After three months of generally peaceful protests in Kyiv’s Independence Square, Ukraine is in crisis. On February 22, Parliament voted to oust President Yanukovych and hold new elections. Yanukovych subsequently fled the country. The deep mistrust in government that originally ignited the protests was then fueled by pictures and video of Yanukovych’s lavish estate.
The interim government faces immense challenges. In addition to the social and cultural fissures dividing the country and the disastrous economic situation, Russia now has de-facto control of Crimea.
The International Renaissance Foundation, part of the Open Society family of foundations and active in the country since 1990, is vigorously monitoring events on the ground. The foundation and its partners were at the epicenter of these extraordinary events. The local foundation ensured that legal aid was made available throughout the crisis to civic activists, protesters, and journalists; supplied victims with medical care; while its human rights partners documented cases of torture, beatings, and police abuse.
The disinformation campaign waged by Russia has been extraordinary, with faux photos purporting to show hundreds of thousands of citizens in Ukraine fleeing to Russia. The local foundation is providing space and access to journalists to provide more objective coverage. Where feasible, the foundation is using video coverage to document the situation on the ground.
Defending Moscow’s December 18, 2013 agreement to provide Ukraine with an aid package estimated at about $15 billion, and cheaper natural gas through discounts and “gas debt forgiveness” estimated as able to save Ukraine $7 bn in one year, Vladimir Putin said the decision to invest $15 bn in ‘brotherly slavic’ Ukraine, and grant the gas discount was “pragmatic and based on economic facts”.
At the time, the “investment” in Ukraine was already conditional – not only on the political issue of Ukrainian loyalty to Moscow – but on Ukraine complying with previous longstanding, often revoked, modified or extended commitments to repay gas debts dating from as far back as the early 1990s. In December, Russia’s Finance minister Anton Siluanov said payment of the “aid or investment” funds to Ukraine, in tranches of about $2 bn each, would need Ukraine making a serious response to end-2013 estimates, by Russia, of the minimum “monetized gas debt” Ukraine has to pay. Siluanov’s ministry said this was about $2.7 bn, itself a large downward revision on other published figures from Russian sources, extending well above $5 bn. His ministry also published statements suggesting that Ukraine’s non-payment of gas taken and consumed by the country, since 2010, ran at a yearly average as high as $2 – $2.25 bn.
To be sure, events starting in February as the “Maidan movement” drew massive public support in the capital and western Ukraine to overthrowing the government-in-place. This was a repeat of Egypt’s anti-Morsi flash mob street revolution, followed by the Saudi-financed military coup against elected president Morsi. In Ukraine, however, the street magic stopped in the east, and especially in Crimea where 75%-85% of votes cast in the 2010 election were for Viktor Yanukovych.