The deal was pretty simple: in exchange for aligning with the Western-backed, post-coup government in Kiev against Russia, the corrupt oligarch class of Ukraine could keep their economic power and the wealth they made looting the country.
The arrangement had the value of helping to temporarily secure the government in Kiev from a second coup and providing a funding source for the far-right militias sent to fight Russian-backed separatists in the east. The oligarchs largely went along for fear of losing their positions, or even their lives, as the government in Kiev had come to power through violence and vocal opponents of the new regime began disappearing.
But now, with the war in the east stalled and the economy crashing, the deal is being revisited in a last minute effort to save the fading government in Kiev, which faces growing protests and open threats of being overthrown by neo-fascist parties and militias.
One of the strongest public advocates for breaking the deal is former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, who was appointed by oligarch-turned-President Petro Poroshenko as a regional governor, and given Ukrainian citizenship. While Saakashvili’s appointment was partly a signal that the new government had no interest in re-aligning with Russia (Saakashvili led Georgia into an unsuccessful war with Russia in 2008), the alliances most frayed by the appointment appear to be those between the current Ukraine government and the oligarchs.
The most dramatic example of this fraying would have to be a cabinet meeting in December, where Saakashvili began screaming at oligarch-turned Ukraine Interior Minister Arsen Avakov that he was a “thief,” which led to Avakov throwing a glass of water at Saakashvili and calling him a “circus artist.” President Poroshenko then quickly ended the cabinet meeting to avoid further embarrassment, but the altercation was caught on video and shown around the world.
Though Saakashvili seems determined as ever, his fellow foreign technocrats brought in to the Poroshenko Administration are less sanguine. On Wednesday, Ukraine Economic Minister Aivaras Abromavicius abruptly resigned from office, citing intractable corruption as the reason. His deputies followed today. It seems the oligarchs aren’t going anywhere for now.
A corresponding and simultaneous crisis for the government in Kiev is how to handle the far-right militias – many openly neo-Nazi in conviction – that are now openly threatening the government.
The neo-fascists were propped up by the Ukraine government to fight separatists in the east, but are now increasingly turning their guns on Kiev. Given the instrumental role the neo-fascists played in overthrowing President Yanukovych, it is not surprising the current government is worried.