The recent events in Ukraine capture the imagination, but, if one has worked with the country in the past, one could be forgiven the sense of deja vu. At least that's the case for me. Having worked as an advisor to its national bank in 1995-96 and written a book and some articles about Ukraine, some of the players in the current situation appear differently to me than they're portrayed in most current reporting.
First, the country's leaders have always sought a balance between Europe and Russia. Former president Leonid Kuchma explicitly spoke of the goal of integration with Europe and conciliation towards the CIS (the Commonwealth of Independent States, a loose confederation that came out of the fall of the USSR and a precursor to Putin's current Eurasian Union.)
Part of this is a nod to the reality of Ukraine being a major importer of energy and thus reliant on Russian and Turkmen natural gas shipments. Even very pro-western President Viktor Yushchenko, hero of the Orange Revolution in 2004, made deals with Russia that ended up disappointing his supporters. His prime minister at that time? Yulya Tymoshenko, the odds-on favorite to become the next president. More on this below.
If the West wants to drive a wedge between Ukraine and Russia, it has to deal with that issue. Options include liquified natural gas shipments, but it is unclear how they would arrive. There is no natural pipeline from Azerbaijan, with whom Ukraine has had discussions, and the Turks oppose LNG shipments in the Black Sea.
That said, Russia underestimates the oligarchs who run Ukraine. It's certainly true that many are descendants of the 'red directors' who scavenged state-owned enterprises to build massive personal wealth. In that sense, they may seem ex-Communists sympathetic to Russia. But Europe is a very attractive market to many of them. To others, the natural gas monopoly -- and the ability to attack the Russians by siphoning off the gas when the opportunity arises -- is going to be hard to surrender, and will be part of the political battle to come.
So who is on each side? This is where the Tymoshenko question becomes interesting. She was prime minister twice during the Yushchenko presidency. When I worked in the country, Tymoshenko was part of United Energy Services Ukraine, which was tied to Pavlo Lazarenko. Lazarenko was prime minister at the time; he subsequently ended up in jail for corruption.
Lazarenko and Tymoshenko were two of the early oligarchs, members of a 'clan' of them from the city of Dnipropetrovsk in industrial eastern Ukraine. I often credit Tymoshenko's escape from a fate similar to Lazarenko's to her discovery of Oleksandr Turchinov, who is currently the speaker of the parliament and acting president. Turchinov has a grasp both of the parliament and of Tymoshenko. He is popular enough, though he has nowhere near the star power of Tymoshenko.
There are, as I have mentioned before, others who may wish to be the next president. Vitaly Klitschko has some star power by being a boxing champion, and his actions in the protests in Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square) have given him a legitimate chance. A third party in the opposition to toppled president Yanukovych, economist Arseniy Yatsenyuk, is a possible candidate as well, but he seems to be the third of the three heads of the opposition and may just be too much of a bureaucrat to win.
To really know where the elections might go, I am watching for comments from the oligarchs. Yanukovych lost them over the last three weeks of his term. Most of the focus is on the richest one, Rinat Akhmetov, who was a Yanukovych backer until the writing was on the wall. But there are two quite pro-western ones in Pavlo Poroshenko and Viktor Pinchuk. The latter is well-connected to the Clintons, and thus may also be a key player in U.S. activities. He writes in the Financial Times today:
I have not been on the barricades. Ordinary Ukrainians have. Civil society turned out to be far ahead of us. We must now put all our efforts into addressing the social problems of Ukraine, and the long-term challenges of our country. We have all long known what they are: lack of rule of law, red tape, corruption, lack of opportunities, lack of infrastructure.
Only if politicians and big business rise to this challenge will Ukrainians be able to channel their energy into reforming and rebuilding the country.
I met Pinchuk in 1996 and he was considered a reformer then; I was impressed with him. He's worth keeping an eye on. But, as always, the key here — as in many elections — is to watch the money.