Ukraine’s Oligarchs Need to Step Up
After Ukraine’s long and violent nightmare on the Maidan, daybreak at last is at hand. But with President Yanukovich effectively ousted and most levers of state power now in the hands of the opposition, the country may still be at risk of internecine strife and spiraling conflict. The danger now is that those Ukrainians whom Yanukovich and his Party of Regions have purported to represent—Russian speakers in the East and South especially—will perceive the transition underway as the victory of Western-backed Ukrainian nationalists who are hostile to their interests.
To many Ukrainians in the East and South, this transition may be reminiscent not of Ukraine’s independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, but of the years following the 2004-5 Orange Revolution, when the government of Victor Yushchenko turned overtly and increasingly anti-Russian. Despite their close ties with the liberal democracies of Western Europe and the United States, Yushchenko and his backers were hardly paragons of inclusive pluralism, and left many Russian speakers fearing that there was no place for them in their own country. When the new government declares its intent to sign the EU Association Agreement that Yanukovich spurned, as it surely will, these fears may deepen.
The problem will be how to bring Russian-speaking Ukrainians from the East and South into a national dialogue, now that so many of their high profile representatives have been so thoroughly discredited. The already loose coalition that made up the Party of Regions is a shambles, and there are only a scant handful of politicians from Regions-dominated oblasts that have emerged from the last several months with any national credibility. Moreover, civil society is especially weak in areas of the East and South that have historically depended on Soviet-built mega-industries of mining, metallurgy, and manufacturing, now controlled by a handful of ultra wealthy oligarchs such as Rinat Akhmetov, Victor Pinchuk, and Dmytro Firtash.
In fact, the fall of Yanukovich and his inner circle now thrusts the oligarchic groups, each of which controls a parliamentary faction, into the spotlight. Given the supermajority votes that recently approved a return to Ukraine’s 2004 constitution and the release of Yulia Tymoshenko, the oligarchs themselves have doubtless cut deals to ensure that the future government will not dispossess them of their vast industrial empires and personal fortunes. But it is much less likely that they factored in the concerns of ordinary citizens of Eastern industrial regions like Donetsk and Luhansk, the port city of Odessa, or the beautiful but economically depressed Crimean peninsula.
To a large degree, the interests of Ukrainians from these regions will certainly match those of the victorious Maidan protestors, and of the country as a whole. Far from having benefitted from four years of Regions Party rule, ordinary people in the East and South also crave an end to corruption, cronyism, and outright theft of Ukraine’s national wealth. In fact, plenty of people from these regions joined the protests on the Maidan, and some local police and civilian officials even expressed sympathy with the demonstrators, refusing to contribute their forces to the final bloody crackdown.
Yet some concerns are more unique to the East and South. First and foremost is the protection of their right to use the Russian language, not only in official state functions, but in schools, civil society, and the media. The politics of history is also vitally important, since emotions run high over competing narratives about the Soviet era, especially the years 1941-45, remembered by Russians as the Great Patriotic War. Of course, direct family, business, and religious ties with Russia will also remain a high priority for Russian speakers in Ukraine.
Workers in the East and South will also expect their salaries and pensions to be protected, even if a new government in Kyiv opens the door to free trade with the EU and with it, a flood of inexpensive high quality foreign goods. Likewise, a wide range of reforms demanded by the EU and IMF may hit industrial workers in the East especially hard.
With these challenges in mind, the onus is now on the oligarchs to see the bigger picture, and to live up to their political responsibilities. They must do more than cut deals for personal protection with the new authorities, but must help protect the integrity of the Ukrainian state itself by adapting their instruments of political power to advocate for the people they have been elected to represent. In that same spirit, they must support and participate fully in a national dialogue about vital questions of constitutional reform, national identity, and European integration.
Economic elites in the United States and other Western nations have faced this kind of test in the past—think of the “robber barons” of the American gilded age, or of the UK’s hereditary aristocracy. These examples suggest that disproportionate wealth and power can be transformed into meaningful political participation and social capital that will be seen as legitimate. The alternative is continuing the politics of greed, practically guaranteeing further conflict, and threatening Ukraine’s fragile new hope.