor) Kolomoisky clan, and so on. These oligarchs don’t just own vast chunks of the economy. They bankroll political parties, furnishing blocks of MPs to protect their interests. People refer to television channels by the oligarchs who own them: “Akhmetov’s channel”, “Firtash’s channel” and so on. Anyone who believes they don’t have state officials in their pockets deserves a Nobel prize for naivety. Oh yes, and several of them also have private security forces.

How does one start transforming such a deformed state? Where the ancient Romans asked “who will guard the guardians?”, the question for modern Ukraine is “who will prosecute the prosecutors?” The current plan is to set up an independent anti-corruption bureau, with its own investigative and prosecuting powers. The forces of resistance are strong, and can be nasty. One MP, who is working on the closely related anti-monopoly proposals, told me she was personally threatened (“I’m afraid something might happen to one of your relatives when they are crossing the street.”)

I hear two novel D-words: de-shadowing and de-oligarchisation. De-shadowing means trying to bring some of the grey economy out of those shadows, to help fill a giant hole in the public finances. President Petro Poroshenko told our visiting study group from the European Council on Foreign Relations that Russian aggression has cost Ukraine about 25% of its industrial output. Even if it receives the promised international financial support package of $40bn over five years, Kiev is barely able to pay its bills – including military costs estimated at $5m-$10m a day – and service its debts. But while bureaucrats are so badly paid, many of them will go on taking bribes rather than, say, collecting tax revenues. Only a state that can raise the money to pay its civil servants properly will be able to raise the money to, er, pay its civil servants properly. That’s just one of many Ukrainian catch-22s.

De-oligarchisation – a tongue-twister only to be spoken when entirely sober – means what it says. But how? Recently, one of the top oligarchs, Kolomoisky, was taken down a peg, being removed as a provincial governor by Poroshenko – who is, of course, himself an oligarch. Yet Kolomoisky remains richer and more powerful than any feudal baron. To make things still more complicated, he has actually used his clan resources to help protect his region and neighbouring ones against Russian separatist destabilisation.

I can only offer a few glimpses from this under-reported Ukrainian home front: not a fairytale simplistic narrative, but the messy, uncomfortable facts. Even if there were no war in the east, the obstacles to building a better Ukraine would be immense. To be sure, that war has released reserves of popular energy. Society has mobilised. On the streets, you encounter volunteers rattling collection tins for the army and the now more than 1 million internally displaced people. War has united the larger part of the country, even as it has divided its eastern end. Not for the first time in history, a nation is being forged in conflict.

Yet the human, economic and political cost of that war is crippling, and it could get worse. For we must understand that Putin is unlikely to be content with just a “frozen conflict” in eastern Ukraine – which many here in Kiev privately describe as the least worst option for now. He wants a simmering conflict, one that ensures the whole of Ukraine remains a weak, unstable, dysfunctional state.

Our job, as Europeans, is to prevent him achieving that objective. Yet at best, we can only create the conditions in which the Ukrainians themselves may seize the opportunity created by this crisis, and build a new Ukraine. The rest is up to them.

Timothy Garton Ash is Professor of European Studies at Oxford University, where he currently leads the freespeechdebate.com project, and a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University. His latest book is Facts are Subversive: Political Writing from a Decade Without a Name