KIEV, Ukraine—The new leaders in Ukraine are facing a public backlash over the country’s loss of Crimea even as concerns grow that the Maidan Revolution of 2014 could suffer the same the fate as the Orange Revolution of 2004, prelude to an orgy of looting, graft and manipulation by the powerful and privileged.
Elections meant to choose a new, more permanent government are still two months away, and by then the credibility of the revolution’s political leaders could be shot, leaving the United States and Europe with, at best, uncertain allies in their standoff with Russia’s Vladimir Putin.
The loss of Crimea and the formal withdrawal of Ukrainian military forces from the strategic Black Sea peninsula already has forced the resignation of the country’s interim defense minister. Igor Tenyukh left office Tuesday amid charges that he had failed to issue clear instructions to troops, leaving it to individual army commanders and warship captains in Crimea to make their own decisions about how to handle the explosive standoffs with the Russian military and Kremlin-backed “self-defense forces.”
Many of Ukraine’s soldiers feel the political leaders never developed a consistent strategy in the face of the Russian land-grab. “I don’t even know who’s betraying us any more, the Russians or the Ukrainians,” veteran Ukrainian Marine Yulia Medinskaya told the English-language Kyiv Post as she packed up to leave the barracks at Feodosia, one of the last Ukrainian military bases to surrender to Russian forces.
Just over 6,500 soldiers along with their family members have chosen to evacuate the peninsula and are now making their way to mainland Ukraine in ragged military convoys, but about two-thirds of the nearly 19,000 Ukrainian military personnel and their relatives stationed in Crimea have chosen to remain, some heading for civilian life, others to transfer to the Russian military.
Many of those staying don’t want to uproot their families and children. But government critics in Kiev suggest some are remaining because of their frustration with Ukraine’s leaders and their sense that they’d been let down.
Vice Admiral Ihor Kabanenko, a former first deputy chairman of the General Staff, has been posting Facebook and YouTube attacks on the the lack of a serious defense strategy, arguing the politicians at every stage neglected to take “adequate actions.” He remains especially bitter about the failure to move the country’s 19 warships—now all lost to the Russians—before they were blockaded in their Black Sea homeports.
“I don’t even know who’s betraying us any more, the Russians or the Ukrainians.”
Some Maidan leaders argue the government could have done more to prevent the loss of Crimea and much more to compensate peninsula-based military personnel and to persuade them not to abandon the Ukrainian armed forces.
During the standoff with Russia, when the fear of a full-scale invasion was at its peak, Ukrainians applauded the restraint and dignity of their Crimea-based military. Everyone understood that the soldiers were being provoked and that if blood was shed, Putin would have the pretext he wanted for a major incursion that might not stop at Crimea. In that context, many Ukrainians say that soldierly discipline has saved the country from feeling it has suffered a national humiliation.
“I am shocked: I could never have imagined we would have such a loyal army,” says Lesya Orobets, an opposition politician and one of the leaders of the Maidan revolution. But they are contrasting the withdrawal this week of the troops with the bravado a fortnight ago of interim Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk, who pledged not to give up “a centimeter” of land to Moscow.
“This is our land. Our fathers and grandfathers have spilled their blood for this land,” Yatseniuk told the crowds in Independence Square on March 9.
While there is no question that Moscow continues to sow unrest in the largely Russian-speaking east of Ukraine, there’s also growing criticism of the Kiev government for making the situation worse.
Donetsk Maidan activist Kate Benedict, a 23-year-old ethnic Russian student, says the Kiev government doesn’t understand the mentality of eastern Ukrainians, pointing out that none of the top government posts are occupied by easterners. “This really is a distinct region,” she says. “Our mentality is different from Kiev and the West and the government has to think more about how it talks to the East.”
She and others in Donetsk criticize the Kiev government’s failure to do more to counter Kremlin propaganda in a region where many watch Russian television more than Ukrainian broadcasting. Top government officials are wary of visiting the east, But their absence only confirms the belief of many people that they take Donetsk and the industrial Donbas region for granted, that they favor the west of the country over the east.
One thing that would help is if the government toned down its pro-European rhetoric, Benedict argues. “Even many pro-Ukrainians here aren’t necessarily mad about Europe,” she says.
With the fate of Crimea sealed, the unifying effect prompted by Russia’s strong-arm tactics is beginning to wear off. Concern remains about Russia’s future intentions, but some of the political focus is shifting to how to advance the Maidan revolution. Ukrainians had high hopes for the Orange Revolution a decade ago only to see them dashed as the politicians and their backers and allies in the business elite clawed back power and unleashed ten years of squalid political manipulation that culminated in the Yanukovych kleptocracy.
According to Ukrainian officials more than $20 billion of gold reserves may have been embezzled and $37 billion in loan money disappeared. In the past three years more than $70 billion was moved to offshore accounts from Ukraine’s financial system.
Many in the political class are still wedded to those old ways, judging by the bribes they have been offering investigators from a new anti-corruption agency set up by the interim government on the insistence of the Maidan revolutionaries.
Sitting in an office in Ukraine House, a building the revolutionaries took over near Independence Square and which still houses various factions, Volodymyr Kochestkov-Sukach, the deputy head of the anti-corruption agency says the old guard seems to think that it can be business as usual in post-Yanukovych Ukraine. A recent raid prompted a phone call from the son of former parliamentary leader “offering us money to back off,” said Kochestkov-Sukach. It isn’t the first offer investigators received, and certainly won’t be the last.
The agency is trying to focus its efforts on high-profile cases. “We are concentrating on big corruption either in terms of the money involved or the impact the corruption had or is having on the country and, of course, we are focusing on the big names,” he says. “We are disrupting schemes that were left over from the regime— and still the money goes into the old pockets,” he adds.
The “big names” they are investigating reads like a Who’s Who of Ukrainian politics. Aside from Yanukovych, the list includes the former President’s eldest son, 40-year-old Oleksander and the former energy minister Eduard Stavytsky, who was put on the wanted list this week. There’s Serhiy Arbuzov, former acting prime minister under Yanukovych; Serhiy Klyuev, a businessman and member of parliament, and his brother Andriy, a former chief of staff to the ousted President.
The sheer scale of what they are examining is daunting—and they are only scratching the surface. There are corrupt deals involving the importing of gas into Ukraine, deals involving oil and gas drilling rights, coal mining and solar energy contracts, even massive graft involving humdrum agencies in charge of property valuations and building permits. Corruption riddled the system run by Yanukovych and his inner circle of oligarchs, business associates and politicians, some of whom remain in the parliament.
The money flows were enormous, involving banks across Europe—from Cyprus to Austria, Switzerland to France, although, interestingly, less so banks in the United States and Britain, possibly because of tighter post 9/11 money laundering rules.
The question many are asking here is whether the drive to clean will last or will the elites find a way to deflect and delay it, eventually returning the country to business as usual. Kochestkov-Sukach, a former investment manager, says the political will is there for reform thanks to the persistence of the Maidan revolutionaries. “At the moment ordinary people are demanding this and the politicians have no chance to block it,” he says.
At the weekend, Maidan protesters picketed the house of Prime Minister Yatsenyuk in an attempt to keep the pressure up for reform. Said one protester: “We are here to tell him that we are watching.”