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Maidan Up Close
The Maidan Revolution played in American media as an uprising of people weary of rule by a despot luxuriating in Sun King splendor while the citizenry scrabbled for their daily bread. Those ordinary citizens hoped for a better future as newcomers to the EU and feared the grasp of their neighbor to the east. All of which is true enough, as far as it goes.
Yanukovych was, in fact, a despot who made the most of his time at the top of the food chain. He gorged himself on state assets, on taxes paid by the public, and on money given by foreign governments. The leftovers went to his buddies.
It's also true that many Ukrainians wanted closer ties with the EU. In 2011, Yanukovych angered them by rejecting $2.4 billion of loans from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank. But accepting the loans would have poisoned relations with Russia and tied Ukraine to the West. And there were loan conditions, including deep cuts in pensions for retired government employees and the elderly.
Yanukovych hoped to get a better deal from Russia. Then he all but gave up on Russia, until a Russian offer changed his mind.
After turning down the IMF and the World Bank in 2011, Yanukovych began drifting toward the West. Two years later, he was close to turning his back on Russia and embracing the European Union.
Help from the EU would come with conditions, however. IMF Managing Director Christiane Lagarde called for a "profound transformation," especially of Ukraine's fiscal, monetary, and energy policies. Yanukovych understood and seemingly accepted this. In September 2013, the chairman of Ukraine's parliament assured Yanukovych that the laws the EU required would be passed. Except for the Communist Party, all factions in the parliament were on board.
There were some sticking points, to be sure. A big one was an EU demand for the release of the jailed Yulia Tymoshenko, whom Yanukovych had defeated for the presidency in 2010 and who later had been convicted of embezzlement on a $100 million scale.
And the up-front money wasn't all that generous. Prime Minister Mykola Azarov had told the EU that Ukraine needed $27 billion just to begin to get back on its feet. But the EU was offering only $838 million in loans, which might have been beneath consideration had the country not been at the brink of a nasty precipice.
Ukraine was up to its eyeballs in debt and close to exhausting its foreign currency reserves. The national currency, the hryvnia, had plummeted in value. Fitch Ratings, an international credit rating service, had downgraded the country's sovereign debt from B- to CCC (from junk debt to junkier debt). Without money from someone, Ukraine literally wouldn't be able to keep the lights on.
In November 2013, an Association Agreement with the EU was awaiting signing at an upcoming summit in Lithuania. Yanukovych seemed just a signature away from committing to the West.
"I would like to emphasize that Ukraine has no alternative to reforms and European integration," he said at the time.
Then came two meetings.
First was a public one in St. Petersburg between Ukraine's foreign minister and the government heads of other Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) members. The topic was trade, and Moscow used the occasion to demonstrate its openness for economic cooperation and its willingness to extend debt payments and resume cut-price gas sales to Ukraine—provided the government would suspend its negotiations with the EU.
Soon after the St. Petersburg meeting, Russia sweetened its proposal to include a $15 billion purchase of Ukrainian government bonds. This offer came with no requirements for internal reforms, a point that carried great importance for a government as systemically corrupt as Ukraine's. It meant "No oligarch left behind."
Getting a pass on mandated reforms was the carrot, and a big one. But Russia was also wielding a stick. In August, the Customs Service of the Russian Federation had put everything originating in Ukraine on its list of potentially dangerous goods. Ukraine was shut out of the Russian market. Of course, should Ukraine choose to join the Common Economic Space (CES), the Putin-designed customs union of Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan, the flow of commerce could resume.
What transpired in a second, secret meeting between Yanukovych and Putin is still unknown, but you can be sure they weren't talking about flower arranging.
In any event, it was followed by a stunning about-face by Yanukovych. At the last minute, he announced that Ukraine would turn its back on the EU and embrace the Common Economic Space. It was deeply embarrassing for an EU that was all set to throw Ukraine a grand welcoming party.
The defeat was unacceptable for the West, and it set in motion the events leading to the Maidan Revolution, aka the "Orange Crush."
With the coming of the Maidan uprising came the propaganda. Fed to the American people by its government was a tale of spontaneous revolt by courageous, unarmed pro-democracy citizens against an unpopular tyrant. Tyrant he was, true, and unpopular. But he had in fact been elected by the voters, and the people didn't all of a sudden decide to rise up and smite their hated ruler because he took an eastward turn.
The United States and EU had been working for years to pull Ukraine away from Russia. Accomplishing that and placing an antagonist state on Russia's border would be a foreign-policy triumph. So, ultimately, the United States would end up spending $5 billion in Ukraine to persuade and then to destabilize.
That's not a figure invented by the "blame America" crowd. It comes from Victoria Nuland, who at the time was U.S. assistant secretary of state for Europe and Eurasia. In mid-December 2013, she boasted that the United States had "invested" not only the billions of dollars but also "five years' worth of work and preparation" to help "build democratic skills and institutions" and achieve what she called Ukraine's "European aspirations."
She reported on a two-hour "tough conversation" with President Yanukovych during which she made it "absolutely clear" that the United States required him to take "immediate steps" to "get back into conversation with Europe and the IMF."
Or else ... what?
Washington hadn't gotten what it wanted, so it supported a coup against the elected government. It was easy. All the elements were in place. The president of the European Commission announced in late November 2013 that the EU would "not accept Russia's veto" of the EU's agreement with Ukraine. Protestors streamed into the streets of Kiev, egged on by Hromadske.TV, an online television outlet funded by American money.
Crowds in Kiev grew into the hundreds of thousands and clashed with police. A movement that began as a call for the president to return to a pro-EU policy morphed into one bent on regime change. People died, some from sniper fire directed at both sides, apparently to stoke the conflict. Eventually, the insurgents seized government buildings. Yanukovych fled in February 2014, and a new interim government was formed. It promptly appointed candy magnate Petro Poroshenko, "Ukraine's Willy Wonka," as president.
The Ukrainian revolution wasn't just about Ukraine. It was a proxy struggle between Russia and the West. And much about it fits badly into U.S. officialdom's standard "white hat versus black hat" narrative.
The Ukrainian revolution was a coup that overthrew a democratically elected president—normally not the sort of thing the United States likes to be seen encouraging.
The insurgents who drove Yanukovych out of office and out of the country were depicted in Western media as noble fighters risking death to oust an autocrat and build a democracy—which is roughly half of the truth. The ranks of the so-called freedom fighters included some unsavory characters indeed, among them members of the Svoboda Party, an organization whose story line is told in the vocabulary of 1930s-style anti-Semitism. Its leadership includes the founder of the Joseph Goebbels Political Research Center.
Washington downplayed the neo-Nazi involvement, of course. But Senator John McCain's ill-advised December 2013 visit to Ukraine didn't help. He found himself sharing the stage with Svoboda leader Oleh Tyahnybok—a man who is quick with a Nazi salute, has urged his countrymen to fight against the "Muscovite-Jewish mafia," and has called on the government to halt the "criminal activities" of "organized Jewry."
The U.S. government saw the neo-Nazis as an asset to be used but contained and kept out of view. Victoria Nuland, presumably as part of her effort to "build democratic skills and institutions," collaborated closely with Tyahnybok in planning the revolution. Later, leaked phone conversations found her wondering what to do with him. Best, she said, to keep him "on the outside" but in close consultation with the new, U.S.-approved president "four times a week."
While the mainstream media mostly ignored this shameful aspect of the story—Time magazine, for one, maintaining that nowhere in Ukraine "has the uprising involved neo-Nazi groups"—Salon corrected the record with a piece on February 25, 2014:
As the EuroMaidan protests ... culminated this week, displays of open fascism and neo-Nazi extremism became too glaring to ignore. Since demonstrators filled the downtown square to battle Ukrainian not police and demand the ouster of the corruption-stamed, pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovich, it has been filled with far-right street fighting men pledging to defend their country's ethnic purity.
White supremacist banners and Confederate flags were draped side Kiev's occupied City Hall, and demonstrators have hoisted Nazi SS and white power symbols over a toppled memorial to V.I. Lenm. After Yanukovich fled his palatial estate by helicopter, EuroMaidan protesters destroyed a memorial to Ukrainians who died battling German occupation during World War II. Sieg heil salutes and the Nazi Wolfsangel symbol have become an increasingly common sight in Maidan Square, and neo-Nazi forces have established "autonomous zones" in and around Kiev.
The Svoboda Party was handed four positions in the interim government—deputy prime minister, minister for agriculture, minister for environmental matters, and prosecutor general.
Despite the EU's 2013 demands for internal reforms, Ukraine's oligarchs are still open for business. Commerce between people who steal money and people who steal power won't end just because the new government tilts toward Brussels.
The interim government has already placed oligarchs in positions of power. Serhiy Taruta, the sixteenth-richest man in Ukraine, is now governor of the Donetsk region. Petro Poroshenko, the first post-Yanukovych president and billionaire owner of Ukraine's largest candy company, made his initial fortune picking up state assets at extraordinarily buyer-friendly auctions during Ukraine's privatization era. He's not a guy who is going to lead the "profound transformation" that the IMF's Lagarde called for.
Ukrainian journalist Andriy Skumin wrote of Poroshenko:
European circles, blindly searching for any adequate Western-thinking individuals within Ukraine's establishment, have a favorable opinion of Poroshenko as a person who is reliable, [and] can be charged with introducing changes in Ukraine and ending the deadlock in EU— Ukraine relations ... but the preservation of the monopolistic oligarchy will not allow for any European integration or even domestic transformations using European patterns. The only thing that could be done is perhaps [to give] an outward European appearance.
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