Sunday, 8 December 2013

Splintering Nation

On Dec. 3, when the government survived a no-confidence vote in parliament, thousands of infuriated protesters marched towards the presidential administration. A key demand of theirs was for the government to resign after it rejected a far-reaching political and trade deal with the European Union at the last moment. Undeterred, the protesters met face-to-face with rows of riot police, who were just as determined to protect the nation’s top officeholders as the strikers were to defend their rights and rebel against government policies. There were no clashes that day, unlike previous days in which dozens on both sides have been injured. The two groups just stood there on opposite sides. The gap between them symbolized a country that is unraveling. Divisions are appearing, cracks in the nation are beginning to show. But, unlike the traditional linguistic divides between Russian and Ukrainian, the cracks in national cohesion are many, and the ways to bridge them are few and distant – at least for the moment. The most visible crack is between the government and its people. “Yes, we have legitimate power but a crisis of legitimacy,” says Daniel Bilak, Managing Partner of CMS Cameron McKenna in Kyiv. “There is an enormous disconnect between the government and the people.” Perhaps the most telling symbol was President Viktor Yanukovych’s departure to China on Dec. 3 as thousands continued to protest on the streets against his government’s failure to sign an association agreement with the European Union, triggering the EuroMaidan protests on Nov. 21 and a police crackdown on Nov. 30 that breathed renewed energy, commitment and anger into the anti-government demonstrations. “It was not an easy decision by the president to leave Kyiv now,” says Foreign Minister Leonid Kozhara. But he said it was needed to raise money and attract business. However, photos of the president examining the Terracotta Army in a museum on the first day of this visit as a political crisis continued to unroll at home, was taken as a mockery by many of the protesters. Groups at home and abroad are saying that only negotiations can resolve the political crisis. Ukraine’s first three presidents Leonid Kravchuk, Leonid Kuchma and Viktor Yushchenko expressed support for roundtable talk in their letter of appeal on Dec. 4. “The way out has to be found through an open dialogue with civic society. The solution to the political crisis needs to be urgently found in the format of a national round table,” their joint statement reads. But it’s easier said than done. There is an acute lack of communication inside the political elite. “How do you communicate with them (political elite) if they can’t talk to each other? (It’s) easier to meet ambassadors than honorable members of the Verkhovna Rada,” said Marek Siwiec, a Polish Member of the European Parliament. The political opposition and the government alike are each stuck in their respective bubbles and exchange accusations from there – another major crack in society. “The two sides are becoming increasingly entrenched in their positions and in a very high stakes game where the room for compromise is narrowing. Both view the current conflict as a “winner-takes-it-all” scenario,” Timothy Ash of Standard Bank wrote in a note from London. It’s still a question of who will agree to and be able to mediate the process. On Dec. 5, when many European foreign ministers arrived to Kyiv for a conference of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Poland’s Radoslaw Sikorski and Sweden’s Carl Bildt were asked to mediate. It was not clear whether there is a chance they will agree. But even if a mediator is found, the sides are still many miles apart in their positions. Thousands in the streets are demanding the president’s resignation. Impeachment is not an option as the procedure is not even clearly outlined in legislation, and in any case it would have to involve the parliament, which failed to even convene on Dec. 5, the date of the latest scheduled plenary session. But Arseniy Yatseniuk, one of the opposition leaders, says the state of the parliament is just a symptom. “This is not a parliamentary crisis, this is a general political and economic crisis, it cannot be solved in parliament because decisions are made elsewhere,” he said at a briefing. The opposition’s demands, he said, were resignation of the government, release and rehabilitation of political prisoners and the arrest of riot policemen who took part in beating peaceful demonstrators and journalists on Nov. 30 and Dec. 1. But the Party of Regions categorically disagrees. “This suggestion is catastrophic for our state,” said Oleksandr Yefremov, leader of its faction in parliament. He says the government and the opposition need to “find consensus for taking decisions.” Another crack that is getting more visible is the divide between the opposition and the people. Over the past week as the political crisis became critical, leaders of the opposition were accused of failing to lead and come up with a workable plan, frequently failing to be at the epicenter of events and formulating a coherent set of demands. Student strike leaders, for example, are saying that opposition leaders just show up on Independence Square and other areas where protesters are to give orders and disappear. They pick up the phone, ask for a call back and then switch off their phones. “Nobody listens to us,” says Bogodar Kovaliv, one of the leaders of the student strikes. This disconnect has led to demands that EuroMaidan, the epicenter of protests, should be free of politicians and their symbols – and this is one of the major differences between the current uprising and the 2004 Orange Revolution that overturned a rigged presidential election. Siwiec, the Polish member of the European Parliament, called it “the Spanish syndrome.” “People in the street don’t care about politicians, leaders... they don’t want to listen to politicians,” says Siwiec. He says this is a protest against both the Orange government and the White-and-Blue, the colors of the Party of Regions. People are now disappointed in both. In this chaos, some people are already starting to see silver linings, though. Yaroslav Hrytsak, a prominent historian, says he sees the beginning of Polish-Ukrainian reconciliation, hence the number of Polish politicians involved in Ukraine’s political processes. He says it’s similar to the German-Polish reconciliation of the past decade, which gave new momentum to the European Union. But “before Polish-Ukrainian reconciliation, we must reach Ukrainian-Ukrainian reconciliation,” Hrytsak says. And that means bridging the many divides that are yet growing and are starting to hurt the economy. Bankers said there is evidence that the central bank is trying to manage a weaker currency to conserve foreign reserves in anticipation of things to come. In the streets, the exchange rate jumped to Hr 8.5 per dollar, hitting a new low since the 2008 global financial crisis. The demand for hard currency tripled over the week. Ukrainisky Novyny news agency reported that PrivatBank, Ukraine’s biggest by assets, limited the sale of dollars to $100 per day, but the report was swiftly refuted by the bank. All these panic signs will have to be confronted once a national compromise is reached – and that day still seems to be a long way off at the moment.

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