Friday, April 18, 2014

A Moderate View on the Situation in Kiev and Southeast Ukraine from a Russian Politician

While the Ukrainian news site that I follow,, seems to be pretty good at covering news and providing some interesting analysis, it has a few sources of bias that are typical of many news sources:

  • Articles sometimes have titles that are misleading or make fun of certain politicians
  • The use of loaded terms instead of more neutral descriptors
  • More intense coverage of certain issues — what certain politicians/groups/countries are doing wrong — and less coverage of other issues, like mistakes made by the new government. 
  • Comments are... often filled with hate in both directions
As a class, journalists tend to be idealistic and naive about some aspects of power politics. But where can you get the other side of the story? I often enjoy analytical articles by political scientists, political advisors, etc. who understand the logic of things better than most journalists. 

There was just one politician in the Russian Duma who voted against the accession of Crimea to Russia on March 20: Ilya Ponomarev. He recently made a trip to Ukraine and reports on the situation there after meeting with politicians and political groups and traveling around the country. I found his report very balanced and indicative of real issues in Ukraine that are poorly covered by Ukrainian Pravda and similar news outlets. 

Here's the original in Russian and a Google Translate version in English

Some interesting points from the article that help balance the perspective:
  • The new government in Kiev also represents a group of oligarchs and representatives of big business. There has been a redivision of power and property.
  • The Euromaidan was a genuine popular protest (who could think otherwise?!), but all it has achieved so far politically is the redistribution of power at the top echelons. A choice between Tymoshenko and Poroshenko as president is not what people went to the streets to achieve. 
  • The much talked about lustration process (governments' policies of mass disqualification of those associated with the abuses under the prior regime) is basically stuck because the Maidan demanded it but lustration would threaten the positions of many who have benefited from Euromaidan. So they're trying to do a kind of "selective lustration" that they hope will satisfy Maidan supporters. 
  • Pravyy Sektor ("Right Sector") activists are basically just like skinheads in Russia — grown and fed by political powers. But their role in Ukraine is vastly overstated by Russian media. Also, the author reports not encountering any "Banderovtsy" — a vague term thrown around by Russian media to refer to Ukrainian nationalists intent on persecuting Russians and Russian speakers. 
  • The Kremlin's actions surrounding Ukraine have severely damaged Russia's reputation in the eyes of Ukrainians. Most of their angst is directed personally at Vladimir Putin, but some of it carries over onto feelings towards Russia and Russians in general, particularly because so many Ukrainians are aware of what Russians think about the issues and the propaganda they are fed through the news. 
  • "Russians are the victims of government propaganda and sincerely believe they are saving a brother nation from fascists who have seized power in Kiev thanks to money from the CIA and the European Union."
  • Youth in Kiev are enlisting in militias and the army in large numbers. Ponomarev has never seen so many Ukrainian flags and so much patriotism and sees it as a national rebirth. 
  • Most Ukrainian citizens viewed Crimea as "not completely Ukrainian" and recognize that the dominant Russian speaking populace always looked towards Russia. That doesn't negate the amoral nature of the takeover.
  • People don't just blame Russia for the takeover of Crimea, but also the previous leadership of Ukraine that failed to provide a better life for people there, and the current leadership that failed to defend the peninsula. 
  • Kiev is full of alarm and heated political discussions but is still calm. Donetsk Region is currently under battle, and firearms are being used (but no artillery or fighter planes).
  • Only 20% of Ukrainian army and police forces joined the Russian side in Crimea. The rest left when given the chance. 
  • In the three problem regions of Kharkov, Donetsk, and Lugansk, there are roughly four equal groups: those who want to become part of Russia, those who want to stay in Ukraine but conduct federalization, those who want to preserve a unitary Ukrainian state, and those who are unsure. It's a different situation than Crimea and portends civil war if events continue as they are going.
  • "There is no massive Russian intervention, but there are special forces there (GRU? [Main Intelligence Directorate forces — translator]) and subversive groups who perform a directing and organizing role for so-called self-defense forces."
  • The main reason for protests in the southeast is not the desire to join Russia, but fear of a new wave of property redistribution and discontent with authorities in Kiev. Russia is but a protector and a provider of stability to these people. 
  • 60% of the population in these regions are afraid of "Banderovtsy," 48% of poverty, and 38% — of Russian soldiers. 
  • Donbass mine workers look at the situation in Russia's Rostov Oblast, where almost all the coal mines were shut down. They don't want to enter Russia. 
  • People in the east are displeased that Kiev government leaders don't come and talk to them or make visits only to their local protégés, and that the national agenda is being set by representatives of western and central regions.
  • People in the southeast did not understand why oligarchs were appointed governers of their oblasts and don't believe in the good intentions and ideals of pro-Maidan politicians. 
  • The government in Kiev needs to become closer to people in the east if it wants to keep them in the country. They need to go out onto the squares and engage with people and not be afraid of being pelted with eggs. 
  • Quite a few high officials actually don't want to keep eastern Ukraine because it is subsidized from the budget and they don't want to revive industry. 
  • A referendum on federalization should be held. Only 20-25% of people around the country support federalization, and it would help calm tensions. Without such a referendum the presidential election might be disrupted in the east, with dire consequences. Some politicians in Kiev are coming around to this idea. 

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Pro-Kremlin Sympathy among Naive Westerners

I have encountered quite a few Westerners recently who do not know Ukraine well and cannot understand understand why their governments refuse to acknowledge the results of the Crimean referendum. The idea of holding a popular referendum on an issue and then acting accordingly on the governmental level seems so perfectly democratic. Why would their governments oppose the "will of the people" in some other country, especially on an issue as benign as which country to be part of?

What so many people in the West do not understand is that democratic institutions such as "free elections" and "referendums" can easily be manipulated in authoritarian states to produce whatever result is desirable to the state.

Westerners have not experienced and can barely imagine the types of violations and tricks used. These techniques were widely applied in the Soviet Union and have continued to be honed and perfected in post-Soviet states where dictators and autocrats maintain their grip on the state while displaying the external attributes of democracy to the outside world.

Here is a sample list of election fraud techniques gleaned from the Russian Wikipedia:

  • refusal to register certain candidates because they do not meet certain requirements established by by the dominant political power 
  • creating polling stations that are too tiny or numerous to be properly monitored given limited party funds
  • photographing filled in ballots or otherwise breaching voting confidentiality 
  • falsifying the ratings of candidates and political parties leading up to the election in order to win the support of conformist voting segments who go along with the majority
  • buying voters or exerting administrative pressure; threatening to fire employees if they do not vote for a certain party (in organizations or enterprises controlled by party structures or supporters)
  • forcing people to vote by absentee ballot, which are more easily falsified
  • voters submitting multiple ballots, which requires adding "dead souls" or other nonexistent voters to voter lists in order to keep the numbers of ballots balanced with the number of voters, and somehow getting additional ballots to certain people in advance
  • using disappearing ink in regions where people are likely to vote for the "wrong" candidate or party
  • putting barely noticeable marks in the boxes for the "correct" candidate that are then picked up by electronic readers
  • "carousel" method of buying votes, where a voter is handed a pre-filled out ballot before he enters the polling station; there he receives a fresh ballot and in the booth puts it in his pocket and places the other ballot in the box; outside the polling station he gives the agent the empty ballot and receives his pay
  • removal of official observers or blocking their access to polling stations or to entire regions
  • falsification of, or deliberate counting mistakes in polling station protocols showing the number of votes for different candidates
  • repealing polling results due to various "infringements" in areas where the "wrong" candidates enjoyed popular support

A number of such techniques were documented during the Crimean referendum of March 16. Not to mention that according to Ukraine's constitution such a referendum must be held over the entire country, the referendum took place under Russian military presence with severe anti-Ukraine propaganda, over half of voters did not participate (largely due to the view that the results were predetermined and illegitimate), and the Crimean government had recently come to power under very suspicious circumstances after a seizure of the Crimean Parliament building by masked and unmarked soldiers of "unknown origin."

That is how you get "97% support" for becoming part of Russia in a region where independent polls showed just 41% support three weeks earlier.

Many people in the West have bought into at least some of the rhetoric coming out of Moscow. In post-Soviet rhetoric, it is perfectly normal to call a democratic movement "undemocratic," popular protests "a Western plot," opposition leaders "unpatriotic," supporters of statehood "fascists," the use of force against citizens an "anti-terrorist operation," and someone else's anti-terrorist operation "brutal suppression of peaceful protests."

Westerners are simply not used to this degree of reality distortion and tend to assume that "the truth is somewhere in between" what they hear from different media sources.

Many sympathize with certain statements and stances that Putin has made against western powers, as if he were giving voice to their own gripes. I can assure such people that what Putin means when he says something is not what you mean when you say it. Putin is not a Libertarian or a neoconservative. The political category he represents probably doesn't even exist in your country.

This is reminiscent of those idealistic American communists of the early XX century who "resonated" with the Bolshevik Revolution and the propaganda coming out of the early Soviet Union. They emigrated to Communist Russia to create a better life for themselves in what they thought was a country built upon the very ideals they espoused.

These poor souls were promptly sent off to the camps or otherwise destroyed. What the Bolsheviks had created was not communism "for the people," but a totalitarian state that used communist rhetoric for PR purposes but whose main objective was the preservation of absolute centralized control.

According to political scientists, modern Russia qualifies as an authoritarian state. It just happens to use democratic rhetoric that Westerners think they understand because the words are familiar.

People in the West can often recognize "media spin," but they are largely unaware of more crude forms of information control. In democratic countries with more or less independent media, if you don't like the "spin" on one channel, you just switch the channel.

But imagine there is just one channel, or all the channels show the same thing. How would you know there is a "media spin?" Or what if there is simply complete and utter silence, like in the first few days after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster?

Can you imagine that a kind of unofficial state committee would issue instructions to news channels indicating how they were to cover new events? Can you imagine that such facts would be common knowledge among reporters, and yet the public would almost never hear about it? Can you imagine journalists routinely being intimidated, refused access to events, or even beaten, tortured, or killed?

These things are truly difficult to imagine in the West. When thinking about post-Soviet countries which have the appearance of democratic institutions, it is only natural to assume that these institutions work in roughly the same way as those in your home country.

Just think about it: what sort of environment would produce citizens who express the views that "nothing can be changed," "nothing depends on us," "all I can do is just go about my life," and "getting involved in politics just means trouble"?

Hopefully now it is a bit more clear where this political fatalism comes from.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Update on Situation in Ukraine

Ukraine is continuing to slide towards war. Russian special forces teaming with local separatist groups have been taking over government buildings in cities in eastern Ukraine, including oblast centers Donetsk, Kharkov, and Lugansk.

These are relatively pro-Russia regions, but support for secession to Russia is far lower than in Crimea, where it has hovered around 40% for the past few decades. In eastern Ukraine polls

The Ukrainian government in Kiev is in a difficult situation. There are 4-way talks on Ukraine scheduled for April 17 in Geneva. Russia has threatened to boycott the talks if force is used against the "separatists." We can expect there to be an escalation of separatist activity before April 17 to provoke an armed response (anti-terrorist operation) from the Ukrainian military, which will allow Russia to pull out of the talks, where Russia is expected to come under a lot of international pressure.

And yet if Kiev continues to avoid a military response, the West will not get provide military support either, and Russia will continue its operation in Ukraine. This will lead to much loss of life and political repression. Resistance will also lead to casualties.

The presidential election scheduled for the end of May are at risk of being suspended due to a state of war or emergency declared in response to destabilization in the east and south of Ukraine. The Ukrainian military is weak, and Kiev has been making threats and giving ultimatums to the "separatists" and not backing them up with action.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Foreigners Now Need to Prove They have 784 UAH / Day to Enter Ukraine

According to a decree passed by Azarov's government on December 4 that is just now starting to be enforced, foreigners entering Ukraine will now need to provide proof of sufficient funds to enter Ukraine. It is quite a surprise to most of us that the new government has not canceled or modified this decree.

In the text of the decree, "sufficient funds" is defined at 20 times the subsistence level, which is currently set at 1176 UAH per month ($100 USD at the current exchange rate). The resulting monthly sum — 23,520 UAH — is divided by 30 to get a daily amount — 784 UAH — and five extra day amounts — 3920 UAH — are tacked on to the actual number of days the foreigner plans to stay in Ukraine, for good measure.

In other words, the formula is 784N + 3920, where "N" is the number of days you plan on being in Ukraine*.

So, here are the amounts you'll need to prove you have at your disposal for stays of different lengths:

1 day: 4704 UAH (approx. $400 USD)
7 days: 9408 UAH (approx. $800 USD)
30 days: 27440 UAH (approx. $2500 USD)
90 days: 74480 (approx. $6500 USD)

* However, it is unclear whether the extra 3920 UAH will need to be included for stays of one month or longer. 

Exemptions from this requirement are: diplomats, employees of international organizations on official business, and foreigners with Ukrainian residency.

Acceptable documents proving financial solvency include: bank statements, ATM receipts, credit card limits, cash, or a letter of support from an inviting party. These documents do not have to be certified. If no documents are provided, foreigners may be refused entry to Ukraine.

Also, to demonstrate your declared length of visit, you may need travel/transit documents (return/out-bound tickets).

Russia on the Retreat

The tide has turned rather noticeably, and it now seems almost certain that Ukraine will preserve its independence without experiencing military intervention from Russia.

This article in Russian from a Moscow analyst explains the current situation (English translation).

The analyst confirms much of the geopolitical analysis presented in the previous article I mentioned. In particular, the military, economic, and geostrategic logic of the situation demanded that Russia take over eastern and southern Ukraine and establish a territorial link between Transdnistria and Russia proper. This was the Plan B if Plan A didn't work — returning the entire country of Ukraine to Russia (according to author Dmitriy Oleshnik and other sources).

But neither plan is being undertaken for now, and the Kremlin is left with the symbolic acquisition of Crimea, which affords fairly minimal advantages (a big temporary boost in popularity for Putin) and quite substantial financial and political costs. Even Moscow's insistence on "federalizing" Ukraine — which would allow for the eventual absorption of Russia-leaning territories — is largely being ignored by the West, which is now in a position of greater negotiating power.

Oleshnik states that the Kremlin's strategists miscalculated: 1) the degree of unity the West would reach with regards to Ukraine, and 2) the level of social support for Russian interference (lower than expected).

Now Russia is drawing troops back from Ukraine's borders and signaling that it has no intention to intervene militarily in Ukraine. It may still be involved in attempts to sabotage the upcoming May 25 presidential election, but that is starting to look like a more and more difficult task as the new Ukrainian political environment solidifies and the Ukrainian military machine becomes more effective at countering external attempts to destabilize the situation in Ukraine.

What would it take to keep the election from happening? Officially — war or a state of emergency. A plausible way to get Kiev to announce a state of emergency is to create large disruptions through active separatist groups, violence, etc. around Ukraine. An explanation of how Russia might still attempt to make the most out of the current situation is given here by Illarionov (English translation). For some reason I find this increasingly unlikely, but it must be considered a very real possibility.

Ironically, by drawing Crimea's 1.5 million pro-Russia voters out of electorate, the Kremlin has substantially decreased the likelihood that the next president will come from the eastern industrial regions, where Russia has more leverage.