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Unleashing the Gas Princess

Sweet promises… which seem tantamount to blank checks, have the potential to drive one of Europe’s poorest countries into civil war.
Der Spiegel, Feb 20, 2014

Revolutions can be bloody affairs. In what seemed initially to be peaceful protest mounted in Kiev by anti-government protesters, muscular militancy took over. Blood was shed. The security apparatus itself fell under threat. Government buildings were occupied. Now, the once incarcerated Yulia Tymoshenko has been freed, hailing those “heroes… the best of Ukraine” in Independence Square, that Maidan where a new system would be debated and discussed.

Outside the Ukraine, players are moving their pieces into place. The initial agreement between the Yanukovych government and Vitali Klitschko of the Udar opposition party was neat window dressing. No one wants compromise. Change is afoot.

The grip of President Viktor Yanukovych, even as Independence Square smoulders, is lessening. He has fled to friendlier environs in Kharkiv, where his supporters decry the “fascist” takeover. The parliament has voted for new elections for May 25. The police have issued a statement in support of that ever intangible concept known as “the people”. The army has declared in a statement how it “will in no way become involved in the political conflict”. Western presses speak of Yanukovych’s profligacy. They note the angered reaction at protesters to his “ostentatious luxury” including a private zoo and replica galleon floating in a Las Vegas styled waterway. He is calling the latest round of events a coup. In that he is absolutely right.

Political figures – at least those in the West – are coming on board the protester bandwagon. British foreign secretary William Hague was ecstatic about the “will of Ukrainians to move towards a different future, and ensure that the voices of those who have protested courageously over several months are heard.” In December, Senator John McCain lapsed into Cold War agitprop in claiming before protesters in Kiev how, “The free world is with you!” The unreconstructed Cold War views of Russia held by such past adversaries as Zbigniew Brzezinski seemed to pair rather well. Take Ukraine out of the Moscow orbit, and Russia “would become predominantly an Asian imperial state” buried in Central Asian conflict.

The term “pro-democracy” movement is about as reliable as describing a cheese as almost edible. Abstractions have a habit of getting the better of reason. Closer inspection may reveal a rancid taste, the sense of abandonment – if only we had made it better. Then come the denials. The Ukraine, as with other former-Soviet republics, has been juggling with the post-Communist transition with varying degrees of failure. (Ditch the optimism – it is the quality of pessimism that counts.)

One form of corruption has replaced another, a battle of plutocracies in the effort to get the biggest slice of the public purse. One such casualty, and profiteer, of the exercise is Tymoshenko. She cultivated herself as vibrant nationalist spice for the Ukrainian palate, a darling of the pro-EU movement and figure of the 2004 Orange Revolution. To a large extent, it worked. Prettified and formidable, she seemed, at one point, to be winning the day. But things did sour when her financial wanderings came to light. Money was being siphoned. Her enemies got the upper hand. She became the martyr in waiting, with her daughter, Eugenia, keeping the flame of publicity alive. Not “one penny of her [mother’s] corruption” was unearthed by the audits.

The anti-government forces have invested in her rehabilitation. She is being purified as figurehead, ill but unrepentant. Her record is being white washed, and she is being granted holy orders in the revolutionary movement. Yanukovych might be deemed a beast, but Tymoshenko is no saintly maiden of clean persuasions.

The WikiLeaks US cables shed some light on the picture of the ambitious Tymoshenko. It is worth noting – after all, Washington claims it has an intrusive canine in this fight. The sub-title of one dispatch on February 24, 2010 is instructive: “Tymoshenko: Power-hungry Populist.” Former Tymoshenko associate, economist and Minister of Finance Viktor Pynzenyk is mentioned, having failed to understand her logic on reforming (or non-reform) of the economy. She had “wasted the opportunity in favor of populism and a simple desire for all-embracing power.”

The anti-West, pro-Russian divide (and vice-versa) is at best a deceptive construction on interest and self-interest. Even the “West” is confused on this. For one, the EU and the US do not see eye to eye on all matters regarding Ukraine – Nuland’s blunt “gaffe” was hardly an accident. Tymoshenko was happy to play Moscow and Western powers when it suited her. The Ukrainian oligarch Dmytro Firtash was certainly aware. Tickle patriotism a bit and you are bound to find the laughter of a looter. In the cable “B.KYIV 2294” from December 2008, a meeting between Firtash and the American ambassador is discussed. While not asking Washington for any favours “he spoke at length about his business and politics in a visible effort to improve his image with the USG.”

Firtash finds Tymoshenko to be “an accomplished oligarch who had made deals with Moscow that would leave Ukraine vulnerable to Russian oligarchs in the future – something neither he nor Ukrainian billionaire and PoR backer Rinat Ahkmetov could stand by and watch happen.” Everyone is attempting to parade their plumage in the hope of being recognised – a messy scrap over energy politics that hopes to find backers in any rich quarter. Firtash spoke of how he became the co-owner of gas intermediary RosUkrEnergo, ties with the Russian underworld figure Seymon Mogilevich, and the threat posed by Tymoshenko to the concern. The US official proves dismissive of the entire meeting: the oligarch’s comments were “self-interested” and Tymoshenko was merely “a clear threat to his business.”

Despite such self-interested assertions by Firtash, Tymoshenko comes across as frustratingly wily, stashing “her wealth in property and investments in the UK to give the false impression that she was not actively involved in business.” Was her committed hatred towards him based on her failure to develop her own gas company in 2005 when she had become prime minister for the first time? That she had energy ambitions was hardly a secret: she had entered the gas business in the 1990s and cooked the books. According to Sergei Leschenko of Ukrainian Pravda, her entry into parliament was strategic – to immunise her from suit for financial irregularities.

Ukraine’s political case is complicated by its internal divisions. There is a lengthy umbilical cord with Russia – indeed, it might be said that much in terms of Russian nationalism is tied up with Kiev. The connection with the West is an oscillating and at times brutal one. The nationalists in the poorer, less industrialised west do not have the economic ties with Moscow those in the richer east have.

Then there is memory of war, the Stalin regime and famine. Countless records of cheering Ukrainian residents for the Wehrmacht have been recorded, though many came to regret it. It seems hard to understand why a death machine should be saluted as a liberating one, but in 1941, a dead commissar was better than an invading German soldier. The deaths inflicted by the famine of the Holomodor accounted for much of that. The ghosts of the SS, though small, continue marching to fascist cheers. The urge for freedom can come in a strange assortment of colours.

Even as the corpses gather in number, we can see what a new regime might look like. If the rehabilitation, and sanctification, of Tymoshenko is in order, the term democracy will have to be scratched, or at the very least kept on ice. As the revolt unfolds, it may well be, as it proved to be before, a revolt between the plutocrats, the robber baron with the greatest nerve, the player with the greatest number of chips. The genuine feelings of protesters in the Maidan will be left aside.

The only difference will be which way the eyes look – towards a Berlin-Washington grouping, or the East, towards a “Eurasian Union”7 favoured by Moscow. There should be no viable reason why the eyes can’t focus on both, but the way these optics work will be the difference between war and lesser conflict. In Firtash’s own words on the history of post-Soviet Ukraine, a government which cannot rule effectively allows a country to be ruled by “the laws of the streets.”

Dr. Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge.  He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com

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Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com

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