By: Franklin Holcomb, Nicholas Conlon, and Dmytro Hryckowian
Key Takeaway: Ukraine is entering a period of high political instability as pro-Russia and populist actors exploit the growing discontent of the Ukrainian public with the government of President Petro Poroshenko. Russia and pro-Russia actors may take advantage of this discontent and halt or reverse Ukraine’s efforts to integrate with the West. The situation threatens the survival of the Poroshenko government.
Hundreds of Ukrainians gathered outside the Ukrainian parliament and National Bank of Ukraine on November 14 in highly-orchestrated protests against the Poroshenko administration and the Bank. The number of protestors grew to 6,000 on November 15, and nearly 2,000 people continued to protest on November 16. Demonstrators expressed conflicting reasons for their attendance. Some claimed to receive payment for their participation, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) reported a group of about 30 young men preventing demonstrators from leaving the protest, suggesting orchestration of the protests by outside elements. The pro-Russian Opposition Bloc and Yulia Tymoshenko’s Batkivshina (Fatherland) party have called on citizens dissatisfied with the government to join in protests. The Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) accused Russia of orchestrating the protests. The current demonstrations are much larger than similar protests over the past two years, suggesting that the anti-western parties orchestrating the protests are increasingly confident of their ability to exert pressure in Kyiv. The Ukrainian government deployed over 5,000 law enforcement personnel into Kyiv to maintain order, but there have yet to be any provocations or incidents related to the protests.
The protests in Kyiv come as the political situation in Ukraine deteriorates and President Poroshenko and his government face significant pressure from internal and external opposition:
- Public dissatisfaction with the government due to the slow pace of reform may be approaching levels that allow anti-western forces to destabilize the Ukrainian government. Over 50,000 Ukrainian officials released e-declarations of their assets on October 31 in a positive step towards reducing corruption and increasing transparency in the Ukrainian government. This move has created public backlash, however, after it was revealed that many officials held large amounts of savings in offshore accounts and in cash. Moreover, a study published by Transparency International on November 16 revealed that 38% of Ukrainians reported paying bribes to access basic services, 64% believe “most” or “all” members of parliament are corrupt, and 86% rated the government’s anti-corruption efforts as “bad” or “very bad.”
- Reformist politicians in Ukraine continue to withdraw support from Poroshenko’s government, weakening its credibility. Mikheil Saakashvili, the prominent governor of Ukraine’s Odessa region, along with National Police Chief Khatia Dekanoidze and Odessa Customs Chief Yulia Marushevska, resigned from their positions in November, citing widespread corruption in the government. Pro-reform politicians have been leaving the Ukrainian government for similar reasons since Aivaras Abromavicius resigned as Economic Minister on February 3. Saakashvili announced the creation of a new political party on November 11 and advocated for early parliamentary elections.
- Localized political violence in Ukraine continues, contributing to the overall atmosphere of volatility. The right-wing Azov Battalion established its own political party, “the National Corps,” on October 14. The volunteer militia also participated in minor protests in Kyiv in September and stormed the regional police headquarters in Cherkasy on November 05.
- Internal tensions in the Ukrainian parliament are high. Physical altercations between the leader of the populist Radical Party Oleh Lyashko and members of the pro-Russia Opposition Bloc occurred on November 14 and 15 after Lyashko accused the Opposition Bloc deputies of taking orders from Moscow.
- Ukrainian hackers released emails from Vladislav Surkov, a top advisor to Vladimir Putin, on October 25 indicating that Putin plans to destabilize Ukraine in order to put a more pro-Russia government in power between November 2016 and March 2017. The emails revealed detailed plans to mobilize dissent and anti-government action in 10-15 regions of Ukraine throughout November.
- The victories of pro-Russia parties in elections in Moldova and Bulgaria and the arrival of a new U.S. presidential administration may threaten Ukraine’s position in the international community. Ukraine is unsure of the future of its partnership with the United States as a new administration takes office.
The continued dissatisfaction of the Ukrainian public with the level of corruption and slow rate of reform has created a political situation highly susceptible to destabilization by pro-Russia actors.
- The most likely scenario is that the current crisis in confidence will gradually escalate and undermine President Poroshenko’s government, leading to its inability to govern without support from pro-Russia, pro-reform, or populist parties. Government dysfunction, or refusal to implement necessary reforms, could magnify public discontent and drive support for snap elections in coming months. Snap elections present an opportunity for pro-reform parties to gain more influence in government if they successfully coalesce behind one party and platform, but also threaten to enable the more unified pro-Russia and populist parties.
- The most dangerous scenario is that pro-Russia actors play on public dissatisfaction and mobilize support for snap elections before pro-reform and pro-western forces can consolidate, resulting in the victory of a consolidated pro-Russia/populist coalition. A decisive victory for pro-Russia forces would return Ukraine into Russia’s political orbit and undermine the efforts to reform the country’s government and economy made since the current pro-western coalition came to power in 2014.
Potential indicators that the crisis will continue to escalate are the continuation or expansion and spread of protests across Ukraine, particularly in the Kharkiv, Odessa, and Zaporizhzhia Oblasts, resignations by pro-reform officials and increasing dysfunction and tension within the Ukrainian parliament. If pro-Russian forces are unable to draw populist parties into their coalition, it is likely that the Poroshenko government will maintain power if it increases its cooperation with pro-reform parties in response to increasing public dissatisfaction. Russia may act to continue or exacerbate the crisis in Ukraine to give its political proxies time to consolidate and delegitimize pro-western actors in Ukraine. Russia could generate public clashes between pro-Russia provocateurs and other factions, fund and orchestrate large public protests in politically volatile regions, leak negative information about pro-western politicians, or surge the activity of its proxy forces operating in eastern Ukraine.
 “Financial Maidan: Thousands Hit the Streets in New Kiev Protest,” Sputnik News, April 20, 2015. Available: https://sputniknews(.)com/europe/201412231016155133/
“Ukraine: 'Financial Maidan' protesters besiege Verkhovna Rada in Kiev,” Ruptly, April 9, 2015. Available: https://www.vbox7(.)com/play:5bbf5d8097 https://www.rt(.)com/news/260905-clashes-fire-kiev-protest/
“Clashes, tires on fire outside Ukrainian parliament in Kiev,” RT, May 21, 2015. Available: https://www.rt(.)com/news/260905-clashes-fire-kiev-protest/