Ukraine crisis: This agreement is built on hope, not confidence

 

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Were Ukraine a functioning democracy, Friday’s agreement under EU mediation would be significant. But in today’s Ukraine, there is a world of difference between agreements and their implementation.

In appearance, it is a good agreement, committing the authorities to elections in December and an immediate return to the 2004 constitution, which balanced presidential and parliamentary powers. Yet the opposition leaders have accepted it in a spirit of hope rather than confidence. Viktor Yanukovych is not a man who quits. Any power he retains will be used to claw back the power he has lost. So long as he is in office, he will stay in the game and rig the game. On these points, there is no dispute in opposition ranks.

The logic behind Ukraine’s grim drama is simple and stark. Until now, Yanukovych has feared loss of power more than Pyrrhic victory. For him, the stakes go well beyond loss of decision-making authority. They include confiscation of property and wealth, as well as possible imprisonment. The same prospect haunts his key subordinates as well as the oligarchs who have served and profited from his regime.

If the logic is changing, it can be for only one reason: because his pillars of support are crumbling. Had the armed forces been firmly behind him, he would not have dismissed the Chief of General Staff. Had his parliamentary deputies stayed behind him, they would not have demanded that the Berkut (anti-riot police) return to barracks. Once a critical mass concludes that Yanukovych’s cause is lost, the haemorrhage will be too great to control.

Prudence is required for two reasons. First, the tipping point has not been reached yet. So long as Yanukovych retains a measure of control over state resources, financial flows, judges, electoral commissions and means of coercion, there will be everything to play for.

Ukraine is a political honeycomb of patron-client relationships, bound together by money. As long as Yanukovych retains patronage, he will retain power.

Second, the external factor is possibly even more worrying now. The Kremlin perceives a direct connection between the fate of the post-Soviet order in Ukraine and at home. It is also convinced that the target of Western policy in Ukraine is not Yanukovych, but Russia. Vladimir Putin, who understands the coercive power of money more than most, has scarcely concealed his insistence that Yanukovych “restore order”. On 17 February, Russia unblocked the second tranche of its $15bn loan to Ukraine. The following night, the Berkut launched their assault on Independence Square. After yesterday’s talks, disbursements are once again blocked.

The gnawing question is what other means of pressure Russia might exert. On 24 January, General Valery Gerasimov, the Chief of the Russian General Staff, declared that the “internationalisation” of the “armed struggle” in Ukraine was a key factor obliging Russia to revise the “complex of measures required to transfer the country to a wartime footing”. His warning is now widely echoed by other well-placed individuals, raising the spectre of Ukraine’s disintegration, threats to Russian “compatriots” and the 2008 Georgia precedent.

Only a short time ago, Ukrainians were asking: “Where is the West?” The perception of “betrayal” has probably been assuaged by the EU’s instrumental role in walking Yanukovych back from the abyss.

But neither the EU nor the West has fully been tested. In the long and tense interregnum between yesterday’s accords and December’s elections, such tests will surely arise.

James Sherr is an Associate Fellow of Chatham House and the author of “Hard Diplomacy and Soft Coercion” (2013)

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