By Michael Bennett
A quick read of two of the headlines from this morning’s Kyiv Post made me look back ironically to the dark days of the Ukraine ennui that followed Viktor Yanukovich’s eventual election as president in 2010 as “good times,” when compared with the trend of the moment. A once corruption-fighting lawyer to Mikheil Saakashvili is being charged by a Lviv court with aiding his old boss enter Ukraine illegally. And the once-captured-by-Russians pilot Nadia Savchenko is being called before a Kyiv court to answer for some criticism she made of the current government.
Meanwhile, according the Financial Times, President Petro Poroshenko has again nixed the condition of anti-corruption courts that multi-national lenders like the IMF have insisted be part of Ukraine’s “reforms.”
For a country that has again and again captured the world’s attention with its fierce love of independence and freedom, Ukraine’s descent into a caricature of the crooked, former Soviet autocracy is deeply depressing. Freedom House annually measures a country’s rise or fall according to various democratic benchmarks in increments of a quarter point, but when I looked at the trend of news in a single day’s paper, the dip seemed quite a bit deeper than that.
The fact that Poroshenko, from a Washington perspective, has been seen as “our guy,” complicates things in a familiar way. Throughout the cold war, there were plenty of S.O.B.s who were, at least “our S.O.B.”s, as Harry Truman famously said of a Nicaraguan despot. But where Poroshenko is concerned, the stakes are higher. And where the current U.S. president can’t bring himself to publically criticize Russia, Poroshenko is engaged in a medium-intensity conflict with his northern neighbor, which carries the risk of escalation after Vladimir Putin’s certain re-election this Sunday.
In this context, Poroshenko is an old problem, now on steroids: damned if you do and damned if you don’t. If you don’t overlook his evident corruption, you are soft on Russia. And for the four years since Yanukovych was toppled by the Euro-Maidan demonstrations, this was enough for the West to allow him to slow-roll reforms as Ukraine became weaker, and even more cynical.
The ultimate manifestation of this cynicism is not Poroshenko, but a new figure rising in the polls in Ukraine – possibly with Poroshenko’s help – convicted thief Vadim Rabinovich. Rabinovich, who was once alleged to have sold T-72 tanks to the Taliban, heads the “For Life” party, which various surveys have shown to enjoy at least 5 percent support, and possibly more.
Various politicians have emerged in Ukraine in recent years, and as recent Kyiv Post headlines attest, the reformers of yesterday are the fugitives of today. But Rabinovich doesn’t bother with happy talk of reform, rather he draws his audience with his first-hand knowledge of how corrupt everyone else is. This, with dark humor and media savvy, is more than enough to thrive – at least for a time – in the eyes of a rightfully cynical public.
The problem with Rabinovich is who else supports him. A Russian businessman named Pavel Fuchs has adopted the Rabinovich cause and is reported to be funding “For Life.” It is less likely he is doing this because he’s charmed by the humor of his fellow Kharkiv native than because he is being instructed to do so, but by whom is not clear.
For Poroshenko to maintain control of Ukrainian politics, he needs not only to dominate the West of the country but also to distract the East – where the war has torn families apart and where Russian is the preferred language – from consolidating into a legitimate opposition. That is why figures like Rabinovich are so useful.
It goes without saying that Ukrainians deserve better. Yet it seems they are doing worse. Bringing the current conflict to an end and cleaning the Augean stables of its broken government are the first two acts its real friends can undertake. Turning a blind eye to worsening corruption because of who we perceive to be “our S.O.B” and accepting the current descent into cynicism as par for the course in Ukraine guarantee an even worsening trend.
Michael Bennett is a foreign policy analyst specializing in Central and Eastern Europe.