A satirical look at who is “up” and who is “down” on Ukraine’s political scene as of July 23, 2014. Please note this month’s column is rated PG-13 in contrast to the usual PG rating due to ‘strong language’ from MP Lyashko and “sexual content” between Merkel and Putin.
Who is Up?
• Ukraine’s Military Forces – the anti-terrorism operation (ATO) is proving successful and for the first time since the Soviet Union was a superpower, Ukrainians have a military they can be proud of (albeit, too small). Of course, the path to success has been costly with over 300 Ukrainians giving their lives for their country to date with tougher battles awaiting (i.e. the sieges of Donetsk and Luhansk). Credit is also due to the military leadership including President Poroshenko, Defense Minister Heletei, NSDC Chief Parubiy, SBU Chief Nalyvychenko as well as Kolomoyski for the financial support. The success of the ATO follows an embarrassing spring which featured images of Ukrainian armed forces, poisoned by years of sabotage, infiltration and neglect, surrendering weapons to drunken villagers. Ukraine’s military has transformed itself in record time into a respectable fighting force and proven that it can put down a terrorist insurgency. In fact, Moscow is so rattled that Lavrov has threatened nuclear retaliation if Ukraine attempts to liberate Crimea. Countries that are confident in their defensive capabilities don’t threaten to use nukes. Of course the reality is that Ukraine is highly unlikely to attempt to retake Crimea by force and in the meantime it must maintain, train and develop its’ armed forces to achieve NATO standards. Nonetheless, they have finally taken the first concrete step.
• NATO – recent polls now show a clear majority of Ukrainians supporting membership in NATO. This is a dramatic contrast to poll numbers just a year ago that showed support for NATO in the low 20’s and opposition at 50%. For years, Ukrainians hesitated in supporting NATO membership not because they were opposed to a strategic defense alliance but because they considered it to be “changing sides”. However, Russian’s genetic code contains extra chromosomes that historically have given them the unique ability to make enemies out of friends. After 23 years of independence and the deaths of more than 300 Ukrainian soldiers at the hands of Russian backed terrorists, Russia’s unique chromosomes kicked in and achieved was a billion dollar Western public relations campaign could never do – make Ukrainians pro-NATO. While Ukraine is realistically a decade from full NATO membership, the Rubicon of public opinion has been crossed. Love or hate NATO, one can’t argue with success and NATO’s record of protecting its’ members from Russian aggression is unparalleled for 65 years.
• Oleg Lyashko – once the butt of many jokes, Oleg Lyashko is the “comeback kid” of Ukrainian politics. His career has certainly had its downs –from serving time in prison for embezzlement in 1993 (later pardoned) to getting booted from Tymoshenko’s parliamentary faction immediately after a video surfaced (also from 1993) showing him confessing to a homosexual relationship with his work superior. Now though, the tide has turned and Lyashko’s Radical Party is the hottest political ticket in town. Following his surprising 8% (3rd place) performance in the presidential election, Lyahsko’s mobile has been ringing off the hook from fellow parliamentarians (mostly from Tymoshenko’s faction) looking for a cozy place on his party list for the next election, to oligarchs wanting to invest now before the “train leaves the station”. Lyashko has proven a master at being in the right place at the right time, including shaking hands with the first Ukrainian troops leaving occupied Crimea, becoming a vigilante sheriff to arrest separatists in Luhansk and most recently – to denouncing the Communists in Parliament as “old cocksuckers”. Granted, the long term fundamentals of the “Lyashko Growth Fund” are sketchy, but for now Ukrainian political investors are buying up as many shares as are available hoping to profit in the near term (i.e. upcoming parliamentary election).
• Leonid Kuchma – one of Ukraine’s unique political aspects is that politicians never die –they only temporarily fade away. Kuchma left office in February 2005 and largely enjoyed his time at Baden-Baden, Germany spending his enormous, ill gained wealth. Unlike former US Senator Bob Dole, whose post-political career required him to hawk erectile dysfunction meds for Pfizer to pay the bills, Kuchma had already “made” his money and proceeded to enjoy it. However, the Russian backed aggression in the Donbass returned Kuchma to the spotlight as the chief negotiator for the Ukrainians. Without question, Kuchma was a perfect choice given his previous success as president in getting what he wanted (and sometimes what Ukraine needed) from the Russians. Of course some will attribute that to his legendary vodka drinking ability which almost always resulted in Yeltsin getting gassed and granting Kuchma most of his wishes. With Putin though, negotiations have been much more difficult than with “Uncle Boris”. Putin loves 100% power more than 80 proof liquor, and his henchmen act accordingly. While all three former Ukrainian presidents (Kravchuk, Kuchma and Yushchenko) deserve credit for presenting a united Ukrainian front and willingness to mediate, Kuchma has benefited the most dramatically by reviving from single digits in the polls when he left office, to suddenly being viewed as a senior Ukrainian statesman. In the meantime, don’t be surprised if Ukrainian TV creates its own version of the Saturday Night Live cartoon skit “The Ex Presidents”.
MIXED…• Government Economic Team – has been successful in securing the second tranche of funds from the IMF. This was critical to keep Ukraine’s economy moving and stabilizing the economic situation in the country. However the real task lies ahead and involves cracking down on corruption – the Achilles Heel of almost all governments in the former Soviet space. What the government’s economic team has done so far is the equivalent of getting a broken down car off the shoulder of the highway, and back on the interstate to the nearest gas station. However, serious work remains to be done “under the hood” that will require more than a fill-up and an oil change. But, give them credit for getting this far. Poroshenko’s economic team consists of his tough NBU Head Valeriya Gontareva, Finance Ministry Jedi Oleksandr Shlapak, Economy Minister Pavlo Shremeta, and Premier Yatsenyuk. The crew roughly resembles Princess Leia, Obi Wan Kenobi, Han Solo and Luke Skywalker (pre-Jedi, and in that order) at this point in the process. Fortunately so far, the team has followed the advice of the Intergalactic Monetary ‘Force” (IMF) and that is an encouraging sign. The real test will come this autumn when Putin’s Empire Strikes Back and tries to seduce them to the dark side of the ‘Force’ through corruption (or lack of elimination thereof).
• Vladimir Putin – everything was going his way until his henchmen mistook a commercial airliner for a military aircraft. He was dangerously close to creating a Donbass “Transnistria” to permanently dismember and destroy independent Ukraine. The initial silence from the Russian side after the downing of the Malaysian Airlines flight was telling: this was NOT part of Putin’s script. Shocked and stunned, the Kremlin media machine finally kicked into gear and put out their spin on events. It took enormous audacity, but the Kremlin machine definitely gets a passing grade for “effort”. Richard Nixon said about Watergate, ‘it’s not the crime, it’s the cover-up’ that gets one in trouble. History will crucify Putin over Malaysian Air Flight 17 but for now, he survives with a tactical retreat and can later blame the terrorists whose “zeal exceeded their judgment”. Watch Putin recalibrate and prepare for his “autumn offensive”. No guarantee that it will be successful, but Putin has never failed for not trying.
Who is Down?
• Current Maidan Activists/Inhabitants – never wear out your welcome. The success of Euromaidan would never have occurred without the support of Kyivites. During times of revolution, it is necessary to make accommodations one would not otherwise make. However, Yanukovych is gone and it’s time to move forward and not backwards. Polls indicate almost 90% of Kyivites want the Maidan camp closed and traffic resumed on Khreshatyk Street. Not only has Independence Square become an inconvenience, but it has now become an annoyance. There are even credible reports of infiltration by pro-Russian/neo-Nazi agitators and legitimate concerns over sanitation. Even one of the key heroes of Euromaidan, Kyiv Mayor Vitaliy Klitchko, has called for an end to the tent city. In the music industry, a successful performer knows when to get off the stage. Let’s hope that the remaining activists on Euromaidan heed that advice. Until then, they are part of the problem rather than the solution.
• Russian Backed Terrorists – terrorism is all “fun and games” when money is easy and no one is able to stop you. When terrorists start losing territory, money and lives though, only a strong ideology or core belief can hold the insurgency together. Stung by their lack of public support from Ukrainians, the Russian backed terrorists have learned the limits of mercenary warfare as there is nothing other than cash that unites their effort. As the Ukrainian army daily retakes control over cities and towns in the Donbass, the retreating terrorists have suddenly realized that they are expendable and Putin has left them facing their own “Bay of Pigs” scenario. The downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 last week not only made them internationally radioactive but it demonstrated to their Kremlin paymasters that they are only slightly more evolved than monkeys with machine guns. As Nicky Santoro said in the film “Casino”, “when something like this happens…you know people are going to get clipped”. Sure enough, there are now reports that the FSB is planning to assassinate the leaders to avoid a paper trail to Moscow. The terrorists have been a liability for Putin which will ultimately cause him to cut them loose and refocus his efforts to the “old themes” of economic/energy warfare and subverting individual Ukrainian politicians.
• Angela Merkel – the spirit of Ribbentrop is alive and well in frau Merkel following her shameful cuddling with Putin at the World Cup Match in Brazil. With the soccer match scoreless after 90 painful minutes, the real “action” was in the bleachers as bookies were taking bets on whether or not Putin and Merkel would start making out. Having already fondled Germany via Gazprom, Putin was satisfied to get the photo with his “favorite gal Angie” to show off to his friends. No doubt it will trump Kim Jong Il’s photos with Dennis Rodman during their next tete a tete. In the meantime, just like Gerhard Schroeder before her, Merkel’s retirement package from Gazprom awaits. Suffice to say, it will be more than a cake and a nice watch.
• The Communist Party of Ukraine – this week brought the news that the Communist Party faction in Parliament will soon be disbanded under new laws for having dropped from 32 to 23 members. Simultaneously the party is likely to be banned by the courts for subversive and separatist activities. The events of Euromaidan included the dismantling of numerous Lenin statues throughout the country. The façade ofCommunists being separable from Russian hegemony and serving as a “fifth column” in Ukraine is over. The Communists in Ukraine are finally meeting their end. Of course some of these Stalinists will resurface in other pro-Russian parties, others will (hopefully) learn the joys of busting rocks in prison, and after Petro Symonenko’s claim that the Ukrainian military is killing civilians to use their organs for transplants, some will finally get the psychiatric help they need. Once at a restaurant in Tbilisi, I was served a creamy garlic chicken dish named “shkmeruli”. Often the dish is cooked as a whole chicken rather than just the meaty parts I was served. My offended Georgian host Tornike saw the partial chicken and asked the waitress, “What is this? No head, no heart – it’s a chicken or a communist?” Just like my headless and heartless chicken that evening, the Communists of Ukraine are dead.