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Survival of the Richest: How oligarchs block reform in Ukraine

By Blog Admin, on 30 April 2016

 

by Professor Andrew Wilson

This post originally appeared on the ECFR blog. Reproduced with kind permission of the Author.

The resignation of Ukrainian PM Arseniy Yatsenyuk and the elevation of Volodymyr Groisman demonstrates the failure of Kyiv’s reform process, and offers Europe an opportunity to push for deeper changes.

And while Ukraine suffers from many types of corruption, it is the penetration of its politics by the super-rich oligarchy that forms the main obstacle to reform.

Wealth is concentrated in few hands in Ukraine. Before the Euromaidan protests of 2013 the assets of Ukraine’s 50 richest individuals made up over 45 percent of GDP, almost five times as much as in the US. Politics in Ukraine is extraordinarily expensive, with campaign expenditures running at hundreds of millions of dollars. And oligarchical media ownership further strengthens the hold of the wealthy over Ukraine’s democracy.

The author highlights two key areas, the judiciary and Ukraine’s state-owned enterprises, where the nascent process of ‘de-oligarchisation’ has failed to take hold. Control over the courts means that there have been no high-profile leading figures from the Yanukovych era brought to trial. And Ukraine’s state-owned enterprises siphon off government funds to the pockets of oligarchs, providing further funds for them to control events in Kyiv.

The EU remains Ukraine’s only plausible ally and, as such, has the potential to wield a huge amount of influence over the reform process. Wilson highlights two main areas that European policy makers should focus on, both of which focus on decoupling the oligarchs from the political system, rather than attacking the oligarchy itself.

The first step should be to strengthen the pressure applied on the Ukrainian authorities from below, by local civil society. Engagement could take the form of encouraging the participation of Ukrainian NGOs in EU-Ukrainian government dialogue.

The EU and its member states should also pressure Ukraine’s leaders, who are perpetuating and in some cases directly benefiting from some of the worst practices of the Yanukovych regime. Abuses by oligarchs’ placemen in the state bureaucracy and others must be investigated.

 

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Note: This article gives the views of the author(s), and not the position of the SSEES Research blog, nor of the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, nor of UCL.

 

The Post-Chernobyl Library

By Blog Admin, on 26 April 2016

On the 30th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster, Uilleam Blacker of SSEES considers the cultural impact of the nuclear catastrophe in Ukraine through the work of one of the country’s most famous poets, Lina Kostenko, and one of its leading literary critics, Tamara Hundorova. The post first appeared on the British Library’s European Studies blog. 

See Words Without Borders for Uilleam’s translations of two of Kostenko’s poems.

The Chernobyl disaster wasn’t just an unprecedented environmental disaster: it was an event that caused profound political and cultural shifts on a global scale. The disaster foreshadowed and accelerated the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Cold War order, and the political reverberations of this were felt the world over. Yet it also forced a rethink of human beings’ relationship with the natural world, and compelling societies to face up to the fact that a nuclear apocalypse was no longer the stuff of science fiction, but a reality that was perilously close.

Kostenko Lina in ChornobylLina Kostenko near the Chornobyl  Nuclear Plant (From Encyclopedia of Ukraine)

For all of these reasons, the name Chernobyl – or to use more accurately its Ukrainian form Chornobyl – is a worldwide symbol of the disastrous climax of Western modernity. The Chornobyl Zone continues to function as a phantom, warning humanity of the dangers inherent in blind technological advancement, with endless images or drone films of the ghost town of Prypiat affording internet users the vicarious thrill of wandering a post-apocalyptic landscape. Western horror movies and video games take the Zone as their setting. Yet the real Chornobyl, the real Zone, with its real abandoned villages and its real locals – those displaced and those who stubbornly return – is less often the subject of Western reflection.

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Gender, nationalism and citizenship in anti-authoritarian protests in Belarus, Russia and Ukraine.

By Blog Admin, on 13 July 2015

Darya Malyutina, a recent UCL PhD, reports on a workshop that was held at the University of Cambridge, which was funded by CEELBAS and Cambridge Ukrainian Studies, and which involved the participation of several representatives of UCL SSEES. The event was organized by Olesya Khromeychuk, until recently a teaching fellow at SSEES and lector in Ukrainian at Cambridge, and soon to take up a position as Leverhulme Early Career Fellow at the University of East Anglia.

Participants in the workshop: (L-R) Richard Mole, Anna Shadrina, Nadzeya Husakouskaya, Tamara Martseniuk.

On 20 June 2015, a workshop that brought together scholars, human rights and gender equality activists, artists and journalists working on Belarus, Russia and Ukraine, took place at Robinson College at the University of Cambridge. The participants discussed the implications and intersections of gender, nationalism and citizenship in the recent and ongoing protest movements in the three countries. The interdisciplinary discussions also addressed a number of related issues, from body politics and corporeality to migration and diaspora, from media and propaganda to art and literature, from war to ethical and methodological quandaries of research and activism.

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How Western plans to fight Putin’s propaganda war could backfire

By Blog Admin, on 26 June 2015

Joanna Szostek, a Mellon Foundation postdoctoral fellow at UCL SSEES, considers the implications of Western proposals to fight Russian propaganda. She argues that injecting Western government money into Russian-language news content could backfire.

An information war is raging in Eastern Europe; at stake are perceptions of the situation in Ukraine. In both Russia and the West, the commentariat claims the other side manipulates gullible minds with propaganda.

Vladimir Putin on Russia Today. Photo: Wiki Commons.

In mid-May, Russian television ran a six-minute report about “battle formations” pitted “against Russia” on the internet and airwaves. By this it meant the volunteer Information Army established by the Ukrainian Information Ministry and the “myth-busters” Brussels hopes to recruit to defend its Eastern Partnership initiative against Russian disinformation.

A week later, the Latvian capital Riga hosted a conference where hundreds of journalists and assorted experts discussed how to counter the “Russian information threat”. EU officials were in attendance, promising tens of millions of euros to support “free media” across the six Eastern Partnership states.

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Ukraine: Why Russian perspectives should be heard

By Blog Admin, on 14 November 2014

Throughout the Ukraine crisis there has been persistent criticism from the West that the Russian media have intentionally presented misleading information on the conflict.

However, Joanna Szostek argues while there are legitimate concerns about the reporting of organisations such as the Russian state-funded broadcaster RT, banning or excluding Russian perspectives from the Western media would be counter-productive.

On 31 October a conference took place at the University of Cambridge to discuss ‘Ukraine and the Global Information War’. The event brought journalists, activists and academics together to reflect on media coverage of the Ukrainian crisis, with the problem of propaganda a particular concern. Several speakers represented organisations that have been working to expose disinformation in the Russian media and counter the Russian narrative of events in Ukraine more generally.

Russia’s international propaganda machine is so powerful, insidious and dangerous, argued some of these speakers, that much tougher measures are needed to block its effects. Calls were voiced for RT, Russia’s state-funded broadcaster aimed at international audiences, to be outlawed. Other participants suggested that Western news outlets should be freed from the usual requirement to ‘report both sides’ on the basis that the Russian ‘side’ is largely derived from falsehoods, so repeating it merely serves the Kremlin’s aim of muddying the waters. One eminent historian complained that the BBC’s Ukraine coverage had been ‘particularly irritating’ with its rigid commitment to ‘on the one hand, on the other hand’ journalism.

Some of the untrue stories disseminated by Russian television during the conflict in Ukraine have certainly been outrageous and the activists who volunteer their time and energy debunking fabrications deserve respect and support. Incessant Russian talk of the ‘fascist coup’ in Kyiv must infuriate the millions who joined Euromaidan out of a genuine desire to make their country less corrupt and more democratic.

Nevertheless, to ban RT or exclude the ‘Russian perspective’ from news reports would be counterproductive: it would serve only to reinforce impressions of Western hostility and ‘double standards’ in the eyes of the Russian public. (more…)

Ukraine’s ambivalent future

By Blog Admin, on 4 November 2014

Events in Ukraine have polarised opinion, but the country’s present and future are best understood as  permeated by ambivalence, argues Alena Ledeneva.

The situation in Ukraine might grasped best by a specialist on geopolitics, a scholar of the (il)legitimacy of power, an ethnographer of insurgencies, an analyst of media propaganda wars, a trauma therapist, or by a psychologist of phobias and love-hate relationships. I have none of these specialisms, but I share their intellectual challenge: the theme of ambivalence.

As ‘East’ and ‘West’ embark on another cycle of ideological confrontation and political standoff, there is little room left for marginal positions or ambivalent attitudes. As the outside world lashes out at Putin over the Crimea and East Ukraine, Russians turn wartime patriotic. Yet paradoxically, exactly because it is impossible to achieve a consensus – and because the black-and-white positions over the Crimea and east Ukraine split families, friendships, and international clubs – it is the understanding of grey areas and backgrounds that may help define the way forward for Ukraine.

One legacy shared by most survivors of oppressive political regimes is what George Orwell called ‘‘doublethink’’ – which Yury Levada and Alexander Zinoviev branded as being the key feature of Homo sovieticus. Under late socialism, when present-day elites in Russia and Ukraine were growing up, it was irrelevant whether people believed official ideological messages or not. Instead, the relation to officialdom became based on intricate strategies of simulated support and on ‘nonofficial’ practices.

Individual doublethink developed into collective double standards that implied the ability to hold contradictory views in private and in public and the capacity to switch between them smoothly, when applied to ‘us’ and ‘them,’ to ‘ordinary citizens’ and to the Party leaders, and to one’s personal circle and to society as a whole.

In its sociological sense, ambivalence, as defined by Robert Merton, refers to incompatible normative expectations of attitudes, beliefs, and behaviour. The incompatibility is assigned to a status and the social structures that generate the circumstances in which ambivalence is embedded. The core type of sociological ambivalence puts contradictory demands upon the occupants of a status in a particular social relation. Since these norms cannot be simultaneously expressed in behaviour, they come to be expressed in an oscillation of behaviours.

In the context of modernity, ambivalence is associated with fragmentation and failure of manageability. Zygmunt Bauman defined ambivalence as the possibility of assigning an object or an event to more than one category. Bauman views it as a language-specific disorder, with its main symptom being the acute discomfort we feel when we are unable to read the situation properly and to choose between alternative actions.

Those who have detailed knowledge of the geography and the economic history of Ukraine or have done exhaustive research on the conflicting accounts on the current situation end up developing symptoms of ambivalence (more…)

“This is clearly not just about Ukraine, but about Russia’s ambitions in the whole neighbourhood”

By Blog Admin, on 20 October 2014

Wilson UCWIMFTW coverAndrew Wilson  discusses his new book Ukraine Crisis: What it Means for The West with SSEES Research Blog.

SRB: You made a trip to Ukraine when writing this book. Could you tell us about your experiences there?

AW: When I was there, it struck me as a good idea that there was a book in all this. The previous time I was in Ukraine was in November last year, just before the protests started. But by February, it was also pretty clear that things were getting exciting and heading to some kind of denouement. So what do you do? You just go.

I arrived in the middle of an old fashioned revolution. I remember a human chain collecting cobblestones. At the front you had young guys chucking them at the militia, but the human chain was made up of the entire citizenry of Kiev – well dressed women in high heels coming from the office, the grandmother at the front still holding her shopping in a blue plastic bag. It was like a nineteenth century revolution between the citizens and the evil rulers, a bit like Les Miserables.

The book went to press really quickly, but hopefully, I can put some pictures in the second edition.

SRB: You refer to the Orange Revolution as a precedent to the Ukraine crisis. To what extent do you see this crisis is a continuation of the 2004 Orange Revolution?

AW: Well, the protesters clearly had that in mind. Initially they were copying the tactics of the Orange Revolution and it started in the same way – a peaceful, carnival-like protest. But people were also thinking of how to do it better. It was clear very early on during the Orange Revolution in 2004 that the regime wasn’t capable of using violence, whereas this time the regime did use violence–but did so very early and not sufficiently to put an end to things. So had a very early set of calculations with how to deal with a very different regime.

Ultimately the tragedy is that immediately after the uprising there was a sense of optimism that Ukraine was doing better this time but it never got the chance to show that because people were still learning lessons from the disappointments that followed the Orange Revolution.

SRB: Do you think in the immediate future that the Russia’s hegemony will dictate the political paths of countries in Eastern Europe?

AW: We can see Russia trying to influence all its neighbours, not just Ukraine. The bigger picture is a pretty scary one. If it is true that the countries that reformed fairly successfully in the 1990s in Central Europe were able to do so only because Russia was not really able prevent them, whereas Russia is now so able to do so here –that’s a pretty depressing conclusion.

It’s not just Ukraine but other countries that might be unable to reform or undertake the EU-friendly policies that Brussels wants; Moldova is a big test case with the election coming up, Georgia is a very interesting case too, because it has already reformed but under Russian pressure is now backsliding a bit. We can also see the reintroduction of a more Russian political culture – back to corruption, patronage, political prosecutions. The Baltic States are an important test case too because they’re in EU and NATO, but will that protect them from Russian pressure?

What’s more, this is clearly not just about Ukraine but about Russia’s ambitions in the whole  neighbourhood. Long- term I think Russia is over extended, so it would be able make trouble everywhere, but it can probably make trouble in two countries at once. (more…)

South-Eastern Ukraine: Extremism and the Anti-Maidan

By Blog Admin, on 9 May 2014

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Photo: Andrew Butko СС-BY-SA 3.0

Extremists have hijacked the Anti-Maidan protests in South-Eastern Ukraine and their extremism and ultra-nationalism are fomenting violence and hatred writes Anton Shekhovtsov

 When masked men distributed anti-semitic flyers in the Eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk, some international media outlets rather too hastily assumed that they were a hoax. The incident is still being investigated, so a definite conclusion cannot yet be reached. But even if the flyers are deemed to be a fake, the problem of anti-semitism, racism and homophobia inherent in some elements of the social unrest in Eastern Ukraine remains very real.

Allies of the now ousted president Viktor Yanukovych launched Anti-Maidan in Eastern and Southern Ukraine in late November 2013 as a response to Kyiv’s Euromaidan protests. But Maidan was a grassroots movement, whereas Anti-Maidan was a top-down initiative with protesters sometimes receiving remuneration for their participation. This was especially true of the four large Anti-Maidan rallies held in Kyiv between November 2013 and January 2014. Anti-Maidan organised many fewer protests than Euromaidan and they had started to die out long before Yanukovych fled from Ukraine to Russia.

However, the victorious Maidan revolution re-energised Anti-Maidan, which split into three different, but sometimes overlapping, movements: (1) protest groups mobilised by social grievances; (2) supporters of Ukraine becoming a federal state; and (3) Russian ultra-nationalists pursuing separatist ideas. They overlap because some of the activists mobilised by social grievances may support the federalisation of Ukraine (by which some actually mean  joining Russia in the medium term), in contrast to pro-Russian separatists who insist on the immediate annexation of their region by Russia, as happened with the Autonomous Republic of Crimea.

The larger part of the post-Yanukovych Anti-Maidan movement is rooted in almost the same attitudes that underpinned Maidan, especially after the original pro-EU protests, focusing on a limited number of social demands, evolved into the Ukrainian revolution. Despite the different triggers, Maidan and post-Yanukovych Anti-Maidan were responses to socio-economic inequalities, unemployment, corruption, crime and a flawed justice system.

The major difference between these movements, however, is that they are dominated by two different narratives and offer two different solutions to their grievances. In inevitably idealised terms, Maidan’s narrative is democratic, while Anti-Maidan’s is authoritarian. Maidan suggests that social grievances can be addressed through closer cooperation with the democratic EU and the West in general, while Anti-Maidan believes that socio-economic problems can be tackled by closer cooperation with authoritarian Russia. Where relations with Russia are concerned, the more radical part of Maidan suggests enforcing a visa regime between the two countries, while radicals in Anti-Maidan insist that their region should become part of Russia. The more radical elements of Anti-Maidan are characterised by different linguistic preferences and choice of media as sources of information; their pro-Russian, anti-Western sentiments are rooted in the lower geographical mobility of Eastern Ukrainians.  According to an opinion poll conducted in 2013, only 13.2% of Eastern Ukrainians have ever been to the West (EU, USA or Canada), a lower figure than for Ukraine as a whole, where the average is 20.6%. (more…)

Eastern Ukraine: Is there a way back from violence?

By Blog Admin, on 23 April 2014

2014-04-15. Протесты в Донецке 019

Photo: Andrew Butko СС-BY-SA 3.0

With violent deaths becoming an everyday occurrence in eastern Ukraine and the Geneva deal fading, Rasmus Nilsson asks whether there is a way back to stability and peace.

When Ukrainian tanks rolled into Slavyansk last week, only to be mobbed and stopped by civilians and (Russian?) militiamen it did not represent the finest hour of the Ukrainian army. However, in their seeming incompetence the Ukrainian armed forces did manage to hold fire. Ukraine lost equipment, but no soldiers, or civilians lost their lives. In its own muddled way, the ‘battle for Slavyansk’ indicated that Russians and Ukrainians might be able to resolve the situation gradually, with threats but no deaths.

Now, blood is starting to be shed. Recently, pro-Russian militiamen were shot and killed in a murky firefight and the tortured body of what appears to be a pro-Ukrainian politician, from the Prime Minister’s party has now been found. It remains unclear precisely what happened to Volodymyr Rybak outside Slavyansk, but his fate may spur events on.

It is possible that militias killed Mr Rybak to provoke open conflict with Ukrainian troops. It is also possible, if unproven, that the militias were spurred on by figures in the Russian regime. For now, Russia is not commenting on this murder and, indeed, is keeping fairly quiet in what could be either anticipation or confusion.

Prime Minister Dmitrii Medvedev has, once more, stressed that Russia can overcome any Western sanctions and that business and ordinary citizens should be kept free from political shenanigans. UN Ambassador Vitalii Churkin, meanwhile, seems unsurprised that tensions will take a while to die down – and, following the recent UN report dismissing claims of systematic threats to Russians in Ukraine, now wants the UN removed from eastern Ukraine. Apparently, the OSCE is now expected to stop any unrest that may appear, together with the Ukrainian conscience or some such. (more…)

Ten things you should know about Crimea

By Blog Admin, on 5 March 2014

Andrew Wilson  offers some key points to think about to understand the current crisis.

1. The new Crimean authorities were established at gunpoint. Despite Russian rhetoric about a “coup” in Kyiv, the real coup was in Crimea. The Crimean Assembly building was taken over at gunpoint after a seemingly successful rally supporting the authorities in Kiev. Berkut militia, fleeing from their crimes in Kiev, were allegedly involved.

2. This is totally unlike the Russian war in Georgia in 2008. Then, by most accounts, the Georgians were provoked into firing first. Only one Russian citizen has died in the current crisis, and he was shot by snipers in Kyiv.

3. The proposed referendum is against the Ukrainian constitution. Only a national vote can change the country’s borders.

4. The new Crimean “Prime Minister” Sergei Aksionov was a local gangster in the 1990s. His nickname was “goblin”. His Russia Party won only 4 percent at the last elections in Crimea

5. There are 266,000 Crimean Tatars in Crimea. Before the coup they were chanting “Allah is Great! Glory to Ukraine!” Now they are reportedly forming “self-defence”units. They were all deported by Stalin to Central Asia in 1944; half died as a result. They were only allowed to return after 1989 and still live in marginal conditions. The 70th anniversary of the Deportation is this May.

6. The Crimean Tatars are Sunni Muslim. The Crimean Tatar Khanate was the dominant power in the region from 1441 until Crimea was occupied by the Russian Empire in 1783. The campaign to turn it into a Russian Athos, a centre of Orthodox Christianity, only gathered pace after the Crimean War.

7. There is an ethnic Russian majority in Crimea (58 percent), but most settled there after World War II. Some 24 percent are Ukrainian. Crimean Tatars are over 13 percent, but nearer 20 percent of the school population.

8. Crimea is a peninsula. It gets all its water and gas from the rest of Ukraine.

9. There are big deposits of oil and gas off the Crimean coast.

10. Russia is re-supplying its Black Sea Fleet for a role in the Eastern Mediterranean, including linking up with the old Soviet naval base in Tartus, Syria.

Andrew Wilson is Reader in Ukrainian Studies at UCL-SSEES.

This piece was first published in the ECFR Blog and is reproduced with permission.

Note: This article gives the views of the author(s), and not the position of the SSEES Research blog, nor of the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, nor of UCL