The Ukrainian Crisis – Which Way Will the Knife-edge Tip?

Riot police block a street in KievIt is intriguing, to say the least, to read today’s front page articles of both The Guardian and The Independent on the current situation in the Ukraine. On the one hand, we are painted the picture of a state in limbo, but nonetheless much more peaceful than we have seen in the past few months, and potentially on the brink of positive political change. On the other hand is described a country at the mercy of upstart, right-wing extremist groups, which are forcing tensions along the political fault line. These two quite contrasting depictions of the Ukrainian crisis today simply go to demonstrate that country is currently balancing on an extreme political, economic and social knife-edge. But the question is, which way will it tip?

After the disappearance of Yanukovych and the release Yulia Tymoshenko on Saturday, the political scene in Kiev, both inside administrative buildings and out on the streets, took a radical turn. Suddenly the streets were dedicated to the mourning of those who lost their lives during the three months of protests, while inside Oleksandr Turchynov, speaker of the National Assembly, was made acting President, and called for a caretaker administration as well as presidential elections. So far, so good.

However, everything’s not as shiny and new as it seems on the surface. There were mixed feelings among the protesters who assembled in Independent Square to hear Tymoshenko’s announcement to run for President. Following her arrest in 2011 many consider her to be the epitome of an out-dated and corrupt governmental system, despite her status as a political prisoner. So, given that Turchynov is known to support her, I can imagine many remain unhappy with the way things are going.

The eminence grise of politics doesn’t end there however. The upstart, right-wing party Right Sector have been gaining influence over the past three months and are now making rather extreme statements, provoking tensions between the largely pro-Customs Union East and South and the more nationalist West. Whereas previously the protests were focussed on an agreement with the EU and backlash towards the police state, they appear now to be taking a turn towards the right, with Right Sector and its associated parties calling for a complete overhaul of the government. An overhaul which would refuse affiliation with both the Customs Union and the EU.

However, despite the efforts of both Right Sector, Tymoshenko and the pro-EU protesters, I believe that the ability to tip the knife-edge remains in the hands of the Ukrainian oligarchs. Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the Ukrainian billionaire oligarchs have had their fingers in every pie. Not only do they control much of the Ukrainian media, but they also have many MPs and other governmental officials under their sphere of influence.

Yes, it’s true that the most corrupt circle of oligarchs who surrounded Yanukovych – a circle nicknamed “the family” – will have lost much of their power since his ousting. But, nonetheless, there remain a significant number of well-established oligarchs who will benefit from the removal of “the family”, as well as the lack of a total governmental overhaul. No doubt having cleverly invested in both the current political sphere, as well as its opposition, the Ukrainian oligarchs are in the perfect position to manipulate the now very vulnerable political situation.

This isn’t to say that their influence won’t be for the better however. Most of the oligarchs’ business investments now cross international borders, so a settlement with the EU might prove to be their best option, an opinion which Vitali Kiltschko has voiced. But whatever way the knife-edge does tip, you can be sure the Ukrainian oligarch’s had a hand in it.

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