Nine hundred thousand Ukrainian internal refugees are threatened with losing social assistance. Still no successor to the discredited Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk is in sight. Will Poroshenko now have to haggle with the Russia-friendly oligarchs?
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko will meet today in Brussels with Angela Merkel and François Hollande, the press secretary of the Ukrainian President, Svyatoslav Zegolko, announced via Facebook.
The meeting could be interesting because a new tone in German-Ukrainian relations has been sounded in recent weeks. “Sometimes I have the impression that Moscow and Kyiv are not fully aware of how serious the situation is,” German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier declared at the ‘Normandy Group’ meeting on March 3 in Paris which brought together leaders of France, Germany, Russia and Ukraine to discuss greater efforts to implement the Minsk-2 ceasefire agreement of February 2015.
Previously, Berlin had placed particular responsibility on Moscow to implement the agreement.
Andriy Melnyk, the Ukrainian ambassador in Berlin, is none too happy with the new tone from Steinmeier. He accused the German government of having an “exaggerated pro-Moscow course earlier”. Conciliatory signals from Berlin would be perceived in Moscow as weakness, said Melnyk.
Juncker sees no EU membership for Ukraine in the next 20 years
Another meeting on Thursday in Brussels will bring together Poroshenko, European Council President Donald Tusk and EU European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker. This meeting will discuss a proposed visa-free travel regime for citizens of Ukraine. (See postscript below.)
The Ukrainian government gave the go-ahead on March 16 for creating a national agency to combat corruption. The creation of such an agency was a pre-condition of the EU for the introduction of a visa-free regime. On March 15, the Verkhovna Rada passed a law introducing electronic tax returns. So one EU requirement has been met. But visa-free travel for Ukrainians seems unlikely anytime soon due to different positions between Germany and the rest of the EU concerning refugee/migration policy and whether to implement monetarist or more state- active investment policies for the Union.
Hopes of joining the European Union Ukraine are up in the air. A clear stop sign was presented by no less than Juncker on March 3 when he said in a speech at The Hague, “Ukraine will definitely not be able to become a member of the EU in the next 20 to 25 years, and not of NATO either.”
The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper guessed that Juncker’s utterance was directed at reassuring the citizens of the Netherlands who will vote in an April 6 referendum on whether to accept the proposed economic association agreement between EU and Ukraine. Juncker hopes that “an old trading nation like the Netherlands” see its way to approving the trade agreement.
According to a survey by the Dutch television station EenVandaag, some 75 per cent of Dutch voters will vote against the trade agreement. Juncker called on the citizens of the Netherlands to think as “European strategists” and not to oppose the agreement.
“I have no criticism of the political system in the Netherlands,” said Juncker, “but I say: be careful, [a no vote] could change the balance in Europe” and “lead to a big continental crisis. Russia will benefit from a ‘no’ to the treaty. ”
Successor to Yatsenyuk not yet in sight
For the EU, Ukraine is increasingly becoming a problem case. The economic and political problems of the country are evident, to the point that Poroshenko is seeking a way to ‘restart’ his government. But it’s not clear who could succeed Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk. He is a very unpopular figure among Ukrainians, most of whom are deeply disappointed with the February 2014 “revolution of dignity”. In mid-February, the Ukrainian president suggested a “voluntary resignation” of Yatsenyuk.
In the Verkhovna Rada (Parliament), a majority vote of no confidence against the government led by Yatsenyuk could not be cobbled together. It seems that the prime minister is still quietly backed by the oligarchs, even by Rinat Akhmetov.
Three candidates to succeed Yatsenyuk are being discussed in Kyiv. The most frequently mentioned is Finance Minister Natalya Jaresko. She was born to a family of Ukrainians in the United States. A “technocratic government aiming to accelerate reforms” has been suggested by the press secretary of the Ukrainian president.
Two other possible candidates are the mayor of Lviv, Andriy Sadovyi, and the chairman of the Verkhovna Rada, Volodymyr Grojsman. But their political weight is not high.
Will Poroshenko get an agreement with the Russia-friendly oligarchs?
A relaxation of the military conflict in Eastern Ukraine is not in sight. There is still no agreement between Kyiv and the internationally unrecognized republics of Donetsk and Lugansk on the conduct of elections in the breakaway territories, as required by the Minsk-2 agreement.
The Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) is becoming increasingly self-confident. On March 16, DNR chief Aleksandr Zakharchenko presented the first passports of the ‘people’s republic’ to citizen applicants in a public ceremony (report and video here, in Russian).
Plans were announced at the end of last week by some Ukrainian oligarchs and the leader of the anti-EU ‘Ukrainian Choice’ party, Viktor Medvedchuk, for a ‘federalized’ Ukraine. According to this plan, the wealthy industrialist Akhmetov and Opposition Block leader Yuri Boiko would govern the breakaway Donetsk and Lugansk republics and bring them back into the Ukrainian fold. But the idea was quickly rebuffed by Zakharchenko. There is still no confirmation of the existence of this plan and whether Poroshenko has reviewed it.
On March 15, Zakharchenko explained his rejection of the Medvedchuk plan, saying that Donetsk has realized one of the dreams of the Maidan-protesters, namely, a Ukraine without domination by oligarchs. This demand was voiced strongly at the outset of the Maidan movement in 2013, said Zakharchenko; a return to the rule by the Ukrainian oligarchs in eastern Ukraine is out of the question.
As to whether the Opposition Bloc could participate in elections in the Donetsk republic, Zakharchenko said the party must first recognize the “war crimes” committed by the Kyiv regime in Donetsk and Lugansk.
Kyiv’s desired return of control over Donetsk and Lugansk would be a “step back”, Zakharchenko said. “What the people have achieved will not be given back.”
Fighting in the East increases
Military conflicts along the line of contact between Ukraine and the people’s republics have increased in recent days. Rumours of a new round of open warfare are everywhere. Heavy weapons have been used in artillery exchanges in recent days at the edges of the cities of were Donetsk, Gorlovka and the railway juncture city of Debaltseve.
On Wednesday, March 16, the Ukrainian President decreed a new military policy. He spoke of recent “aggressive actions by Russia to exhaust the Ukrainian economy and damage the social and political stability with the goal of destroying the Ukraine and conquering its territory.”
Another “challenge to the security of Ukraine”, he said, is “the possibility of the territory of Ukraine being used in a war in the emerging conflict between member states of NATO and the Russian Federation.”
IDPs threatened with withdrawal of social assistance
Big problems threaten the people who came as refugees to central and western from the “Russian occupied territories” in the east. The Ukrainian secret service is now checking the lists of names of the 900,000 people “resettled” in an exercise to verify whether or not their real domicile is in the east but they are claiming residence in the west for the purpose of receiving social services there.
The Ukrainian journal Korrespondent reported last week that numerous refugees have already been stricken from social assistance rolls under accusations of illegal use of government services but without informing them or giving them the opportunity to explain or appeal.
“Almost half of the registered persons are bogus,” declared the head of Ukraine’s social services department, Basil Hrycak. “They did not move and are living in the occupied territory.”
Ukraine is said to be spending hundreds of millions of U.S. dollars equivalent on such cases monthly. Some of those being cut off are said to be facing severe hunger if not starvation.
According to Ukrainian human rights official, reports Korrespondent, those people who have remained in the zone of the ‘Anti Terrorist Operation’ of the Kyiv government are citizens of Ukraine with equal rights and the right to social protection. But the Ukrainian president cut payment of all social services to the residents of the ‘people’s republics’ in November 2014. Poroshenko hoped his draconian measure might provoke food riots in the republics, but these did not materialize. Russia has been sending convoys of humanitarian aid since 2014.
News from Odessa is of attempts at resistance to Kyiv’s rule. On March 16, Oleksandr Borovyk, an advisor to the governor of Odessa, Mikheil Saakashvili, and a deputy of the Odessa city council was physically removed from the council chamber after he delivered a speech in which he accused the town-administration of falsifying the mayoral election that took place in October 2015. Votes were “stolen” and his victory was blocked, Borovyk said. He said the city government is “not legitimate”.
Borovyk said Odessa is the “the worst city” in which he has ever lived. Many deputies applauded as he was removed from the council.
The mayor in the majority Russian-speaking city who was elected in October 2015 is Hennady Trukhanov. He said on Wednesday he is not concerned by the incident in the city council. Borovyk has offended the residents of Odessa, he said.
Ukraine has become a refuge for “political garbage”, Trukhanov said. This was a reference not only to Borovyk but also to Saakashvili, who was appointed governor of Odessa and granted Ukrainian citizenship by Petro Poroshenko on May 30, 2015. “Today they do nothing except that they offend the people of Odessa of various items of no reason.”
 Mikheil Saakashvili is a fugitive from justice in his home country of Georgia, where he is wanted on criminal charges dating from his time as president of the country from 2008 to 2013. He announced on June 1, 2015 that he had given up his Georgian citizenship in order to avoid “guaranteed imprisonment” in Georgia. The Constitution of Ukraine forbids the extradition of Ukrainian citizens to other states
Postscript, by Ulrich Heyden, March 21, 2016:
Angela Merkel, Francois Hollande and Petro Poroshenko met in Brussels on March 18 on the sideline of a European Union summit meeting.
German government spokesman Steffen Seibert said that the three leaders agreed on “the need for elections in certain areas of Donetsk and Lugansk in accordance with the Minsk-2 ceasefire agreements.” The convoluted wording “certain areas” refers to the split of the two regions caused by the civil war in Ukraine.
The three politicians also demanded “the immediate release and return to Ukraine of Nadiya Savchenko”. The Ukrainian paramilitary is in prison in Russia where she is accused of drawing Ukrainian artillery fire on two Russian journalists who were killed in a bombardment in May 2014. On March 21, a Russian court found her guilty of being an accessory to the murders of the two journalists.
Merkel, Holland and Poroshenko affirmed that the lifting of sanctions against Russia is dependent on the “full implementation of the Minsk agreements”.
European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said after a meeting with Poroshenko that the Commission will propose visa travel liberalization with Ukraine in April. Ukraine had made “huge reforms” to comply with EU conditions, said Juncker.
The demonstrative unity in Brussels cannot hide the fact that more criticism is being voiced in Berlin towards the situation in Ukraine and the policies of the government in Kiev.
This piece was first published in German by Telepolis, Thursday, March 17, 2016, translated to English by Roger Annis for CounterPunch.
Ulrich Heyden is a German journalist and author. Since 1992, he has been a freelance correspondent in Moscow for German media, including for Telepolis. He is a co-producer of the 45-minute documentary film (sub-titled in English) ‘Wildfire: The Odessa atrocities of May 2, 2014’, released in February 2015. The film documents the arson attack on the Trade Union House in Odessa which left 42 people dead on that day. In May 2015, Ulrich Heyden’s new book was published (in German, titled ‘War of the oligarchs: The tug of war over Ukraine’, published by PapyRossa). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. His website is http://www.ulrich-heyden.de.