What Ukraine Needs to Liberate Crimea
A Credible Military Threat Might Be Enough
Natasha Abrosimenkova was not able to vote in yesterday’s Ukrainian presidential election. Because of confusion over the policy for people resettled from Crimea after Russia’s annexation of the territory, Natasha wasn’t able to register in time. “It was a huge disappointment,” she told me yesterday, as we sat in the kitchen of the Kiev apartment where she is staying.
Natasha, her husband Vyacheslav, and their three small children fled Lenino, a village in Crimea, on March 15, the day before the region’s referendum on seceding from Ukraine and joining Russia. “We knew very well what the result would be,” said Natasha, who is 25 years old. “There were armed men everywhere.” She and Vyacheslav love their country, she said, and didn’t want to take Russian citizenship. Moreover, after pro-Russian forces had taken over the area before the vote, Natasha and Vyacheslav had stopped receiving Ukrainian social welfare payments and were no longer able to operate their business, which had depended on trade with Ukraine. And so they packed up the possessions they could carry, crossed over into mainland Ukraine, and drove to Kiev, eventually finding temporary housing with the help of activists from Kiev's Euromaidan movement. Many of Natasha’s friends and relatives in Crimea have disowned her. They call her a traitor and a Nazi, as Russian propaganda has urged them to do.
Having chosen not to participate in Crimea's sham election, Natasha wanted very badly to cast a ballot in Ukraine’s national vote. She was just one of many Ukrainians who thought of it as an important civic duty and a pivotal moment for Ukraine. In Kiev, people described standing in the longest lines they’d ever seen at a polling site, with waits of up to two hours in hot, stuffy rooms. People were sweaty, dizzy, and tired, but they stayed. Many wore vyshivankas, the embroidered blouses that signify Ukrainian national pride.
But it would be a mistake to think that, in this patriotic moment, Ukrainians were more concerned with geopolitics than with prosaic political matters. Recent discussions about Ukraine, especially abroad, have often focused on sweeping questions of historical narrative and national sovereignty. But many ordinary Ukrainians, on both sides of the conflict, are mostly worried about poverty, unemployment, a lack of social services, endemic corruption, and widespread abuse of power by government institutions. They can only hope those worries will be recognized by Petro Poroshenko, their new head of state.
After the loss of Crimea and amid escalating violence in eastern Ukraine, the optimism engendered by the Euromaidan movement has been sown with anxiety and fear. On Sunday, the streets in central Kiev were eerily empty, although polling stations around the city were crowded. Many people I spoke with worried that there might be a terrorist attack. Kiev’s Central Election Commission was guarded by police with a bomb-sniffing dog; a little further down the street, a bus had let out a crowd of young policemen who were sitting in the grass, eating sunflower seeds. In Ukraine, where corruption has long permeated every state institution, trusting public servants is still a novel idea. When Natasha Abrosimenkova’s husband, Vyacheslav, who recently joined a Kiev defense battalion (and spent Sunday guarding a Kiev polling station), showed his police ID to his friends, who work at the market, they were frightened. He had to explain that he was a new kind of policeman, the kind who wanted to help protect people instead of shaking them down.
Ukrainians hope that the same can be said of Poroshenko, who won 54 percent of votes, an absolute majority that precluded a runoff election. No one was surprised at the outcome, although many were relieved. Avoiding a runoff seemed to be many Ukrainians' top priority -- they believed that Ukraine needed a new president immediately amid the country's ongoing crises. And they preferred Poroshenko, who made a fortune selling chocolate and owns one of Ukraine’s main television stations, to the imperious former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko (who received only 13 percent of the vote). They wanted a new beginning -- or something like it.
Still, Poroshenko’s campaign slogan, “a new kind of life,” was less than convincing. Many of the people I spoke to doubted that Poroshenko’s presidency would mark a new epoch for Ukraine, given his deep roots in Ukraine’s corrupt status quo. (Under former President Viktor Yushchenko, who was elected after the 2004 Orange Revolution, Poroshenko vied with Tymoshenko for the position of prime minister. He also helped found the Party of Regions, deposed President Viktor Yanukovych’s party, and has proved adept at maintaining alliances with rival political factions.) Igor Sovtan, a lawyer who specializes in intellectual property rights, said that Ukrainians looked favorably on Poroshenko in part because he comes from a relatively well-to-do family; unlike most Ukrainian oligarchs, Sovtan said, Poroshenko isn’t tainted by the ruthlessness common to those who became rich in the lawless 1990s. For many, then, Poroshenko was simply the least bad choice. It is also important to note that the Ukrainian president has limited powers. The president is responsible for law enforcement, defense, and foreign affairs (admittedly, crucial areas at the moment), whereas parliament decides on legislation and appoints a government that represents the parliamentary coalition.
Many Ukrainians hope that the resounding failure of Ukraine’s two far right parties, Right Sector and Svoboda, in yesterday’s vote will ease fears that Ukraine has been hijacked by fascists or neo-Nazis -- although the Russian government may have different intentions. On Sunday, Russia’s Channel 1 reported that Dmytro Yarosh, head of Right Sector, was in the lead, with 37 percent of the vote. In reality, Yarosh won less than one percent of the vote. Meanwhile, pro-Russian separatists made sure that it was nearly impossible to vote in the eastern Ukrainian regions of Donetsk and Luhansk.
After organizing illegal referendums declaring “state self-rule” for the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics, the self-appointed leaders of these republics declared their willingness to do whatever was necessary to prevent national elections from taking place on their turf. Election officials were abducted and threatened. Rebels seized election offices and voting records, destroyed ballot boxes, and set fire to an election commission office. According to Human Rights Watch, the police did not intervene, and, in some cases, even assisted the rebels. One election official told Human Rights Watch, “I was immediately alarmed, not only by the presence of armed men, but also by the fact that the two police officers, instead of showing them out, were having a friendly chat with them.”
In Donetsk and Luhansk on Sunday, the overwhelming majority of polling stations were closed, and voters were afraid to visit them. The Kyiv Post newspaper reported that one election committee member in Artemovsk, north of the city of Donetsk, said that his committee had decided not to hold the vote. "If we have elections tomorrow, they will kill us," the official said. Turnout in Donetsk was only 12 percent, the lowest in the country, according to Ukraine’s Central Election Commission. In Luhansk, it was slightly higher. In addition to intimidation, the lack of candidates explicitly representing eastern Ukraine may have been a factor in low turnout.
Poroshenko now faces a difficult task in suppressing the rebellions and winning the support of the terrorized populations of parts of eastern Ukraine, where propaganda and rumors have convinced many people that they are under attack by fascist death squads. In his victory speech, Poroshenko said that he was willing to grant full amnesty to the rebels in the east, on the condition that they give up their weapons; he vowed to make the “anti-terrorist operation” more effective and to bring a swift end to the conflict. In keeping with his promise, after rebels seized the Donetsk airport, the Ukrainian government responded with airstrikes, an unprecedented level of force in its dealings with the rebels.
Above all, Ukrainians expressed pride and relief at the election's relatively high turnout; they hope that it will mark the beginning of a resolution to the current conflict and an end to the atmosphere of crisis. Although animosity toward Russia is steadily rising, and although there are some Ukrainians very eager to volunteer for military service, many are frightened by the possibility of outright war, especially now that Kiev has reinstated military conscription. There are some signs that Russia has a relatively conciliatory attitude towards Poroshenko: after Russian authorities briefly shuttered his chocolate factory in southern Russia in March, they recently allowed it to reopen, and the Russian state media is taking a softer stance on him. At a press conference on Saturday, Russian President Vladimir Putin indicated that he would respect the results of Ukraine’s election and work with the new government -- although he also said that he still considered Yanukovych to be Ukraine’s legitimate leader.
In his victory speech, Poroshenko sounded rather less conciliatory, stating that Ukraine would never recognize the occupation of Crimea. He also noted that the majority of voters supported a “pro-European choice.” Still, given his skillful navigation of warring parties in the Ukrainian government over the years, it is possible that Poroshenko will help negotiate an end to the conflict with Russia. It remains to be seen whether he will simply bring Ukraine back to the status quo, or whether he will push through profoundly needed reforms. The Ukrainian public, for its part, has just given its clear vote for the latter.