Coup talk in Ukraine

Map of Ukraine, Including Crimea, and Neighbors, Including Russia

The war in the east, the rise of paramilitaries and polarised public opinion are feeding fears of a violent seizure of power in Kyiv. Could Ukraine follow in Turkey’s footsteps?

(opendemocracy.net – Denys Gorbach – August 2, 2016)

Denys Gorbach is a leftist activist and researcher working on the Ukrainian labour movement.

Once again, Ukrainians are discussing the possibility of a military coup in their country. This has been more than idle talk or scaremongering since late June, after Sergiy Leschenko, an investigative journalist and politician, claimed that Ukraine’s interior minister Arsen Avakov could use forces under his control to seize power. Here, Leschenko referred to the far-right Azov paramilitary regiment, which, given its position as Avavkov’s “praetorian guard” and professional work with the media, is a frequent suspect in discussions of coups in Ukraine.

Several other Ukrainian MPs echoed Leschenko’s warning, and this chorus has been amplified by events across the Black Sea. The Turkish military’s attempt to overthrow president Erdogan instantly became a hot topic in Ukraine’s public discourse, with support split between the military and the Turkish president. Azov’s muscle flexing and events in Turkey were symbolically united several days later in the figure of Pavel Sheremet, the prominent journalist who was killed in a car bomb in Kyiv on 20 July.

Indeed, Sheremet, a critic of the authorities, dedicated his last text to the possibility of a coup in Ukraine – though here he defended Azov, warning against Ukraine’s other paramilitary detachments instead. As Erdogan’s counter-coup gathers momentum, we should ask: to what extent are these fears grounded in reality?

Spirit of 2007

Ukraine has its own modest history of failed coup attempts, both before Maidan and after. This history can help us understand what to make of the current situation and the reasons behind it.

The situation closest to a coup in pre-Maidan Ukraine took place in the spring of 2007, when president Viktor Yuschenko, whose powers were limited compared to his predecessor by constitutional reform, made a desperate attempt to curtail the “crawling usurping of power” – what the president called prime minister Viktor Yanukovych’s policy of buying MPs to enlarge his governing coalition.

Unable to control this process, Yuschenko made use of his right to dismiss parliament and declare new elections. In the ensuing standoff between the president and the governing parliamentary coalition, the former shuffled members of the Constitutional Court and the Council of National Security and Defence, filling the positions with trusted allies. Yuschenko also appointed an old face to the powerful office of Prosecutor General, reinstating Sviatoslav Piskun (a former political enemy-turned-ally) by decree.

Yuschenko explained that he was simply obeying the decision of a local court, which had satisfied Piskun’s 2005 suit for illegal dismissal, when none other than Yuschenko had fired him.

These manipulations were on the fringes of the law and prompted the Verkhovna Rada to issue a statement “On the danger of usurping power by the President of Ukraine”. On that very day, Kyiv witnessed clashes between troops loyal to Yuschenko and Yanukovych. When Piskun, who rapidly fell out of the president’s favour again and was dismissed by him, tried to enter his office, he was forcibly stopped by soldiers of the Administration of State Guard. Piskun then called up reinforcements from the Berkut riot police squad, who were accompanied personally by interior minister Vasyl Tsushko.

The skirmish ended with the victory of the police. Both sides accused each other of attempting to seize power, and defence minister Anatoliy Grytsenko publicly declared that the president, as supreme commander, had the right to use army units in emergency conditions.

The next day, 25 May, Yuschenko issued a decree claiming control of interior troops, which were normally subordinated to interior ministry troops. That night, four detachments of interior ministry troops started moving to Kyiv on Yuschenko’s orders, but were stopped by traffic police and Berkut troops.

This was the peak of the standoff: the next day, Ukraine’s political leaders reached an agreement on fresh parliamentary elections. The coup never happened.

After Maidan

The events of February 2014, president Yanukovych’s sudden escape to Russia, the vacuum of power and the resulting break of the “revolutionary” government’s legitimacy until the next elections, allowed some to describe the whole Maidan story as a coup – this time, a successful one.

Analysis of the chain of events surrounding Maidan is a task too complex to tackle here, but for now it is enough to say that the terms “junta” and “coup” are too strong for an event with such overwhelming mass mobilisation, which was met with such a negative attitude from Ukraine’s military and police top brass. Still, it is important to note the success of Maidan, which has set a precedent for future, less peaceful and more organised attempts at overthrowing incumbent governments.

The next coup moment took place in the summer of 2015. The context could not have been more different from the pre-Maidan times.

In 2007, Ukraine’s economy was experiencing a continuous boom, the ideological component of the conflict was minimal, as well as participation of the masses. (Yanukovych supporters did set up a tent camp in Kyiv, but this was a result of “political technology” imitating the successful 2004 experience, rather than a genuine grassroots mobilisation.) By contrast, in 2015, the country was undergoing bloody conflict in the east, the economy was in shambles and the role of ideological mass mobilisation, as well as armed men in camouflage, was extremely important.

Thus, in July 2015, a meeting in the Transcarpathian town of Mukacheve between parliamentarian Mykhailo Lanio and a local Right Sector battalion turned nasty, leaving two men dead. Using rifles, a mortar, and rocket launchers, members of Right Sector managed to escape the police, regroup and hide in a nearby forest.

According to the press, the meeting was called to decide on how to carve up the tobacco smuggling business across the EU border. The event, which would be small news in the conflict-torn eastern parts of Ukraine, was scandalous enough for president Poroshenko to order immediate punishment for those responsible for opening fire in a peaceful town. While the police and security services prepared to storm the rebellious group, Right Sector announced full mobilisation, started a protest in Kyiv and called on regular troops to ignore “unlawful orders”.

Ten days later, Right Sector held an emergency congress, which renamed the organisation into a “national liberation movement” and reduced the powers of its political wing in favour of the military one. They staged a mass protest in Kyiv, where Right Sector leader Dmytro Yarosh called for a referendum on the Ukrainian people’s confidence in the acting power.

This development came just a week after Right Sector, together with other nationalist formations, marched in Kyiv to honour the medieval king Sviatoslav – an icon of the Russian and Ukrainian far-right due to his alleged victory over the Jewish kingdom of Khazars. The march gathered around 3,000 participants, but the protest organised by Right Sector on 21 July, after all the dramatic events, was attended by only 2,000 people! The referendum initiative died out on its own, as well as the protests. In the autumn of 2015, Yarosh stepped down as the leader of Right Sector, giving way to people oriented more towards “revolutionary struggle” rather than “state-building efforts” via parliamentary elections.

The story does not quite end here. On the second anniversary of the mass shootings in Kyiv in February 2016, a number of anti-Semitic and right-wing groups announced the start of a “Third Maidan” – a new revolution to oust Ukraine’s corrupt elite, establish the domination of Ukrainians and to lead a decisive assault against separatists in the east.

The leadership of this movement, who called themselves “revolutionary right forces”, held a meeting at the Maidan and encouraged the violent trashing of nearby Russian banks. They tried to erect several tents, blocked the street, occupied the premises of a hotel and issued a statement. Just like Right Sector, this group demanded dismissal of the president and dissolution of the government and the parliament, the release of far-right “political prisoners” and cancelling the Minsk ceasefire. They also articulated a number of socio-economic demands, such as a ban on raising utility tariffs and cooperation with the IMF, the creation of “people’s joint-stock companies” and raising wages.

If Right Sector’s summer standoff with the government met with sympathy from a significant part of Ukraine’s national intelligentsia in 2015, the attempt to kick off a “Third Maidan” in winter 2016 was viewed with suspicion and utter contempt. What’s more important, though, is who attended these meetings at the Maidan: the same 2,000 people.

Normalisation of the extraordinary

What is most striking here is the routine attitude of “regular people” to what are, in effect, illegal attempts to seize power. The reaction on social networks in both July 2015 and February 2016 was very mild – the term “coup” was hardly ever mentioned.

There were emotions, all right. Right Sector’s escapade was viewed as a heroic struggle by some, as stupidity or treachery by others. The attempt at a “Third Maidan” earned scorn because it couldn’t boast any recognisable political brand and was thus more liable to accusations of “working for Putin”. But in neither case were citizens outraged or surprised by the essence of these events – a group of armed men trying to overthrow Ukraine’s legitimate government and establish a new polity.

Instead, events like this are seen as a continuation of conventional popular protest by alternative means. The lines of demarcation between “legitimate grassroots protest” and “illegitimate overthrow of the government” have become blurred beyond repair.

One of the factors behind this is the discourse of “hybrid war”, which makes all kinds of political action appear equal – a blog post, it seems, is just as harmful as a gunshot. Thus, every means of countering any manifestation of political opposition becomes legitimate. What matters is not the scale of the perceived misdeed, and certainly not the law, but the grade of proximity between your own political views and those of the person or movement in question. There is nothing wrong in a coup as long as it is directed “against the oligarchs and for real Ukrainian independence of Ukraine”, but there is everything wrong in a piece of journalism if the authors use an insufficiently derogatory term to describe pro-Russian fighters in eastern Ukraine.

Another factor involves the long legacy of dismissing all criticism of Maidan or Ukrainian nationalism as “Putin’s propaganda”. People call themselves Banderites – the followers of Stepan Bandera, a prominent leader of Ukraine’s wartime nationalist movement – just “to spite Putin”, without knowing much about Bandera or his views.

This is how sympathisers of Maidan and anti-Russian political movements re-appropriate terms like “junta”, “hit squad” and even “fascism” – the grotesque clichés of Russian propaganda. The irony is that this helps actual fascists or people aspiring to establish a real military regime to raise their voices. After all, everything can be explained away as a joke – until it’s too late.

And the number of people longing for a “real junta” isn’t small. A number of small far-right groups have actually organised public lectures on the “aestheticism of junta” and printed t-shirts promising “there will be a junta!”. Apart from the far-right, there is a “silent majority” in Ukraine that has consistently expressed support for an “iron fist” given its weak attachment to parliamentary democracy with its constant chaos and falling living standards. And then of course there is the liberal-right intelligentsia, who have sworn by Pinochet’s “effective market reforms and fight against populism” for years.

These three pro-coup positions have been magnified by the war in the east, which has numbed Ukrainian citizens’ sensitivity to bloodshed and authoritarian practices. Democracy or human rights are increasingly viewed as expendable values compared to patriotism and stability, especially if someone claims these values play into the almighty Putin’s hands. Especially if that someone wears a military uniform.

Ukraine’s population has always shown high rates of trust when it comes to the army. Normally, all this means is that half of the country (most males), who served in the army during their formative years, have fond memories of their comrades in arms. But now, when Ukraine’s armed forces may indeed become a self-serving political actor, when you see graffiti saying “Power to the military” on the streets, the fact that the military enjoys more popular trust than any politician requires attention.

Meanwhile, Ukraine’s actual liberals and leftists who are supposed to counteract such developments remain in a nascent state. Thus, if/when Ukraine experiences a real attempt to seize power, Ukrainian society might not recognise it for what it is.

Turkish litmus

The Turkish military’s attempted coup d’etat naturally revived coup talk. Ukraine’s social networks normally only begin discussing significant foreign events after one or two days, but this time the events in Turkey gained the attention of Ukrainian bloggers immediately – comments were produced on the fly simultaneously with developments in Ankara and Istanbul.

First, of course, everyone started looking for geopolitical explanations and to theorise what the interests of the Kremlin were in this situation. Thus, the knee-jerk reaction was to recall the recent war of words between Erdogan and Vladimir Putin, drawing the conclusion that the coup was inspired by Russia. As Mustafa Nayyem, a prominent journalist and politician, wrote: “The Kurds are now almost openly supported by Russia. And it is the Kremlin who benefits from tonight’s coup in Turkey, historically and in civilisation terms.”

That said, the attraction of the military seizing power is so undeniable in some sections of Ukrainian society that Nayyem actually started his blog post with the statement: “I understand many of our citizens’ happiness because of the possible seizure of power in Turkey by the military”. Apparently, even for this liberal, the main reason to condemn the coup was a geopolitical one.

In short, opinion makers’ initial reaction to the coup was rather positive, with an obvious desire to see “wise officers” seizing power and fighting corruption in Ukraine as well. Anton Geraschenko, an MP with close ties to Arsen Avakov and Azov, approvingly commented on the coup in its early hours and linked it, half-jokingly, to the downing of the Russian military jet in late November 2015. Volodymyr Yermolenko, a prominent liberal intellectual, produced an almost identical reaction.

Bohdan Yaremenko, a former Ukrainian ambassador in Turkey turned Maidan activist and head of a charity foundation Maidan of Foreign Affairs, penned a longer text in the early minutes of 16 July, supporting the coup and praising Turkish officers as highly educated and wise: “Therefore, despite military coups being an illegal thing, I wouldn’t expect a lot of trouble from the Turkish military. They will clean up politics a bit and return the reins to the civilians”.

Yet when the outcome of the coup became clear the following day, Ukraine’s patriotic bloggers started praising Erdogan for “ending the anti-terrorist operation in six hours” – an allusion to the government’s alleged weakness in the fight against separatists in the east and pro-Russian sympathisers elsewhere in Ukraine. Later, when details about the plotters’ attitude towards Russia emerged, the picture again became less clear: it appears Erdogan is a pro-Russian dictator, after all.

Obviously, the reaction to Turkey had nothing to do with the actual situation across the Black Sea. Instead, it reveals the degradation of values in sections of Ukrainian society – how it is prepared to sacrifice democracy for the order and patriotism of a prospective military government.

What next?

As to the probability of a coup in the future, it’s useful to draw lessons from past attempts. It looks like a powerful and recognisable political brand – something which was lacking in the “Third Maidan” in February and in the Turkish coup attempt as well – is necessary if you want to seize power.

Another important box to check is a clear and realistic plan – again, something that the Turkish plotters and Right Sector lacked. Instead, they were forced to start their coups at a bad timing due to circumstances. Finally, access to resources, both material/infrastructural and social/administrative, is another key factor which Right Sector lacked.

Volodymyr Parasiuk, a politician who gained prominence during Maidan, is probably right to say that Azov is the only force capable of carrying out a coup today in Ukraine: they are the only voluntary regiment possessing its own brand, capable of thinking strategically, possess the right connections and enjoy access to the necessary resources.

Curiously, according to persistent rumours yet to be confirmed, it was Ukraine’s deputy chief of national police Vadym Troyan, an Azov veteran, who allegedly organised police surveillance on Pavel Sheremet prior to his murder. Whether this is true or not, technically such a situation is quite possible: Troyan and other less prominent police officers with ties to Azov have access to personal files of activists, they can organise surveillance and use police infrastructure to serve their political cause.

A coup attempt by other nationalist detachments and groups can then be crushed and used as a pretext for a “real” coup – much as what has happened (and continues) in Turkey. Whether Azov will play any role in this hypothetical counter-coup is not clear: in this case, perhaps, it would be wiser to present the situation as a “normalisation” by the regular army, which, after all, is more popular among the population than Azov – this is what nationalist MP Igor Lutsenko is afraid of.

We can say for sure that the probability of a coup is already being considered implicitly by decision-makers in Ukraine. And when Arsen Avakov warns against the “coup talk” as a possible pretext for repressions, he knows that two can play this game.

In the complicated power struggles behind-the-scenes in Kyiv, Avakov is surely using the threat of a coup no less efficiently than his opponents are against him. One thing is certain: whoever wins in a potential coup scenario, Ukraine’s disorganised working class will be the first to lose.

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