Ukraine has become a geopolitical and strategic battleground upon which the West (US-EU-NATO) and Russia are struggling for influence.
But, underlying this conflict is the need to develop a viable solution, one that would address both the short term and long-term needs of the Ukrainian people and both Russia and the West.
The deep political divisions within Ukraine, exacerbated in recent months with the ouster of the Yanukovich government, will require careful diplomacy and mediation in order to be resolved.
Additionally, the economic crisis afflicting the country – a crisis which dates back to well before the February coup – will equally require a multi-faceted and inclusive solution that benefits all interested parties. Naturally, achieving these high-minded goals will not be easy; however, they are necessary in order to chart a course toward a prosperous and stable future for Ukraine.
To understand the scope of the problems facing Ukraine, one must recognize the host of political and economic tensions that lie at the heart of the conflict. First and foremost is the painful economic reality of present day Ukraine. With staggering debts that the country simply cannot repay, endemic and long-term unemployment, massive corruption, and a host of other economic woes, the country’s challenges would be daunting, even with political stability. However, as is self-evident, there is anything but political stability in the country. And so, it is against this backdrop, that one must examine the situation.
Ukraine’s debt is one of the principal economic obstacles. In terms of total debt, the country will require upwards of $65 billion (if not more) to survive the next two years. However, the issue of sovereign debt is particularly worrisome. By the end of 2015, Ukrainian bond debt will have soared beyond $13 billion, with a significant portion of that debt being owned by Russia. Additionally, Ukraine’s staggering energy debts owed to Moscow will complicate the matter even further. From this perspective alone, there is an obvious need on the part of Ukraine to find a resolution to the crisis that is amenable to Moscow, lest they have their debts called in.
The billions that would be required to bail out Ukraine are certainly not going to come from Russia, given Putin and his government’s unwillingness to recognize the illegal government in Kiev. Therefore, the only solution given current conditions would be a massive US-EU-IMF bailout with all the usual strings attached including subsidy cuts, the driving down of public sector wages, privatization, and a whole raft of other painful IMF conditions. Considering the already unstable political and social situation in the country, and the East of Ukraine already being distrustful of the new authorities in Kiev, such austerity medicine could very well drive the rest of the country to a Crimea scenario, where much of the population clamors for secession and possible integration with Russia.
Unemployment is already a significant problem, despite the official unemployment rate continuing to be low by European standards. The sad reality is that many, especially in the West of the country, are chronically unemployed and underemployed, and are therefore not included in the statistics. Moreover, many Ukrainians make their living in the informal economy, making them invisible in the unemployment calculations. The stark difference in economic conditions between the poor, agricultural West and the relatively more affluent, industrial East and South, only further exacerbates the political divide between the two.
The ascension to power of right wing fascist forces, many of which identify very closely with Nazi ideology, is particularly troubling. As elements such as Right Sector, Svoboda and UNA-UNSO officially occupy key government posts, it will create further rifts between their political base in the West, and regions in the East and South who will correctly recognize these forces as an existential threat, particularly to the ethnic and religious minorities.
The outlawing of two of the largest and most influential political parties, the Ukrainian Communist Party and Yanukovich’s Party of Regions, has thoroughly alienated (and disenfranchised) large segments of the population who, quite correctly, believe that there is no political future for them in the “new Ukraine” where the government is controlled by “liberal” and fascist elements. How can these millions of Ukrainians be won back into the political process?
The question of Constitutional reform is also a major issue that must be addressed. One of the central demands of many of the protesters was a return the Constitution of 2004 in order to curb presidential powers and return more authority to the Ukrainian Rada (Parliament). This was a key aspect of the February-21 agreement brokered by Poland, Germany, and France, and agreed to by Yanukovich and Russia. However, with the collapse of order in Kiev, and the abandonment of the agreement, the issue of constitutional reform has taken a back seat.
Finally, the ethnic and religious minorities in Ukraine see themselves, to a large extent, under assault from an intolerant putsch government in Kiev that would like nothing more than to marginalize them completely, if not force them out of the country. The ideology of the fascist groups, which see Ukraine’s multiethnic character as a negative rather than a positive asset, must be reconciled with the political and social reality. Of course, there can be no future in Ukraine for these ethnic and religious groups, unless they are guaranteed protection from a government they recognize as legitimate.
Any comprehensive solution in Ukraine must address the issues of territorial integrity, regional autonomy, economic stabilization and development, and protection of political and civil rights.
After the referendum on March 16, Crimea has proclaimed independence and moved to integration with the Russian Federation. However, the political future of other eastern and southern regions of Ukraine must be determined. It would seem logical then that Russia, together with the EU and other interested parties, would need to come to an agreement regarding the territorial integrity of these regions. This would require assurances from Russia regarding their non-intervention. On the flip side, the Ukrainian government and its western allies would need to provide guarantees of protection of ethnic Russians throughout Ukraine, as well as other vital Russian interests in the region.
A central plank in the February-21 agreement was constitutional reform, and this will have to take place in earnest. In doing so, a framework for a true democratic election, rather than a legitimization of the illegal government currently in Kiev, will need to be established. Using the 2004 Constitution as a baseline, negotiations could take place, mediated by Russia and European partners, wherein a new constitution built on compromise, and guaranteeing the rights of minorities, increased democratic participation, and other key factors could be written. This would undoubtedly satisfy Moscow, as it would eliminate the immediate need for any military presence.
Of course, any political settlement would need to contain provisions for what course of action should be taken if the rights of minorities are violated by the elected government. It seems clear that some of the ultra-nationalist individuals and parties will win seats in the Rada and in the new administration. Given this eventuality, how will Russia and the international community respond if they proceed to leverage government powers in a discriminatory way against minorities? Of course, this is one of the principal concerns for Moscow.
Moreover, the new Constitution would need to explicitly enumerate the rights of political parties, including the recently outlawed Communist Party and Party of Regions, in order to guarantee the democratic rights of all Ukrainians. By doing so, Ukraine would take a huge step toward true political progress and the establishment of an authentic participatory democracy.
Additionally, economic solutions will play a major role in negotiations. While the US, Europe, and the IMF continue to discuss bailouts for Ukraine, there would need to be a comprehensive package provided by both Russia and the West. Russia could make concessions regarding the Ukrainian bonds they recently purchased, as well as generous terms on the energy debts Kiev has racked up. The billions Ukraine would save could then be used to address the pressing fiscal crisis and fund much needed economic development. In return, Ukraine would guarantee Russia’s continued access to the energy delivery infrastructure and Ukrainian export market – a sticking point for Moscow.
For this sort of progress to be made, there will need to be concessions on all sides. The interests of the people of Ukraine, all people of Ukraine, must be considered and made central in any agreement. Of course, the US and its allies must deescalate their rhetoric and punitive measures and threats of further sanctions against Russia. Not only do such threats exacerbate an already tense situation, they cannot possibly have a positive impact on the crisis. Instead, they will merely harden Russia’s resolve, forcing Moscow to take counter-measures which could be devastating to an already fragile European and global economy. Any solution must begin with a rapprochement, rather than bellicose rhetoric.
What has taken place in Kiev cannot be undone. However, the situation need not deteriorate further. A mutually beneficial solution is entirely possible, so long as all sides are willing to work toward that goal. Hopefully, for the future of Ukraine, all the interested parties have long since realized this.
The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.