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Money, inclusivity concerns may challenge Ukraine political transition

February 24, 2014 at 6:12 PM EDT
How will Ukraine go about rebuilding a government? Can the country juggle regional differences, the ambitions of emerging political leaders and pressures from Russia? Judy Woodruff talks to Steven Pifer, former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine, and Adrian Karatnycky of The Atlantic Council about challenges for Ukraine’s stability.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We explore what’s next for the country with Steven Pifer, former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine from 1998 to 2000. He’s now with the Brookings Institution. And Adrian Karatnycky, he’s a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.

Welcome to the program — back to the program, both of you.

Adrian Karatnycky, let me begin with you. How stable is the situation right now in Ukraine? What do you hear?

ADRIAN KARATNYCKY, The Atlantic Council: I think that if a government takes shape, and assuming that there is some wisdom in the shaping of the government, that it is regionally inclusive, that it is not just packed with the old pols, but there is some room for competent people, and if they hear the voices of the Maidan, of the square, in the selection of the personnel tomorrow, that can help considerably to move the country towards stability.

But, at the moment, the people who went out into the square have questions about their leaders. They realize there’s a lot of horse-trading going on, and people are just fighting for poses. They’re not really looking for the greater good. And I think the public is expecting these leaders to do something different for the first time in the 23 years of Ukraine’s history.

JUDY WOODRUFF: It sounds unsettled. What are you hearing?

STEVEN PIFER, Former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine: Well, the same thing.

I mean, there are a lot of challenges that the new government’s going to face. First of all, can it be inclusive in a way that makes particularly those people in Eastern Ukraine, which was Viktor Yanukovych’s power base, feel that they have some stake in the government, that the government’s listening to them?

You have a number of opposition leaders that have worked together fairly well over the last three months. But Yulia Tymoshenko is released from prison. She’s back now. Can they continue to work together in a cooperative way when you are going to have the pressure of a presidential election in May, and some of those people may find themselves working against one another in that election?

So, can they begin to do things and work together in fairly difficult circumstances?

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, we saw those Russian flags in the Eastern and southern — Crimea, the southern part of the country. I think a lot of people are questioning, can the country hold together?

How strong is the pro-Russian sentiment?

ADRIAN KARATNYCKY: Well, I think you have to understand that Sevastopol is a very unique place. It’s a place where many of the people who retired from the Soviet military, many of them ethnic Russians. Crimea is the only place of Ukraine which has an ethnic Russian majority.

There are Russian-speaking majorities in Eastern Ukraine, but they have a very different consciousness. And the Black Sea fleet is there, the Russian part of the Black Sea fleet. So, it’s basically a Russian town. So I don’t think that this is a particularly disturbing thing to see, either Sevastopol or some of those places.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But you would expect…

ADRIAN KARATNYCKY: Right. I don’t think that there is great sentiment for Russia.

But I think a fear of the values and the politics of the central and west Ukrainians, partly because the last few years Mr. Yanukovych used this as a wedge issue. Cultural politics is not just something between red states and blue states. It’s also on a massive scale in Ukraine and on a dangerous scale, as opposed to our more settled system.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Is there any question Yanukovych is out of the picture now?

STEVEN PIFER: All the ports have him hiding somewhere in Crimea.

He’s been moving around since he disappeared on Friday, even reports in Kharkiv in eastern Ukraine, then Donetsk, one report saying that he actually in Donetsk tried to leave to depart for Russia and border guards wouldn’t let him leave.

But the fact that he’s been hiding and really running for the last few days, he’s pretty much become irrelevant to what’s going on in Kiev. He’s thoroughly discredited himself.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What about the Russians? We heard the critical comment from Medvedev, the Russian prime minister, saying this isn’t a legitimate government. What should one expect from the Russians?

ADRIAN KARATNYCKY: Well, I think that the U.S. and the international community and especially Europe should work very closely to get a consensus not just among the West, but of the entire international community, to recognize the transition has occurred in the Ukraine and that this is a legitimate government.

That would box the Russians in. And I think I’m very worried that if there are people who are sort of sitting on the fence, that this may encourage the Russians to be a little more aggressive in trying to question the legitimacy of the new authorities. And that would be potentially destabilizing. It would open questions and I think it would raise the political temperature and the geopolitical temperature in Europe.

STEVEN PIFER: And you can make the case, you should be able to make the case that a Ukraine that has a growing relationship with Europe, through an association group, but still has good relations with Russia, and Ukraine has a compelling reason to have good relations with Russia, shouldn’t be a threat.

And I think that’s one reason why President Obama spent a long time talking to President Putin over the weekend, Chancellor Merkel, is they are trying to get Russia to be part of the solution, rather than problem. But I’m not sure we’re going to be able to change Mr. Putin’s world view. And he still sees what’s happened over the last five days as a setback for his interpretation of Russian interests.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But we don’t know yet what that means or what it could mean?

ADRIAN KARATNYCKY: Well, we do know he’s cutting off assistance at the moment and it’s not flowing.

But Russia could be asked to be part of a deal with an international consortium to help save the Ukrainian economy, if they were willing to continue with their assistance program that they promised, which was quite general generous.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Are leaders emerging? I know it’s — we’re in the immediate aftermath of this, but are leading internally in Ukraine? You heard the ordinary folks saying, Tymoshenko, they don’t like any of the folks who have been in power.

STEVEN PIFER: I think there are leaders that have emerged. But the question is how much credibility are they going to have with the Maidan and the street?

Where — there’s a certain amount, I think, skepticism of all politicians, and so there’s a look to say you need to prove to us that you’re different, that you’re not going to repeat the old habits of closed, nontransparent politics that are really conducted just among elites, that you’re not going to engage in the sort of corrupt behavior which has been just epitomized by the revelations coming about, about Mr. Yanukovych’s residence.

ADRIAN KARATNYCKY: You need money to win an election in Ukraine. They’re extremely expensive processes.

JUDY WOODRUFF: For legitimate or corrupt reasons?

ADRIAN KARATNYCKY: For any regime.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All of them.

ADRIAN KARATNYCKY: It’s a very expensive proposition.

There’s a lot of money throw in. Even, I think, the legitimate politicians have to get a lot of backers who may have origins for their capital. But the problem is there’s not enough time between now and May for the Maidan to have some new charismatic leader to emerge.

But I do think that the people who went out on the square, these new generation of civic activists who have been out there for three months who have put their bodies on the line, they will probably get involved in the political process. And when there is a parliamentary election, I think we will see some new political forces in the parliament, and I think we will have some sort of gadfly movement that may keep the rest of the elite — and the Ukraine parliament is a parliament of billionaires and multimillionaires and millionaires. It’s incredibly corrupt.

As soon as we can get a new parliament going, the better for Ukraine.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What are you looking for just in the next few days?

STEVEN PIFER: I think it’s important that they get a government that is established tomorrow that begins to begin to make things work, that begins to create a sense of confidence that there’s going to be a restoration of normalcy.

I also hope that the government appears inclusive. It maybe doesn’t have to include members of regions in the cabinet, but some people who can say, yes, we speak for the interests of Eastern and Southern Ukraine, again, so that that part of Ukraine where we worry about possible separatist tendencies, which shouldn’t be overstated, but we want them to feel that, yes, this government is going to be listening to their concerns and responsive to their concerns.

And then they’re going to have to deal with some very difficult financial challenges with some big bills coming due really quick, and they will need outside help for that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, we are going to leave it there, but clearly continue to watch this story.

Ambassador Steven Pifer, Adrian Karatnycky, we thank you.

STEVEN PIFER: Thank you.