A few thoughts on my Kazakhstan/Russia article for Open Democracy

William Echols

The last time I did this, I wrote an appendix to the article which was as long as the actual article itself. I’ll try not to do that this time. More than anything, I’d like to give people a chance to check out my latest article for Open Democracy, ‘Kazakhstan’s quiet balancing act’, especially for who don’t follow me on Twitter or Facebook.

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Turns out search engines are my primary referrer, and I promise you, some of those search terms I get have made me want to give up on blogging all together. No, if you want to see the id of the internet on full display (plus how difficult it is for people to type “Kheda Goilabiyeva” and some iteration of porn one-handed, likely in a second language), write an article with teenage bride in the title. Teenage brides in Russia to be more exact. You’ve been warned.

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You’ll also see traffic spikes from countries where people otherwise never clicked on blogs about Russia. At least, they never clicked on my blog. To even begin characterizing those countries (though it would be easy to do) would open up a whole other can of worms. I, after all, came here to talk about Kazakhstan!

Kazakhstan, after all, is where I got my start in the post-Soviet world, and I myself have had to be careful not to speak about the two countries interchangeably when generalizing about certain political and sociological trends.

Inspirational I know.

Inspirational I know.

Even prior to writing this article, I had previously speculated that what Putin secretly wanted deep down was to be granted the geopolitical luxury of Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev. His country is rich enough to steal billions from, but marginal enough for its human rights abuses to be overlooked for the sake of doing business. I think Putin, with his vanity (see botox) and love of opulence (like his press secretary, a $500,000 timepiece fulfills his mafioso need for bling), had once dreamed of setting off for his so-called ‘Guest House’ outside of Paris or a similarly safe european home, weekending with former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi ‘bunga bunga’ style —reclining like two mafia dons who had played ‘The Game’ and won.

'Just the two of us...

‘Just the two of us…”

Perhaps Putin’s true hatred of the middle-class Snow Revolution was that his retirement plan was scuttled, his salad days to be burned along with tons of French cheese.

And then there is this...

And then there is this…

I don’t think he always wanted to leave the Kremlin foot-first, but it seems almost like an inevitability at this point. Heavy is the crown of the gatherer of “Russian lands.”

In light of the many parallels between Kazakhstan and Russia, the two countries offer comparative analysts a rare opportunity to control for certain factors in measuring outcomes. Will Russia’s irredentism pay dividends vs. Kazakhstan’s attempts to accept its position of relative weakness and court partners from all points on the compass? Will Kazakhstan’s relative attempts at economic diversification bear any fruit, or will it simply be impossible to build a modern, knowledge-based economy with thriving small and medium-sized businesses if the elite’s share of the pie remains static. Will Kazakhstan’s propensity towards privatization vs. Russia’s strict statist model make any difference within the framework of a purely extractive political model?

I think with Kazakhstan and Russia suffering from many of the same systemic problems, in the next few years, many of these questions may be answered, at least in part. But what really interests me is how the implementation of actual democratic reforms would actually play out, if Astana or Moscow ever chose to go down that road.

As it is, I’m not holding my breath on on that one. At best, both states are attempting to mitigate chaos in light of factors they can scantly control by this point. But however things play out in Kazakstan, I will give Nazarbayev credit for this: He might have taken a lot to remain president for life, but he didn’t steal his nation’s sanity along the way. That’s more than I can say for Putin at this point.

In Putin’s Russia, burning bread is now the circus

William Echols

Fearful of its own populace and systemically incapable of shoring up Russia’s deepening economic woes, the Kremlin has resorted to burning the bread of appeasement just to keep the circus going.

In a country where absurdity is deeply woven into the fabric of political discourse, this has been a week which gave pause to even the most jaded of Russia watchers. Two images, one of a presidential spokesman wearing a $620K watch at a wedding befitting of a mafia don, the other depicting tons of food being burned amidst deepening poverty, provide the perfect symbol for modern-day Russia.

It pays to be a public servant in Putin's Russia.

It pays to be a public servant in Putin’s Russia.

There once was a time when Russia’s elite had their cake and the rest were content to live off of the crumbs. Now the masses are forced to watch them burn those crumbs for the sake of political theater. As Ilya Gaffner, a regional lawmaker from the ruling party United Russia said earlier this year, if you don’t have enough money for food, “eat less.”  

Now one might add, “if you don’t have enough food, burn more.” But sacrifice is clearly a one way street in Putin’s Russia. Cut off your nose to spite your face, yes, but only if you are one of the 99 percent. The government’s priorities are clear. Protect the wealth of the elite, keep key industries (many of which provide the source of elicit gains) afloat at all costs, and ramp up military spending amidst an ongoing clandestine war in Ukraine.

The proposed so-called Rotenberg Law, which would require the state to compensate sanctioned Russian businessmen for subsequent losses, was the first indicator of where Moscow’s priorities lay. And speaking with Bloomberg Businessweek, Dmitry Polevoy, chief Russia economist at ING Bank Eurasia in Moscow, recently speculated that Russia will divert funds from a $75 billion dollar wealth fund —intended to shore up Russia’s pension system —to provide corporate aid in the (increasingly likely) event that a separate $73 billion sovereign wealth fund is depleted.

It wouldn’t be the first time Putin sold out society’s most vulnerable for the sake of his revanchist policies. Last year, Finance Minister Anton Siluanov admitted that Russia was funding the annexation of Crimea with $7.2 billion siphoned off from the state pension fund. No worries, Russians are a robust people, right? Granny will sell dog hair socks or sing you a tune outside the rail station to make ends meet. Or not. st.petersburg_accordian_-29 For while the government was gleefully televising images of a seven ton mound of suspected EU-cheese being burned, earlier in the week, deplorable conditions in a prison masquerading as an old folks home left one pensioner dead and 18 hospitalized. Screen Shot 2015-08-07 at 4.24.33 PM And it will only get worse. In a country that calculates the poverty line at 10,400 rubles a month (just over $160 after the Russian currency took a huge hit this week), 22.9 million people are now living below that ridiculously low benchmark. Screen Shot 2015-08-07 at 5.18.13 PM Across the board cuts will continue to hit almost every sector of the economy. Reductions in healthcare spending are already believed to have caused thousands of extra deaths throughout Russian hospitals last year, Bloomberg reported. A hike in household utility costs pushed inflation up to 15.6 percent in July. Annual food price inflation is over 20 percent. Capital flight is expected to exceed $100 billion for 2015.

Russia’s GDP is set to contract 3.25% this year. And while revenues from oil and gas comprise half the federal budget, oil prices are near a six-year low. Things are bad, and about to get worse. And yet they are burning food. Not only burning it, but investing in 6 million ruble mobile crematoriums to keep the circus of pain on the road.

Much like scholastic arguments about the nature of God and evil, Putin is either unable or unwilling to diversify the country’s economy, stamp out corruption and give civil society a chance to develop. But while much of the world might have a less than positive view of Putin’s leadership, his sky-high popularity rate reflects the parallel reality that most Russians, suffering from a form of national Stockholm Syndrome, appear to inhabit. Screen Shot 2015-08-05 at 7.49.23 PM As I As I wrote previously, this can by and large be explained both by Russia’s inherit cynicism, and the nationwide phenomenon of “ressentiment”, which can be can be understood as a transference of ones pain, humiliation, inferiority and failure onto a scapegoat. Even when the authorities so brazenly flaunt their ill-gotten wealth, the Russian people still look West for the source of their social ills.  How long the Kremlin can keep up this shell game of misdirected blame is anyone’s guess.

In the first century AD, the Roman Emperor Augustus instituted a system whereby grain handouts and caps on food prices, coupled with free entertainment, were employed to keep the plebeians in place. The satirical writer Juvenal turned his ire on commoners for selling out their freedom and civil responsibilities for bread and circuses.

Russia, with its long tradition of absurdism and maximalism, have even turned that old maxim on its head. For while the elites’ bellies will continue to be full and their children will continue to dine across Europe on Russia’s stolen wealth, the common man is now expected to be content with the spectacle of his own plate burning.

Who ever imagined that the bread would become the circus? Only in Russia…

'Burn it all.'

‘Burn it all.’

The pathosis of Putin’s failed plans 

William Echols

A string of failures which have recently blighted Vladimir Putin’s regime demonstrate that when it comes to Russia’s executive function, the rot in Russian society starts at the head.

Everything is a system. No matter the field of study, a person will encounter complex networks of interdependency, and what happens when kinks in those webs create problems for the whole.

Just look at the human brain, with its 100 billion neurons and scores of internal structures, all of which perform a series of vital cognitive and/or physiological functions. Damage to one part, no matter how small, can spell disaster.

Take the cerebellum, or “little brain”, which plays a vital role in motor control.

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Unlike the motor cortex, the cerebellum is not an agent of volition. Rather, it takes signals from the central nervous system and fine tunes them, especially as it relates to the coordination, precision and timing of specific movements. In the event that there is a mismatch between intended and actual action, the little brain that could is able to correct for them in real time.

Likewise, there is a type of movement disorder stemming from damage to the cerebellum which throws the above corrective feedback loop out of whack.

In the words of neurologist V.S. Ramachandran,  a person could “attempt to touch her nose, feel her hand overshooting, and attempt to compensate with an opposing motion, which causes her hand to overshoot even more wildly in the opposite direction.”

This disorder is called an intention tremor.

In politics, there is an analogue to intention tremors, which likewise afflicts the executive branch of government.

One primary cause of an intention tremor stems from “corruption-based dysmetria” — a lack of coordination of movement between government bodies. The government, by its own design, is incapable of executing its goals, and often acts against them.

This brings us to modern day Russia, where people have long said fish rot from the head. Even a cursory glance of its political system shows that something is indeed rotten in the Kremlin.

Vladimir Putin, doors

In theory, the Russian president is not part of the executive; it is not their job to determine long-term domestic policy objectives. Much like the cerebellum, the president positionally sits apart from the primary body of executive function, acting as a constitutional corrective for the laws and regulations of the Russian Federation.

In practice, of course, Putin has usurped the executive, bringing the Government of Russia under his direct control and violating the very constitution he is tasked with defending. The system he has created is ultimately hollow, with Potemkin courts and legislatures stripped of their powers. Corruption, meanwhile, is no longer a byproduct of his rule, but rather an intended goal.

Consequently, when Putin actually does attempt to act in earnest, the coordination of movements between state organs is permanently skewed, with no viable means of correction. Signals sent down the power vertical fail to create the desired response. Putin, in short, cannot act against the internal contradictions of his own order.

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Take the case of Boris Kolesnikov, an anti-corruption crusader and police general whose tragic story was recently recounted by Joshua Yaffa. Kolesnikov, the former deputy head of the Interior Ministry’s anticorruption department, was imprisoned, beaten and allegedly driven to suicide for failing to stitch up his boss and Medvedev-appointee Denis Sugrobov.

The case proved one reality: seemingly honest cops who investigate members of the security services for their role in multi-billion dollar “dark money” schemes are jailed for doing their jobs. Their anti-corruption department is labeled an “organized criminal organization” by actual organized criminals in the FSB. It was the same with the late Sergei Magnitsky, an auditor who implicated government officials in a $230 million tax fraud scheme. After being wrongfully imprisoned and ultimately killed, he was ghoulishly convicted on trumped up tax evasion charges in the first posthumous trial in Russian history. Gogol surely rolled over in his grave.

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Such instances, however, might not represent intention tremors at all; they may very well happen by design.

A less ambiguous case was the Second Chechen War, which was undoubtedly waged to bring the restive republic under Moscow’s thumb. But how does a country without rule of law reintegrate a lawless place? Putin did the only thing he knew how to do; start a brutal war and then hand the reigns of power over to a well-subsidized and slightly unhinged megalomaniac who, incidentally, has succeeded in creating a gross caricature of the Russian system.

Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov operates with impunity, including the right to build a 20,000-strong army, set up his own tax system, allegedly murder opposition politicians (and personal enemies) on the streets of Moscow, assassinate other rivals abroad, threaten to kill Russian cops on the streets of Grozny, and make polygamy legal. In a bid to reintegrate Chechnya into Russia, Russia has merely subsidized what is independence in all but name.

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Another example is Russia’s recent saber rattling over Ukraine. In 2014, NATO was forced to scramble its jets on 400 separate occasions to intercept Russian military aircraft. But while Moscow’s intention was to show its military might, massive weaknesses were revealed in the Russian Air Force, which is reliant on massively outdated Soviet stock. Since June, seven Russian military aircraft have crashed in as many weeks, prompting an investigation by the Defense Ministry. In an attempt to keep NATO on its toes, Moscow revealed its own feet of clay.

Russia’s covert war in Ukraine has equally revealed that the country lacks sufficient numbers of well-trained troops capable of waging “hybrid war” on a long-term basis.

Likewise, no military reforms will stop barracks from collapsing on their soldiers, or keep overtaxed soldiers from deserting to avoid being forced to fight and die as “volunteers” in Ukraine as long as every institution in Russia puts the needs of corrupt officials first, and the ostensible purposes of those institutions second.

Putin has risked global isolation to keep Ukraine in the fold, only to lose Ukraine, possibly forever. He has further sacrificed Russia’s economy, introducing austerity cuts across the board, while vowing increased military spending to sustain he latest adventures. And yet some analysts believe the invasion of Ukraine has sounded the death knell for the country’s military reforms as well.

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During former-president Dmitry Medvedev’s 2008 inauguration speech, he said that Russia “must overcome the legal nihilism that is such a serious hindrance to modern development.”

He rightly noted that the battle against legal nihilism was essential for economic and social development, fighting corruption, and  making people feel safe. Medvedev further said such reforms were vital to boost Russia’s global influence, and to be taken “as equals with other peoples.”

His words are telling. Those at Russia’s helm recognize their system of rule undermines their credibility as equals in the international arena, although such parity (or a lack thereof) is an obsession of Putin’s. A fake president delivered a speech saying the very mechanisms of power which had resulted in his candidacy were scuttling his country’s hopes for a better future.

The irony is palpable. Putin was brought to power to raise Russia from its knees. In the process, it just might end up on its face.

You’ve gotta serve someone: Grexits, Ukrainian dreams and the systems that bind us

William Echols

Greece’s potential exit from the eurozone, if not the whole European project together, cuts a sharp contrast with Ukraine’s distant hope of one day joining the EU. The issue at hand, however, is not an ideal vision of what the world should be, but which system offers the best potential outcome for relatively small fish forced to tread deep global waters.

Reactions to Greece’s economic woes has almost become a modern day Rorschach test in eliciting a person’s social-political views. For those who put a strong focus on systems, fault for Greece’s imploding economy are almost always laid squarely at the feet of its creditors. One need only read any leading European daily with a leftist bent to see op-ed after op-ed declaring the Troika (the holy spirit of the EU represented by the father in the form of the European Commission, the IMF and the European Central Bank) as an elitist force whose primary aim is the very destruction of democracy itself. For those more enamored with notions of personal responsibility and an arguably inflated sense of personal agency, feckless governance and a wholly entitled population (retirement at 45 with the highest EU-wide pension payments to boot!) has seen Greece’s GDP shrink year-on-year while unemployment soared. Greek’s were living high on the hog on borrowed money, only to lash out at the ‘adults in the room’ when their allowance was cut off. Or so the argument goes.

 (AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris)

(AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris)

For those who recognize the global system as a deeply complicated and chaotic place, both positions contain kernels of truth, are not mutually exclusive, but are also more married to self-serving ideological interpretations of world events than reality on the ground.

This article, however, is less concerned with knowing how much of which finger to point at who in the unfolding Greek drama. The question, rather, is why would young Ukrainians risk their lives and the inevitable ire of Russia to subject themselves to a European system which many Greek’s are clambering to get out of?

One only need look to the eastern members of the financial union to see a very definite pattern emerge.

Writing for Bloomberg, Leonid Bershidsky noted that “eastern members of the euro are among the strongest opponents of bending to Greek demands.” This is partly explained by jealously — partly by the eastern member’s greater relative exposure to Greek debt. But as Bershidsky argues, these countries were also forced to “bend over backwards” to satisfy  the increasingly stringent requirements for membership placed on them by the monetary union. Ukrainians for their part, as he notes, have little sympathy for Greeks struggling to get by on pensions of 600 euro a month, with the average Ukrainian getting by on a fraction of that sum.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko’s reaction followed a similar line.

“This year, our responsible and effective policies have consolidated the entire world’s help and solidarity around Ukraine,”Bershidsky cites Poroshenko as saying.

”Greece has found itself in isolation due to its less than responsible behavior when it tried to blackmail the European Commission,” he continued.

Petro Poroshenko

Petro Poroshenko

Poroshenko’s logic is simple, we are loved by the world because we do what Brussels asks of us. The Greeks, in contrast, are biting the hand which, for many Eastern Europeans, keeps the Russian wolves at bay.

Another reason for generally higher levels of enthusiasm among central and eastern Europeans regarding the EU as a whole is that they have something their western counterparts (apart from Eastern Germans) do not have — a parallel experience within another political and economic system.

If one were to take a Wallersteinian approach to the global order, peripheral nations have always been subsumed to the world system’s core nations.

America, the hyperpuissance or hyper power, has gone farther towards merging the nation state with the actions of world-system than perhaps any other political entity in human history. As George W. Bush’s senior political advisor Karl Rove allegedly said: “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.”

World Systems Theory has its problems, and the degree to which America creates its own “reality” (as well as the nature of that reality) are hotly contested. But in a world with regional centers of power which, at best, offer different conditions on which to interact with the global capitalist system, the argument is less about ideology, and more about which nexus (and by extension set of rules) offers the best outcomes.

Unfortunately, some countries find themselves on fault lines between these vying interests. Ukraine is by and large the greatest literal and metaphorical example of a state with the misfortune of being rent apart on every level due to its geography.

Prior to Moscow’s clandestine invasion, opinion was fairly evenly divided between whether Ukraine should seek integration in the European Union or the Eurasian Customs Union of Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan (which now includes Armenia and Kyrgyzstan) — 42 vs 37 percent respectively. As the Washington Post noted, citing a poll conducted by Gallup, that discrepancy had grown to 59 vs 17 percent over the span of a year.

The US itself has decried the Customs Union as an attempt to resovietize the former Communist bloc states. This attitude is fundamentally incorrect. In Soviet times, Moscow (and Russia by extension) functioned more like Washington in regards to its worse performing states: a disproportionate amount of money was sent to the periphery to keep them afloat. For all its faults, the Soviet Union was engaged in a massive social welfare project, whose benefits are still exalted by many, especially in Soviet states far from Europe’s borders.

Rather than looking like a new Soviet Union, the Customs Union, in fact, is more interested in creating a rough analogue to the EU, with Russia taking the place of Germany. Despite the rhetoric, Russia’s political leadership is deeply committed to the global capitalist system and have little interest in the social responsibilities or political ideology implicit in the Soviet system. Russia might throw its support to disparate political forces in the West (one minute it’s the far-left Syriza, the next, neo-fascist Golden Dawn), but in truth, all Russia’s leadership wants if for the West to shut up about corruption and human rights and keep doing business.

Golden Dawn. Photo by Milos Bicanski /Getty Images

Golden Dawn. Photo by Milos Bicanski /Getty Images

As I wrote previously, Moscow has often been described as a ‘voronka’ or funnel, in the sense that it is the focal point for all of Russian wealth accumulation. Its not just a matter of the disproportionate amount of foreign direct invest that flows into the capital. Russia, after all, is a land bound empire with an extractive form of economy. The resources come out of the east, the money flows west.

Putin’s Customs Union is arguably a means of extending the mouth of that funnel to the former Soviet republics. In a country where the rule of law is virtually non-existent, that funnel is set to expand illicit gains as well. Last year, Ukraine’s chief prosecutor accused former president Viktor Yanukovich of  leading a mafia-style syndicate that siphoned $100 billion out of the country, $32 billion of which was sent to Russia by truck).

For many Ukrainians, even those who have no Soviet-style illusions about the West, there are very tangible benefits from moving away from a Russian-centric system where corruption is not just a by-product of economic activity, but in many cases the intended outcome. Moreover, Putin doesn’t care if you gun down at least 14 protesters (though to be fair, neither did Tony Blair,) nor will he be pushing for unified CO2 emission targets, bloc-wide anticorruption measures or cross-border healthcare rules. But for those seeking a far deeper social contract, Europe seems like the logical choice.

Scene from December 2011 Zhanaozen massacre in Kazakhstan

Scene from December 2011 Zhanaozen massacre in Kazakhstan

The question is, does Europe really offer a way out for Ukraine? Some have argued that one need look no further than Poland for an answer. Much has been written about the shock therapy given to Poland in the 90s, and there is much room for debate whether such harsh austerity measures were at all necessary. But one thing remains true. During the turbulent 90s, Poland was mired in debt and had a GDP per capita on par with Ukraine’s (roughly $1,600) Today, Ukraine’s GDP per capita is believed to be anywhere between a third and a fourth of its Western neighbor.

To be fair, Ukraine is an absolute basket case, with its annual GDP per capita growth rate coming in dead last when measured against 20 other Eastern Bloc states between 1992-2013. Even without Russian pressure or artificial wars being fomented in its east, Ukraine’s internal problems are legion.

Source; Quartz, citing IMF data

Source; Quartz, citing IMF data

It remains to be seen if, given another orbit, Ukraine would go the path of Poland, or stay the course of Greece, who, much like Odysseus, is still deciding whether to dance with Scylla or Charybdis. But seeing what Russia’s put on offer to those who would choose Brussels over Moscow (cheap gas in one hand and a knife to carve out new borders in the other), it is little wonder that the likes of Kiev and Tbilisi have set their sights for Brussels, even while many in the West, from the shore of the Mediterranean to the English channel, are looking to jump ship.

But whatever way you jump, in the end, you gotta serve someone. And given that the choice in the 21st century has thus far been reduced to variations on a capitalist theme, for idealists, as well as those on the far left and far right, there is no choice at all. But for those who have seen firsthand the actual differences that exist between the social contracts on offer between various players in the global financial system, what appears to be a game of inches to the ideologically committed amounts to oceans of difference when viewed at scale.

Soviet ghosts and dead politicians: Ukraine is on the brink 

William Echols

At least eight former government officials dead in two months, two journalists killed in Kyiv since Monday, another pro-Russian former deputy shot dead outside his home this week, controversial laws meant to whitewash history, and a shaky ceasefire in a civil war that risks engulfing the entire nation — Ukraine is on the brink, and no one appears willing or able to stop the descent into disintegration.

Whatever you think of the Putinbots, vatniks, trolls, or true believers caught up in the digital miasma regarding the Ukrainian crisis, on one point they appear to be correct — a spat of mysterious and not so mysterious deaths to befall Ukraine since late January appear to have been underreported in the Western press.

Within a day’s time, 45-year-old Oles Buzyna, a journalist-cum-pro-Russian activist who made an unsuccessful 2012 parliamentary run on the Russian Bloc ticket, was the victim of a brazen drive-by shooting in the courtyard of his apartment building in Kyiv on Thursday afternoon.

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On Wednesday, 52-year-old Oleg Kalashnikov, a former deputy in ousted president Viktor Yanukovich’s Party of Regions, was shot dead on the landing of his apartment in the Ukrainian capital. And on Monday, Serhiy Sukhobok, a journalist who covered business affairs in eastern Ukraine, reportedly died during a fight with neighbors within whom he had a history of bad blood.

Between January 29th and March 14th, eight former government officials are alleged to have committed suicide, though theories have emerged that some were forced to take their own lives. Many were former political allies of Yanukovich and under investigation for a litany of crimes. Members of the marginalized pro-Russian opposition claim the mysterious deaths have followed a wave of intimidation employing the judicial branch as a punitive organ against former regime elements. Those swept into power following the 2014 revolution say they are merely “cracking up” at the prospect of prison time given the impunity with which they acted while in power. Those two interpretations are not mutually exclusive.

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Following the deaths of Buzyna and Kalashnikov, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko ordered an investigation into the killings, saying it was clear “these crimes have the same origin.” 

“Their nature and political sense are clear,” Poroshenko said. “It is a deliberate provocation that plays in favor of our enemies.”

Provocation, of course, is the carpet under which all evils are swept under in the post-Soviet world.

Following the February 27 assassination of former statesman and oppositionist Boris Nemtsov, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s press secretary similarly said the murder was “100 percent provocation.” 

Putin for his part had earlier employed the phrase “sacrificial victim” in 2012 to describe an alleged plot by the opposition to kill one of their own merely to tarnish his regime.

It came as little surprise that Russia’s Investigative Committee would employ the same language three years later, saying Nemtsov was a “sacrificial victim for those who do not shun any method for achieving their political goals.”

nemtsovshot

It is not to say “provocations” do not take place. But to insinuate motive without evidence is irresponsible, especially from a head of state. Poroshenko, however, isn’t the only one to to fit the killing into a politically expedient narrative.

Parliamentarian Sergei Leshchenko wrote on Twitter that the murders looked like an FSB “provocation”, referring to Russia’s principle security agency, the Guardian reported.

Another deputy, Volodymyr Ariev, told the daily that “an FSB shooting brigade” was picking people off on the streets of Kiev.

“It easily fits into the Russian narrative that Ukraine is all about fascists, a country where even basic right for life is violated,” he said.

Walking right into Russia’s trap 

When it comes to this admittedly false Russian narrative that the Ukraine is “all about fascists”, the Ukrainian government is doing itself no favors in promoting a more democratic image.

First, there was the so-called Ministry of Truth.

Then, on April 9, Ukraine’s Verkhovna Rada (parliament) adopted four laws, one of which recognizes the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) as veterans of the Second World War. The law further says that “public denial of the legitimacy of the struggle for Ukraine’s independence”, and by extension, criticism of those who fought for said independence, is “unlawful.”

The following day, three Soviet-era statures were toppled in Ukraine’s second-largest city of Kharkiv.

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The UPA cannot simply be written off as Nazi-collaborators, though they did in fact collaborate with German forces (only to fight against them later, albeit as a “secondary” enemy).

They were also involved in a brutal ethnic cleansing campaign against Polish civilians in Volhynia and Galicia, killing up to 100,000 people. The UPA’s alleged role in massacring Jews in Western Ukraine is historically more contentious.

At the very least, any laws which could curtail criticism of such a group at a time when Russian propaganda explicitly called the Ukrainian revolution a fascist coup shows a shocking lack of political astuteness on behalf of the Ukrainian parliament.

It does not help that the black and red UPA flag, as well as their slogan “Glory to Ukraine! Glory to the heroes!” were staples of the Euromaidan movement that prompted Yanukovich to flee the country. In reality, many democratically-minded young people in Ukraine merely view the UPA as 20th century freedom fighters, without themselves having any Nazi sympathies. That fact alone demonstrates why any laws attempting to curtail historical discourse are especially dangerous for a country in the midst of an identity crisis. That the government would act to whitewash history in the middle of a civil war fueled in part by these very controversial issues seems like madness.

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Likewise, a similar February 2014 attempt to repeal the Yanukovich-era minority language law, which approved the use of so-called “regional languages” (primarily Russian) in courts, schools and other government institutions, showed a staggering lack of priorities and a grave misreading of the Russian propaganda onslaught to follow. For Ukrainian nationalists to confuse distancing themselves from the political entity known as the Russian Federation with purging themselves of a very real Russo-Ukrainian cultural tradition was a recipe for disaster, which has deftly been exploited by Russian forces which ignited the civil war in Ukraine’s east.

Simply put, Ukraine does not risk becoming a failed state because it is lacking a coherent ethnolinguistic identity, and any attempts at forcing a sense of Ukrainian identity on the masses rather than letting it develop organically is counterproductive on every front. For Ukraine, the question of identity is deeply wrapped up in the necessity of political pluralism; a prerequisite for any institutionally solvent state. Laws such as those passed last week are not only an attack on freedom of speech, they are chipping away at a cornerstone of any viable Ukrainian state.

Amidst a backdrop where oligarchs control private armies and the government seems incapable of providing security in those parts of the country not ravaged by war, Ukrainian institutions appear to be in free fall. Meanwhile, every layer of society is cannibalizing itself as a means of survival as Ukraine has slipped to 142nd place (out of 175) on Transparency International’s latest corruption index.

All the while, Russia is betting on (if not fueling) this national death spiral.

In March, Ukrainian Finance Minister Natalie Jaresko told Bloomberg that Russian President Vladimir Putin in fact hopes to turn Ukraine into a failed state, adding that war in the east was likely to reignite as a result.

Amid escalating violence in the region, the leader of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic recently threatened to take control of the strategically important coastal town of Mariupol if Ukrainian “aggression” did not cease, signaling that Jaresko’s fears may in fact be justified.

Jaresko, meanwhile, warned creditors on Wednesday that a lack of willingness to restructure $40 billion in Ukrainian debt could signal untold peril down the road.

Ukrainians have already seen their living standards plummet over the past year, making the consequence of an actual default socially untenable.

“If, God forbid, there is another revolution” Jaresko said, “it won’t be of the same kind [as 2014].”

With a wave of high-profile suicides and murders, a ceasefire drenched in gasoline, a government facing insolvency and a political class more capable of tackling Soviet ghosts than modern day robber barons, Jaresko’s words may prove eerily prescient. And however the next revolution ends if it comes to pass, one thing is certain: modern Ukraine is unlikely to survive it.