GeoPolitical Forecasts

Forecasts of international political events

Ukraine State of Emergency

Will Ukraine officially declare a state of emergency before 10 May 2014?

A State of Emergency is declared by the president, and then must be confirmed by a majority of parliament within two days.[1] It would essentially authorize the president of Ukraine to use more force in putting down the protests. He would be able to ban rallies, make it harder for the protesters to organize by cutting telephone and Internet access, enforce a curfew, and call in the military.[2]

For the immediate future, the signs are that Yanukovych won’t declare a State of Emergency. The ruling Party of the Regions has discussed declaring a State of Emergency, but has apparently decided not to. A party member reports that in comments Yanukovych made to the party, he ruled out the use of force and committed himself to calling early elections, both for president and for parliament, if he cannot reach an agreement with the protesters.[3] Another member who has previously been a speaker of parliament, said that he didn’t think there were enough votes to confirm a declaration.[4]

The director of a Kiev-based think tank says that “Yanukovich is no [Russian President Vladimir] Putin, in the sense that he is terribly afraid of any bloodshed and he would rather call for changes in the constitution and early elections than order a full-scale combat operation…”[3] Another expert says that “My forecast is that there will be no forcible clearance. There will be a silent war of terror, which, in fact, has already lasted a month…”, which is to say that he thinks force will be used, but it will be more subtle than a State of Emergency.[5]

But the situation is fluid and this could change very quickly. The think tank director believes that there is still a possibility of declaring a State of Emergency, and he believes the president could find the votes to confirm it.[5]

A study of the use of violence in elections states that “Leaders are more likely to crack down when they think an election might unseat them (or their party) from power and they face few constraints on their authority and so have reason to believe they can get away with violence.” and “When judiciaries become more independent of the executive office, or when other checks on government power develop, election violence becomes less likely even when a leader or party’s position in power is seriously threatened.”[6] The Ukrainian protests are not an election, but they are a contest for power. As the study suggests, both sides are using as much violence as they think they can get away with. Being able to predict whether the government might declare a State of Emergency over a period longer than a week or two requires understanding the checks on the president’s ability to use force.

Ukrainian courts have been more independent in the past than they are now. For 2013, Freedom House gave Ukraine a score of 4 out of 7 for political rights, and a score of 3 for civil rights. It’s overall status was “Partly Free”.[7] This is not the most oppressive society in the world, but the courts can’t be counted on as a check on government power. The criminal justice system has been rather forgiving to thugs who attacked journalists, and it sometimes requires special effort to prosecute criminals with ties to the ruling party.[8]

Freedom House rated the Ukrainian Internet as “Free”, which means that individuals could freely communicate and publish their own reporting and analysis. The press was rated as “Partly Free”.[9] In spite of that, the press can’t be counted out. The riot police have apparently targeted reporters. The Institute of Mass Information reports that more than 40 journalists have been beaten, many of them while wearing visible identification, so the police knew that they were beating reporters.[10] This suggests that the government sees their reporting as a threat. A lot of the Ukrainian media is owned by oligarchs who could once be counted on to ensure that the media supported the government. But since the protests started, some oligarch-owned TV channels have been giving air time to the opposition, and at least one oligarch-owned newspaper has been reprinting online articles that criticized the government.[11]

Another constraint on the government’s ability to use violence is the willingness of the police and the military to follow orders. The government has been able to rely on the riot police, but there are reports of the regular police giving support to the protesters in the western parts of the country.[12] The police in Kiev and other cities where protests are occurring are drawn from the same population as the protesters, and tend to have the same sympathies. Similarly, many military recruits come from the central and western parts of Ukraine where the main protests are occurring. Many of them are likely to refuse to follow orders if they are ordered to attack the protesters.[13] There’s a good chance that declaring a State of Emergency would raise the level of violence without giving the government any more control over the country.

Ukraine is partly controlled by informal “clans” of businessmen and politicians, lead by the so-called oligarchs. The oligarchs have either gotten themselves elected to parliament, or have funded the campaigns of blocs of delegates whose votes the oligarchs control.[14] Rinat Akhmetov controls a bloc of 50 delegates out of 450, slightly more than 10% of the parliament. He also owns his own TV channel. Dmitry Firtash controls another bloc, and owns Ukraine’s biggest TV network. In both cases, the TV reporting supports the owners business and political interests.[15]

An article published in the Caucasus Analytical Digest sums up Yanukovych’s government this way:

Ukraine is now ruled by the so-called “Donetsk clan,” a group of individuals who made their careers in the Donbas, the industrial heartland of the Soviet Union. Like the clans of other industrially developed regions, the post-Soviet practice of securing and developing businesses through informal, and sometimes illicit, deals produced tightly-knit networks of politicians, entrepreneurs, and criminals in Donetsk. The Donetsk style of governance is based on authoritarianism and rent-seeking, described by van Zon, a researcher of Ukrainian politics, as “the merging of political and economic power with total suppression of dissent and unbrindled corruption.[16]

The Constitutional Court issued a ruling in 2010 that transferred some power from the parliament to the president. That shift increased the power of the ruling Donetsk clan and correspondingly decreased the power of other oligarchs.[14]

This sets up conflicts between Yanukovych’s Donetsk clan and the oligarchs of other areas as Yanukovych’s group attempts to gain control of local politics and business. In the city of Dnipropetrovsk, a conflict over the appointment of the provincial governor in 2010 led local oligarchs to support the anti-government protesters when the protests started in 2013. A newspaper owned by one local oligarch has been publishing articles critical of the government, while the TV channel owned by another has been supporting the protesters.[11] An attempt by the Donetsk clan to force the sale of a factory at a third of its estimated value led two other businessmen to display a live feed of the Kiev protests on a large outdoor screen at an upscale shopping mall. The two businessmen have fled the country, but say they have no regrets. One of them said, “”We want to live in Europe, not in an outpost of the Russian empire,”[16] exactly the sentiments of the protesters.

Regardless of whether the oligarchs are pro-Russian, pro-European, allied or opposed to the Donetsk clan, almost all feel threatened by concentration of political power in the presidency and the resulting loss of power by oligarch-controlled voting blocs and local clans.[14] Viktor Medvedchuk, a pro-Russian oligarch, whose daughter is Vladimir Putin’s godchild, condemned government violence when the protests started.[16] Akhmetov, a member of the Donetsk clan and a close ally of Yanukovych for decades, issued a condemnation of government violence on his company website in January and called for negotiations. He’s been negotiating with Arseniy Yatsenyuk, the opposition leader the US is pushing as a possible Prime Minister. He controls the electricity supply to the parts of Kiev controlled by the protesters, but hasn’t cut the power. His normally pro-government TV channel has given air time to opposition leaders.[11] More than 70 parliamentary members of the government’s majority have stated that they are opposed to a violent crackdown and will vote against a State of Emergency.[14]

Western banks are worried about the conflict and have started refusing to extend credit to some Ukrainian oligarchs. Problems with his Swiss bankers may have led Akhmetov to have his parliamentary bloc vote for the resignation of the Azarov cabinet and against the laws directed at suppressing protests. Some of the oligarchs’ families live in western and central European capitals, and their businesses depend on European capital markets. These things are threatened by possible targeted financial and visa sanctions.[11] And regardless of how they earned their fortunes, whether through legal or corrupt means, the oligarchs can best defend themselves against the government through the rule of law and protection of property rights, along with returning power to the parliament and the oligarch-financed delegates.

Since the protests started the EU and the US have started paying more attention to Ukraine. The EU and the IMF are offering aid, but the aid is conditional on political and economic reforms.[19] Yanukovych wants to stay in power, wants a large loan to help tide Ukraine over its immediate financial problems, wants foreign investment, and wants access to European markets for the oligarch’s businesses. The political changes the EU and US want will weaken presidential power and will not make his hold on the presidency any more secure. The loans on offer are much smaller than Yanukavych wants and won’t help him stave off the sorts of economic problems that would cost him a second term as president. If Yanukovych accepts EU and US aid, he will have to give up any idea of declaring a State of Emergency.

Ukraine’s relationship with Russia since independence, and Yanukovych’s relationship with Vladimir Putin, has been very poor.[20][21] The opinion of many knowledgeable Ukrainians is that Putin despises Yanukovych, and Yanukovych fears Putin.[20] Putin’s goal is to force Ukraine into the Russian-dominated Eurasian Economic Union, blocking it from joining the EU. But Putin is offering a $15 billion loan, and isn’t trying to interfere with the way Yanukovych’s government rules Ukraine, so Russian aid doesn’t rule out a State of Emergency.

The protests in Kiev began as pro-Eu demonstrations, but have become anti-Yanukovych protests. The protesters’ goal is to remove Yanukovych from power.[8][22] His two attempts to suppress the protests, once at the beginning and again in January, only made them stronger. Under a State of Emergency, the protests would be sure to grow and spread, and Yanukovych can’t be sure that the police or military would follow orders to suppress the protests. Most of the oligarchs continue to support him publicly, but are concerned about the spread of disorder and don’t seem to support declaring a State of Emergency. And the concentration of power in his own hands, along with the exploitation of state power by his Donetsk clan has cost him the support of individual oligarchs and made the remainder reluctant to see Yanukovych get more power. Whether or not he accepts EU and US aid, a State of Emergency would probably result in sanctions. So a State of Emergency seems unlikely.

But it can’t be ruled out. Yanukovych might still declare one as a last gasp effort to retain power, if the protesters seem to be on the verge of winning and he has nothing to lose. I’m forecasting a 25% chance of Yanukovych declaring a State of Emergency before 10 May.


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