• Endangered Species List: California condors and spotted owls appear much safer these days than Ukrainian Prosecutor General Vitaliy Yarema’s job. Typically the month between Saint Nicholas Day (December 19) the Epiphany (January 19) bring “seasons greetings”, but for the embattled Prosecutor General they only brought “open season” on his job performance. Currently there is a petition drive in Parliament to gather signatures for his dismissal and the most recent count puts the tally near 170 votes (short of the 226 required). Critics complain about the slow pace of prosecution against Yanukovych regime officials. Yarema counters that his office’s work is being sabotaged by the bureaucracy and weak performance of the Interior Ministry officials in investigating crimes and gathering evidence. A prime example is that the perpetrators of the sniper attacks on Euromaidan activists last February have yet to be brought to justice. Under Ukraine’s bureaucratic, post-Soviet criminal justice system, prosecutions of real crimes (rather than politically motivated cases such as Yanukovych’s against Tymoshenko and Lutsenko) are challenging. The refusal of Russia to extradite criminals from the Yanukovych regime also hinders justice since trials in absentia have only symbolic value. However there is a political element to the intrigue surrounding the Prosecutor’s office. Yarema was appointed by Poroshenko in summer as part of the President’s Constitutional powers. However he can dismissed by Parliament with a majority vote. As the former Head of Kyiv’s Militia (police), Yarema’s ideal appointment would have been as the Head of the Interior Ministry (militia/police) but that post is filled by Parliament. As a result, Arsen Avakov has held the job since the new government started work last February. Avakov, a Kharkiv businessman, is believed to be backed by oligarch Ihor Kolomoyskyi and both the former and current Parliaments have numerous Kolomoyskyi allies serving. In fact, Kolomoyskyi’s allies in the current Parliament are estimated at around 170 members which is approximately the number of MP’s supporting Yarema’s dismissal. With the longtime competitive and complicated relationship between Poroshenko and Kolomoyskyi, Vitaliy Yarema has the misfortune of being only the latest battle front in the epic conflict. For now Yarema has the President’s backing which should be sufficient to survive the onslaught from Parliament. However, without a successful prosecution of a high level Yanukovych regime official in the near future, the political cost (both domestically and internationally) for Poroshenko will outweigh the advantages of keeping him in the post.
• Battle for the Donetsk Airport: It is difficult to know the exact details surrounding last week’s battle over the Donetsk airport. As the barrage of artillery shells rained down on the airport, it was matched by a barrage of media spin which obfuscated the truth. As the dust settles though, what is clear is that Ukraine continues to hold the airport against the odds and the Ukrainian “Cyborgs” who have defended the airport are becoming the stuff of legend – rivaling even the greatest Cossack stories. The airport, fully renovated for the Euro 2012 soccer championship, has been largely obliterated. However the four kilometer long runway still has both symbolic and practical use. Practically, Russian military aircraft need only half a kilometer of runaway for takeoff and runways can be repaired with relative ease. Whether in Tirasipol in 1992, Pristina in 1999, or Symferopol last year, controlling the airports is an integral part of Russia’s military playbook as it allows for a steady supply of quick reinforcements and equipment. Symbolically, removing the Ukrainian army from the major Donetsk landmark would give Russia the momentum to revise the Minsk Agreements in a more favorable manner as well as slap Ukraine with a demoralizing defeat. As the one year commemoration of the annexation of Crimea and start of hostilities in the Donbass nears, there were two clear miscalculations: First, the West underestimated Putin’s appetite for aggression. However second and perhaps more importantly, Putin underestimated Ukraine’s will to defend itself.
Moldovan Merry-Go-Round Coalition Talks: It’s been 51 days since the Parliamentary election, but Moldova’s “democratic coalition” continues on a “merry go-round” of fruitless negotiations regarding the new government’s composition. Also known as the Alliance for European Integration (AEI), the three party coalition that broke the Communists’ eight year dominance of power in Moldova in 2009 is at an impasse. While the Liberal Democrats with Prime Minister Iure Leanca and the Democrats led by Speaker Marian Lupu are staying together, the Liberals led by former Speaker Mihai Ghimpu are not cooperating. They claim that they are not receiving key posts in the coalition agreement although it appears the post they covet they most is the presidency. Given that the Liberals received just 10% of the vote and would be the most junior partner in the possible three-party coalition, demanding the presidency seems excessive. In addition, when Liberal leader Ghimpu served as Parliamentary Speaker from August 2009 till December 2010 (and briefly as Acting President for three months in 2009), his brief term was remembered as particularly combative towards Russia without achieving any results in the process.
Frustrated by the disproportionate demands of the Liberals, the Democrats and Liberal Democrats have opened negotiations with the Communists led by former President Vladimir Voronin. While Communist in name, Voronin and his family were true capitalists when it came to their own financial interests during his eight years as president, and were frequently referred to as “Social Democrats” by European partners. The party maintained its official slogans and many policies to appease its socialistic oriented electorate, but cooperated with the West and made occasional steps towards Europe. However, that cooperation with the West was punished by the Kremlin, with the imposition of various Russian embargoes on Moldovan fruits, vegetables and wine in 2005 and 2006. Then in the parliamentary election last November, Moscow fully broke ranks with the Moldovan Communists and instead staked its bet on the upstart Socialist Party. This shrewd bet resulted in the Communists losing half of their seats in Parliament and the creation of a rift with Russia. However Voronin may yet have his revenge against Russia by giving his votes to allow the creation of the new pro-European government. In the graph below, the addition of the Communist votes would give the new government both enough votes (63 of 101) to form the government as well as elect a President at a later date (under Moldova’s Constitution, 61 of 101 votes are needed in Parliament to elect the President).
In this scenario with a government majority of Communists, Democrats and Liberal Democrats, it would largely be a situational, vote by vote majority. The government agenda would shift from center-right priorities to center-left and the coalition would have an added degree of instability. It also appears that the Communists will not take seats in the government but instead lend their votes from time to time depending on the issue. While the situational majority with the Communists might ultimately slow some European integration initiatives, it will appease the Europeans in the interim as they are already irritated over the slow progress in the formation of a government. Nonetheless, for a country that went 30 months without an elected President (September 2009 till March 2012), the situational coalition would hardly be a tragedy or unmanageable affair. In fact, it might have the effect of creating a pro-Moldovan government rather than one held hostage by the pro-Russian Socialists and/or the pro-Romanian Liberals.
What would motivate Voronin as the leader of the Communists to cut such a deal? There is credible talk that Voronin wants to reach an “understanding” with the new government so that he will be allowed to retire quietly and his family’s assets will be left untouched. In this way, much like Yeltsin’s deal with Putin in 2000, Voronin would ultimately retire as a statesman and enjoy his wealth. However, the Socialists are demanding new elections despite the November 30 Parliamentary Elections being conducted in a fair and democratic manner – as deemed so by large international observer organizations such as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the Committee for Open Democracy. The Socialists believe that their first place finish (with 21% of the vote) can be improved in the event of snap elections and eventually a pro-Moscow government could be formed. While no one is seriously considering new Parliamentary elections in the near future, if a government isn’t formed by the end of this month then that option may gain support from the Europeans to become a viable scenario.
In a last minute attempt to salvage a deal among the Democrats, Liberal Democrats and Liberals, a plane load of European Parliamentarians flew to Chisinau on Tuesday for some airport diplomacy. As a late breaking result, Ghimpu announced the Liberals had postponed their claim on the presidency for three months in exchange for the Prosecutor General’s Office. It remains to be seen if this late concession will be enough to keep the Alliance for European Integration intact as Moldova’s Parliament meets in emergency session on Wednesday, January 21st to elect its leadership.
Dates to Watch:
January 21: Normandy Format Talks in Berlin??? If late breaking news on Tuesday is to be believed, Russian Foreign Minister Sergiy Lavrov confirmed his participation in the Berlin “Normandy Format” talks on the Donbass. Following the failed Russian assault on the Donetsk Airport over the weekend, and confirmation from Russian Ambassador to Ukraine Mr. Zurabov that Ukraine has received Putin’s new peace proposal, there might yet be a glimmer of hope for the Berlin talks to produce something more than “frequent flyer miles” for Foreign Ministers.
January 21-24: Davos World Economic Forum: President Poroshenko and Finance Minister Jaresko are attending with the goal of convincing the Western finance community to increase their commitment to Ukraine. With the announcements this week that Japan will lend $300 million dollars and Poland $100 million Euros, that already gives Ukraine $5.3 of the $15 billion needed for this year. That gives Ukraine’s delegation solid momentum as they arrive in Davos since the annual event is a virtual “one stop shop” for needed fundraising discussions.
January 29: International Monetary Fund (IMF) Departs Kyiv. Shortly thereafter they will announce when Ukraine will receive the next tranche of money, as well as possibility of the IMF helping with another $15 billion for 2015 to cover the cost of war and Yanukovych’s looting. If the answer is positive then Ukraine will receive the next tranche as early as February 19.
February 2: Parliamentary Session Resumes: An early test of the cohesiveness of the Constitutional majority will be the vote on removing Parliamentary immunity. Ukraine’s Constitution gives Members of Parliament full immunity from prosecution and prison for any and all crimes unless Parliament votes to strip a Member of his/her immunity. Yushchenko’s “Our Ukraine” bloc campaigned on this issue in the 2007 Parliamentary elections but had nowhere near the 301 necessary votes to get the law passed once elected. Public opinion surveys consistently show that 90% of Ukrainians favor cancellation of deputies’ immunity. Keep an eye on this vote next month to see if history repeats itself, or if this new Ukrainian Parliament is truly different from previous ones.
February 12: the deadline for the new Anti-Corruption Bureau to hire a director.
February 20: the one year anniversary of the murder of 76 protestors on the Maidan by snipers between February 18-20, 2014. There is growing murmuring that if the case against the snipers is not brought to court by this time, that strong protests against the current government will take place.
October 2015: National Local Elections for Mayor and City Council: these elections will be a leading indicator for possible snap Parliamentary elections in 2016. If pro-Russian and current/former Party of Regions officials win the mayor’s offices in eastern and southern oblasts, expect Russia to push hard for snap Parliamentary elections in early 2016 as a way to resolve the war in the Donbass. The current Ukrainian Parliament has few Kremlin allies, and it is in Russia’s foreign policy interests to replace it quickly with a more favorable one. Putin knows that the West is almost certain to agree to new elections as a way to end the war, and thus will wait for the current Ukrainian recession to take a larger toll before playing his “Donbass elections card”. Then the pro-European incumbents will be forced to run for re-election during a recession and without having had time to see the effects of reforms that will take place this year. Thus, elections under such circumstances are highly likely to result in a more Kremlin friendly Parliament in Ukraine than the current one.