INTERVIEW: Ukraine opposition is failing to deliver killer blow

By bne IntelliNews January 16, 2014

Harriet Salem in Kyiv -

Standing over 2 metres tall and weighing in at whopping 112 kilograms, the PhD-holding world heavyweight champion is known as Dr Ironfist and has never been knocked down in a professional boxing bout. But with deep winter settling over Ukraine and anti-government protests dragging into the new year, the leader of opposition party United Democratic Alliance for Reform (UDAR, which means "punch" in Ukrainian), appears to have failed in bringing his famously pugilistic powers to the political arena as the latest polls suggest.

Large-scale demonstrations in Kyiv were sparked in late November when Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych and his pro-Russia Party of the Regions announced an 11th hour withdrawal from the long-negotiated free trade and association agreement with the EU - a deal that would have brought Ukraine into the European fold and, more to the point, prevented it from returning to the Russian fold.

The upshot is that Ukraine ended up back in the clutches of Russia, as a mid-December deal between Yanukovych and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin saw Moscow purchase $15bn in risky government bonds, provide another $6bn credit to pay for a nuclear power station, as well as slash natural gas export prices from $400 per 1,000 cubic metres to $268.50.

But while the Moscow agreement has provided Ukraine's beleaguered economy with a much-needed immediate boost, Klitschko warns that the deal leaves his country at the mercy of Russia's whims. "Our government has gone for this fish and ignored the hook," he tells bne in an interview, a reference to the caveat of quarterly reviews of the gas price that are built into the Russian agreement.

There is also also widespread speculation that the backroom deal involves, as yet, undisclosed concessions from Ukraine - most likely an agreement that the country will join the Putin-backed Customs Union after the 2015 presidential election, or offer Russian giant Gazprom a stake in Ukraine's strategically important gas pipeline network, which feeds Europe. "It is clear that our government has not been honest with the people... this [money] is not a gift from Russia," says Klitschko.

Change or be destroyed

The boxer's UDAR party fought the 2012 parliamentary election on an anti-corruption platform and came third with 13.97% of the vote. Nepotism and backroom deals remain rife in Ukraine. Last year the country tanked in Transparency International's annual "Corruption Perceptions Index" to end up in 144th place tied with the Central African Republic, Iran and Nigeria, making it the most corrupt place in Europe. "The whole government is involved in corruption - this is normal politics here," Klitschko tells bne.

Publicly, Yanukovych is saying that the agreement with Russia does not preclude Ukraine's future cooperation with Europe. Klitschko, however, is dismissive. "The Ukrainian president and government are not motivated to sign [the Association Agreement], the people in power here benefit from the status quo," he says.

"This is a decision about whether to change or be destroyed," he argues. "We can say the situation here is similar to if a person is sick with cancer: you can take pills against the pain, or money from Russia, but this will not address the underlying cause of the sickness. For this you need immediate surgery."

Certainly, the bitter medicine of deep structural reforms regularly dished out by the EU and International Monetary Fund (IMF) worked in other countries with spectacular success in the 1990s. But the process is long and slow. Critics argue Yanukovych is not a man of vision and isn't looking beyond the presidential election in 2015.

A senior financial figure in the country, who asked not to be named, says the truth is that Ukraine has no real good options available. "Realistically, either way Yanukovych went [on the EU issue] there would be protests on the streets and a prolonged period of political instability. If he had signed the Association Agreement, then the economic situation here would have been exceptionally grim in the short term."

Klitschko, however, is quick to emphasise that the choice between Russia and Europe is not just about cold hard cash. "People here are protesting against the entire system," he says. "This money from Russia will only make people happy for a very short period of time... but our economy needs reform. It does not work. Small and medium-sized businesses are failing. Foreign investors are leaving."

Indeed, the situation is now so dire that Klitschko believes the only means of achieving real change is through full-scale revolution. "We must topple the whole system," he tells bne, "We must change the constitution, the whole set of rules by which we are playing... Every citizen must now be aware his future depends just on him."

Up against a veteran

Yet how to do this is less clear. Klitschko's boxing-esque tough talk appears to have done little to perturb Yanukovych, who remains, after all, the democratically elected leader. A pre-2005 Orange Revolution political veteran, the president is well accustomed to the rough-and-tumble of Ukrainian politics. And following one unpopular attempt to clear protesters from Independence Square, commonly called the Maidan, with an aggressive police operation, he now appears content to sit back and let the bite of winter do its job. The problem for the protestors standing in the snow is that there is no legal or constitutional way they can oust Yanukovych until the 2015 presidential election.

And his strategy seems to be working. Since the Christmas holidays the numbers of demonstrators on Maidan have fallen, but a hard core numbering in the thousands have remained, and will likely stay put: a poll at the end of 2013 found that 70% of those on Maidan said they would stay for "as long as necessary" to change the government. The trick for the protestors is to find new ways to keep the movement invigorated. Since the start of the new year, one new tactic has been to drive out to the president's residence just outside the capital and in effect blockade him at home. The ongoing demonstrations have also meant there are roadblocks around the government districts, making Kyiv feel a little like Beirut during the dark days.

Some commentators say the opposition missed the critical moment to topple the government when momentum was high in the first few weeks. "It's difficult to know," Klitshko admits after a long pause. "Our demonstration is peaceful. Some people say we must attack the government, attack the administration. We could do this but it would be bloody and brutal. Our goal is to do this through the constitution."

INTERVIEW: Ukraine opposition is failing to deliver killer blow

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