Not so long ago I was thinking that despite Russian movies and TV series being blocked in Ukraine, Ukrainians don't lack for entertainment. Ukrainian politics provides all the shades of drama, circus, and tragicomedy that any soap could churn out.
But recently emotions have run really high. The authorities have been responsible for a string of unreasonable actions, the people have called for the president’s impeachment as well as a new revolution, and all sorts of accusations have been flung about. Emotions reached their crescendo on December 5, a day that produced events almost impossible to follow or understand.
An attempt to detain former Odesa governor and ex-president of Georgia Mikheil Saakashvili produced an almost immediate protest as a crowd gathered to "rescue" him from the hands of the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU). Ukraine’s prosecutor general Yuriy Lutsenko accused Saakashvili of taking money from Serhiy Kurchenko, a close ally of former president Viktor Yanukovych, who's currently in hiding in Russia. That intervention was followed by a lot of international criticism making the case that Ukraine is failing to stick to its course of Westernisation.
Is that actually true? Putting emotions aside and trying to analyse the different layers of recent events, what is really going on in Ukraine?
First, Saakashvili. Honestly, Poroshenko doesn't seem to be stupid, but is appears that he loses it when it comes to Saakashvili. Granting him citizenship and revoking it later were generally perceived as wrong moves. Many have been wondering what lies behind his strong distaste for Saakashvili: personal enmity or something else?
More dangerous than we thought?
Still, the evidence presented by the Prosecutor General does suggest that Saakashvili could be much more dangerous than we thought. From the tapes released on December 5, we found out that a person close to Saakashvili was receiving money from the oligarch Kurchenko. In the tapes Saakashvili and Kurchenko were allegedly talking about $300,000 needed for organising meetings and demonstrations around Ukraine...and unrest in Kyiv. The two were discussing nothing other than scenarios for destabilising Ukraine that could lead to early parliamentary elections. To put it more simply: Saakashvili allegedly took money from an oligarch currently living in Russia to organize demonstrations and provocations that could lead to the internal destabilization of Ukraine.
Many supporters of Saakashvili, who have joined the criticism of authorities during his detention, attempted to take a cooler position when they heard of the charges. If it is proven that Saakashvili indeed took that money, this will be a huge blow not only for him, but for many opposition members who joined Saakashvili in his demonstrations and tours around Ukraine. On a bigger scale, it also starts an incredibly important discussion about the financing of Ukrainian politicians, parties, and movements. No matter how much one disagrees with Poroshenko, taking money from an aggressor against the country to oppose him is unforgivable and should mean the end of Saakashvili’s political career.
Well, everything is not that simple in Ukraine. Many have serious doubts about whether the tapes presented by the prosecutor general are genuine. And it's not that shocking that Ukrainians should have those doubts. Last week the Prosecutor General's Office (GPU) and Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) made a serious attack on Ukraine's best performing anti-corruption institution, the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine (NABU). The GPU and SBU revealed the secrets of an operation that NABU had been carrying out for the last half a year. Moreover, they revealed the network and real names of many of NABU’s secret agents. Prosecutor General Lutsenko went as far as to say that NABU agents are an illegal grouping and that they should have been employed by an open competitive procedure. Honestly, I still wonder whether Lutsenko fully understands the extremity of the nonsense he comes out with...
It's no wonder Ukrainians are sceptical of Lutsenko’s revelations about Saakashvili. But the problem here is much deeper than just a lack of trust in some institutions. If the tapes are real, we have a politician that doesn't mind taking money from whatever sources and then organises provocations that could possibly have a destructive influence on Ukraine. If the tapes are fake, our intelligence and security bodies are ready to go as far as to falsify and publicly present fake evidence in order to attack a personal political enemy of the president. Whichever scenario turns out to be true, both have devastating results for Ukraine. It will either be a huge blow to the opposition and its legitimacy, or we will learn that our current president completely disregards the rule of law.
Much more important battle going on
Still, no matter how loud and emotional the situation with Saakashvili is, let's not forget that there is a much more important battle going on right now. Saakashvili is not the top opposition leader as some have written on Twitter, but he is definitely a master of drama who knows how to organise political shows. It wouldn't be absolutely improbable that by attacking a politician who has around 1.8% of support, but makes a lot of noise, the authorities actually want to divert attention away from a really important issue. Taking into account that the Saakashvili incident happened almost right after the attack on NABU, maybe Saakashvili is not the main player in this story?
Also worth mentioning is that the Saakashvili news has dominated the Ukrainian media space and almost completely drowned out a harsh statement from the US State Department that recent events – including the disruption of a high-level corruption investigation, the arrest of officials from NABU and the seizure of sensitive NABU files – raise concerns about Ukraine’s commitment to fighting corruption. The same position was later repeated by the EU.
That means that the biggest allies and financial supporters of Ukraine are closely following events in the country and are very dissatisfied with the attack on institutions that they lobbied so hard for. Ignoring them would be too costly for Poroshenko. But Poroshenko could save the situation through several strategies: stop the attack or continue limiting NABU’s freedom, but at the same time hide it behind street drama and beautiful statements.
The process of transformation never goes smoothly. Old forces and old institutions fight back and this is how it works in the politics. We must accept the reality that countries don't change after a few just words. Ukraine made considerable progress in its transformation and now it is witnessing a pushback from the old guard that were satisfied with the former status quo.
Does that mean that Ukraine is a lost cause that has no future? No. It means that we, Ukrainian activists, professionals, journalists and ordinary people will have to fight harder, be smarter in our choices and methods, and show that our determination to change Ukraine is stronger than their determination to keep everything as it was. No matter what some pessimistic observers are saying now, I refuse to accept the point of view that Ukraine is a hopeless case. We survived the craziness of the open Russian invasion. Nothing is lost because as long as Ukraine exists there is a chance for a change.
I believe there should be fewer emotions and more pragmatism about Ukraine. And definitely a correct setting of priorities and a deeper analysis of Ukrainian events. The accusations against Saakashvili are serious and the developments should be followed closely. But let's not allow this situation to divert attention from a much more important battle. Now it is important to protect an anti-corruption institution that has proven to be effective and motivated to work. The system (SBU and GPU) strikes back and the task is to not allow this offensive to destroy one of the most important achievements of recent years - NABU. Yes, all this doesn't look nice, but this is just one episodes, not the end of the game.
An activist, journalist and co-founder of Global Ukrainians, an international network of Ukrainians worldwide, Kateryna Kruk was awarded the Atlantic Council Freedom Award for her work communicating the Euromaidan revolution to the world. She predicted a frozen conflict in July 2014, which has largely come to pass, and now comments on the progress of crucial reforms in Ukraine.