Padraig McGrath, based in the autonomous republic of Crimea, in Ukraine, sends a report about the continuing protest movement in Ukraine.
Artur Protsiv says that he misses the Ukranian mafia. He points down toward the street in the Black Sea port and resort-town of Yevpatoriya, and explains why. “Our mayor was a Mafioso,” he says, “but it really wasn’t so bad. Sure, their people came around to all of the shops and businesses, and you had to have your envelope ready. But the mafia did at least provide vital services. The local government couldn’t afford to pay the street-cleaners and sanitary workers, and the mafia obviously wanted to keep the tourists coming in, so the mafia payed them. And as long as you payed, then nobody messed with your deliveries and you didn’t have to worry about teenage hoodlums or vandals. The local government had largely abdicated its responsibility for basic service-provision, and the mafia filled the gap for a reasonable fee. Everybody made more money as a result. They weren’t stupid. They didn’t try to bleed us dry. They wanted businesses in Yevpatoriya to grow. They were smarter than the Yanukovich people, more pragmatic in the long term.”
In order to understand what primarily motivates the anti-Yanukovich protests in Ukraine, it’s necessary to first start with an explanation of what “corruption” concretely means in this context. In Ukraine, the term “корупция” primarily refers to a shockingly blatant form of mass armed robbery
This nostalgia for the age of the ordinary decent criminal is almost echoed by Olek Zaidadurian, a psychologist living in Simferopol, the capital of the autonomous republic of Crimea. “The whole Yanukovich phenomenon is very clearly pathological,” he maintains, “It’s not simply a matter of amoral self-interest. It would be naïve to see the Yanukovich ‘family’ simply as a bunch of people who want to be extremely rich. They seem emotionally committed to guaranteeing that everybody else is poor.”
“People still come around looking for envelopes,” says Olga Sorokina, a financial analyst who spent years working in Los Angeles, “but they’re not Mafiosi anymore, or at least not in any strict sense of that term. When the Euromaidan protests kicked off, they came around to my mother’s shop. They weren’t government people, but they were loosely associated with Yanukovich apparatchiks. They demanded money so that they could send people to counter-protests. In Ukraine, this is what passes for astroturfing.”
A lot of this money extracted from small businesses nationwide has been used to mobilize provocateurs to infiltrate and discredit the Euromaidan protests. The narrative being weaved is that the anti-Yanukovich movement is being led by nationalists and extreme right-wing and anarchist elements. It’s hardly convincing. Yes, people of these persuasions are certainly to be found in Maidan Nezalezhnosti, but they’re hardly representative of the vast majority of protestors. But then again, the ultimate purpose of this narrative is not to convince anybody – it achieves its goal by giving the more conservative-minded in Ukraine just enough doubt to sit on the fence. Just throw in a little balancing disinformation, and that immobilizes a lot of potential opposition.
When discussing transitional societies, one word which tends to get bandied about quite a lot is “corruption.” The problem is that this term is so glib and vague as to make it completely inadequate as part of an explanation of what is happening in Ukraine today. When we think of “corruption,” we tend to imagine a certain cadre of people who accept kickbacks, benefit from insider trading, receive preferential investment-options, are exempted from regulations, etc. We usually imagine a fairly robust version of an old boys’ network. Most Ukrainians dream of living in a country where the culture of corruption was so innocuous. In order to understand what primarily motivates the anti-Yanukovich protests in Ukraine, it’s necessary to first start with an explanation of what “corruption” concretely means in this context. In Ukraine, the term “корупция” primarily refers to a shockingly blatant form of mass armed robbery. The proprietor of any profitable company is liable to get an anonymous phone-call in the middle of the night instructing him that if he doesn’t sell his business at a fraction of its actual value, then his safety can’t be guaranteed. The Donetsk clique’s tactics in enriching themselves really are that straightforward, and by these means, all of the most profitable sectors of the Ukrainian economy have come under their control.[for more on corruption in Ukraine see here and here]
This makes it hardly surprising that people don’t declare their income if they can avoid it. The finance ministry has conservatively estimated that at least 70% of Ukrainian GDP is accounted for by the black economy. As a result, economic growth has stalled, and salaries have stagnated alarmingly, unable to even come remotely close to keeping pace with inflation. Most workers in Ukraine earn salaries of less than 3,000 Hrivnias (270 euros) per month. Unemployment is officially 27%, although many estimate that the real figure is much higher. To all intents and purposes, Ukraine no longer has a middle class. It is now a country of oligarchs and slaves.
Not that corruption is anything new here, of course. Many Ukrainians now believe that Yulia Tymoschenko was abjectly corrupt – her husband was allowed to establish an all-but monopolistic position in the beef industry. These assets have since been expropriated from her family. But 10 or 15 years ago, economic conditions made corruption more tolerable. Ukraine had struck tariff-deals with both Russia and the EU which had made the country a vital conduit for trade between them. Import-export start-ups mushroomed, and Ukrainian GDP grew at about 8% per year. But chronic stagflation is a game-changer. That, and the point that under Yanukovich the kleptocracy has become an increasingly violent parody of itself, largely account for the militancy of this new wave of protest. The ultimate failure of the orange revolution, largely owing to the corruption and co-opting of its leadership, is another reason why more Ukrainians have decided to play big boys’ rules this time around.
All of this helps to explain why people like Artur Protsiv actually preferred being governed de facto by Mafiosi. The mafia extracted taxes and provided services. It was workable precisely because it was an alternative form of local government. But under Yanukovich, the distinction between mafia and government has blurred to the extent that they are no longer competitors, which means that neither needs to provide anything in return for the taxes, official or unofficial, which they extract. The era of post-soviet privatisation was a circus, but many Ukrainians feel that even that was preferable to the situation which currently exists, wherein the mafia itself has largely been co-opted to operate as a confederate of big government. Even by the standards of the post-communist world, it brings kleptocracy to an unprecedented level. “The tax-authorities double up as mafia bagmen,” claims Ruslan Ibraimov, a building-supplier, “A few years ago, they started sending people around to audit businesses, as a form of harassment. Even if they don’t find any irregularities, they still give us a bank-account number and tell us that we have to wire money to it. In our case, it’s 10,000 Hrivnias (900 euros) per month. If they do find irregularities, then they demand a bribe three times more than that.”
However, many Ukrainians will argue that there is essentially no moral or qualitative difference between what has happened under Yanukovich and in previous times. When I repeat Artur Protsiv’s remarks to Vadym Okopsky, he ridicules them. “The mafia years were dreadful,” he protests, “If you didn’t have the money they demanded, then they took an iron and pressed it to your stomach. Then they’d take you out into a field somewhere and leave you there naked. They drowned a lot of people by throwing them into rivers with car-batteries tied to them.” Vadym continues “Yanukovich is obviously not a good guy, but some things which he has done have been good. My mother has worked as a nurse her whole life. They always stalled her salary. For months, she wouldn’t get paid. Under Yanukovich, there has been more stability, and at least public sector workers get paid now.” Vadym remembers being in university just after the millennium – he says that in a lot of buildings, the light and heat would be cut off for 5 or 6 hours a day. He itemizes other achievements of the Yanukovich presidency which he feels have been important, such as the maintenance of the restrictions on foreigners owning land here. “For example,” he offers, “under Ukrainian law, every Ukrainian citizen is guaranteed a plot of land on which to build a house. This is why the restrictions on land-ownership are necessary. If all of these internationalists and free-marketeers had their way, then every square centimetre of the country would get bought up for a song by foreigners, and ordinary Ukrainians would have nowhere to live.”
One of Vadym’s friends, Roman, is looking for work at the moment. He can’t even find a job which pays 2,000 Hrivnias (180 euros) per month. Then Vadym adds “But if he goes to the protests in Maidan Nezalezhnosti, then they’ll pay him 500 Hrivnias per day.” This is the first time that I’ve heard allegations that the anti-Yanukovich protestors were also being paid. I ask Vadym who he thinks is financing that. “Oh, lots of international companies,” he answers, “There are 3 or 4 big agendas battling for power in Ukraine, and they all want to own everything. If these anarchists in Maidan Nezalezhnosti win, then Ukraine will just become an economic colony of the west. Nobody cares about ordinary Ukrainians, not Yanukovich or Tymoschenko or the orange revolution people or the people financing what’s happening in Maidan Nezalezhnosti now.” Olek Tkachenko agrees – “This is an imperialist tournament between the United States, Russia and the European Union,” he observes, “Why should ordinary Ukrainians be the combatants for any of those bastards? Total disengagement is the best policy.” When I ask Olek if he seriously believes that the EU is a viable contender in any geostrategic theatre, he starts to laugh – “Okay, well maybe only two players, then.”
On my way to meet Dmitriy Pritulenko, a political activist and co-director of a locally based NGO, I take in the anti-Maidan protest in Lenin Square, Simferopol. On either side of the entrance to the building which houses the Crimean Autonomous Republic’s various ministries, two banks of flag-bearers form. To the left are the Ukrainian flags, with the Russian flags on the right. So the cat’s out of the bag, then – the question of Ukraine’s geostrategic alignment is officially a part of the conversation as far as pro-government activists are concerned too. This should not surprise us – while the Euromaidan activists have spoken the language of human rights and other such bourgeois normativities, those supporting Yanukovich are much more likely to say tell you straight up that it’s all about spheres of influence, geostrategy, and so on – their language is unashamedly Machiavellian. The argument that the language of human rights is both morally and politically naïve (and implicitly insincere) is straight out of the Kremlin’s standard playbook.
Many of the flags commemorate the Great Patriotic War. Old marines from the naval base in Sevastopol have dusted off their uniforms and fur hats bearing the red star. One placard reads “Blood in Maidan – Blame the Extremists!” while another, written in English states “Crimea Supports the President.” As Olga Sorokina had observed, this demo is astroturf. The uniform disposable blue raincoats worn by many older people in the crowd are a giveaway.
Just to play the devil’s advocate, I feed Vadym Okopsky’s arguments back to Dima. “Regarding the restrictions on land-ownership,” he counters, “Yanukovich’s people make these arguments just so they can grab all the land in Crimea for themselves. And their anti-European stance is the same thing. It’s really an anti-competition stance. Europe means competition, especially in the labour-market. It means health-benefits and better salaries. But the Yanukovich crew don’t want competition. They want slaves.” At the same time, Dima does concede that Yanukovich has done a few good things – he mentions infrastructure, investment in hospitals, and as Vadym had mentioned, public sector salaries. He dismisses Vadym Okopsky’s allegations regarding Euromaidan activists being paid as nonsense.
Dima’s friend, Aleksey Birizhnoi, an anti-fascist activist, takes him to task on his pro-Europeanism. “All these organs of the European Union and do-gooder NGO’s have achieved absolutely nothing to address the culture of kleptocracy and blatant abuses of power in post-communist central Europe,” he says, “The NGO’s say they come in to monitor compliance with human and civil rights, ‘build democratic institutions,’ all that liberal nonsense! All they do is tick a few boxes. Multi-party system, tick. Anti-discrimination legislation on the statute-books, tick…. Nobody spends more than a few minutes to see how things actually work at ground-level. Their measuring criteria are deliberately shallow, to make sure that all the nasty stuff passes under their radar. We’ve got anti-immigrant parties in France and the Netherlands, Golden Dawn in Greece, the ‘Orbanization’ of Hungary, and less well documented neo-Nazi movements on the rise in the Czech Republic, Poland and Slovakia. What does the European Union do? They pretend that they don’t notice – they want to live the dream. European enlargement was just about business. It had nothing to do with civic values.”
Dima has seen the Berkut [elite riot police force] in action up close in Maidan Nezalezhnosti, and he says the experience put years on him. “Basically, they’re mercenaries,” he claims. “They beat people in the street indiscriminately. They’ve existed unofficially for 25 years, but their existence was only formalized recently, when the crisis started.” Legislating on the fly has become a recurring tendency of this government recently. On January 16, a new bill was rushed through parliament, to take immediate effect. Among its articles were:
1.It is illegal for a protestor to wear a helmet at a demonstration.
2.When buying a sim-card, a passport must be presented to the vendor.
3.All people working for organisations which receive funding from foreign sources are required to register themselves as “foreign agents.”
When Dima talks about the Berkut, all the colour drains out of his face. “Official sources say that only seven people have been killed so far,” he says, “but it’s many more. And many people have been ‘disappeared.’ What is it all for? Just to protect the golden toilet?”
Beneath the restaurant where we’re sitting, we see the crowd from the anti-Maidan protest shuffling back through Gorkova, flags aloft. Dima says that a pro-Maidan protest organised by the Crimean Tatar community, due to start at noon, was intended to have been held in the square, but that the anti-Maidan organisers wanted to be confrontational, so the Tatars decided to relocate to the park 5 minutes away. “I think this crowd may be on its way to the park now,” he says, “I hope there won’t be trouble.”
In the park, people carry European flags inlaid with the Islamic emblem of the Crimean Tatars. Following a customary “A Sala’am Alaykum” from the pulpit and preliminaries in three languages (Russian, Ukrainian and Tatarin), Refat Thubarov, the leader of Medjlis (the unofficial representative council of the Crimean Tatar people), is introduced to the crowd. Medjlis, in addition to organising the Crimean Tatar lobby, also helps to protect Crimean Tatar property from attempted expropriations by government and from mafia. Imposing in both stature and voice, and wearing a scuplted beard and traditional Turkish fur hat, Thubarov booms into the microphone like a post-soviet central Asian potentate. He repeats his pleas for dialogue, complains about the mobilisation of provocateurs in Maidan Nezalezhnosti, twice calls Yanukovich a dictator, and demands more political representation for Tatars in Crimea. A young man standing behind me rolls his eyes a little – “I am Tatar,” he says, “but I wish that Thubarov would stick to national issues instead of just going through his usual shopping-list.” But the thread of relevance is still there, I argue, especially for Tatars. After his speech, I ask Thubarov if he interprets the culture of kleptocracy differently in the light of the Crimean Tatar people’s own historical experience of dispossession. “There is no difference,” he insists, “These expropriations are criminal acts, just as they were in 1944 (the year that Stalin deported the entire Tatar population of Crimea, mostly to Uzbekistan).”
Yevgenya Lyabarskaja, a political strategist who used to work for President Kuchma and for former Prime Minister Anatoli Kinakh, doesn’t take the situation so seriously. “It’s good for business if we persuade people that Ukraine is a democracy,” she explains, “so the Euromaidan protests are a way for people in power to ‘manifest’ the opposition – it’s a controlled opposition. Euromaidan is pure theatre.” When I ask her if she’s referring to the oligarchy rather than anybody from Yanukovich’s inner circle, she simply nods. She repeats the claim that Euromaidan protestors are being paid – “Crowds snowball around a hard core of paid activists,” she says.
Since negotiations have begun in recent days, the threat of civil war seems to have been defused somewhat, and most activists believe that it would be ultimately futile. “Yanukovich is only a puppet,” one of them moans, “We have to get rid of him and his family, but the real power lies with Akhmetov (Rinat Akhmetov, listed as the 47th richest man on the planet, and Ukraine’s oligarch #1).”The powers that be, as is their custom, are unembarrassed regarding this point. And it is arguable that if Yanukovich is removed, then it is only because he has become a liability to them.