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Understanding and influence – Ukraine

February 20, 2015

No this is not any entry about Ukraine being viewed with pity, rather than as a partner in certain capitals – although that would be an entry worth writing.  This is an entry relating more to knowledge and understanding, and how that is turned into influence – or not.

One of the outcomes of blogging for many years in English from Odessa, is a fairly constant stream of requests to meet with foreign think-tanks and scholars, diplomats, elections observers, EU Missions, senior business people etc., to discuss issues upon their agenda relating to Odessa and/or Ukraine.

Owing to connections with the good, the very bad, and the ugly – it also receives irksome requests from foreign journalists, or their editors, asking the blog to act as a “fixer” when they want to meet those from organised crime, or hackers, or politicians.  Worse still are formal requests for interviews which are almost always refused.  Off the record “chats” are a different matter.

The common thread that runs throughout, of course, is local knowledge, local connections and a local ear to the ground, notwithstanding a more general understanding of Ukraine, and the shenanigans behind the curtain, not to be found in the Wall Street Journal or Financial Times.

In short, numerous free lunches for the author, dining out on the culmination of more than a decade of knowing who knows who, who has what over who, how that interacts with whom (and how that effects others) etc.  Long may that continue (less the irksome requests to be a “fixer”, or requests for “on the record” interviews – neither of which would not be missed).

There is nothing more pleasing than being asked “What do you think if we did this, or that? – How would that play out?” – After being quizzed about who is currently feuding with who, and usually far more interestingly, about who is currently siding with/accommodating whom – and why.

This brings about the issue of turning knowledge into influence for those of a disposition to influence outcomes  – which is not something this blog does (unless it is engaged in a civil society project from time to time – as it currently is).

Just as one man’s lobbying is another man’s advocacy, and one man’s blackmail/kompromat is another man’s (coercive) diplomacy – one man’s knowledge can be another man’s influence.

Almost all scholars and diplomats, not to mention the more “high brow” journalists from Foreign Policy, etc., that have fed the author over the years, raise the subject of influencing the Ukrainian civil service, institutions of State, judiciary, civil society and local government – unsurprisingly.

Needless to say, the hundreds of hours spent discussing this subject result in very similar strategies – all dependent upon internal Ukrainian will to greater or lesser degrees – dependent upon the levers of influence that could realistically be used, provided there was enough external will to use them.

There remains though, the issue of putting parameters on the influence of the oligarchy – though the genuine oligarchy has arguably shrunk in number somewhat.  There are few individually today, that can truly effect the entire nation, and anything less is a regional baron.

There is no doubt that those who would seek to constrain or influence the oligarchy, certainly have the relevant historical and current knowledge regarding specific people to do so.  The problem is how to influence them sufficiently to release their grip without significantly and adversely effecting the nation – one way or another.

How, for example, do you influence Mr Kolomoisky to accept certain parameters around his national sway, when he can easily close PrivatBank on a whim, sending the national banking system into chaos, returning to a life of luxury in Switzerland?  How do you get him to accept “open skies” with Europe when he has something of a monopoly of Ukrainian internal flights?  The list goes on – but the point is that there are too many nationally important, and some perceived too big to fail, companies entirely or significantly under his control – notwithstanding he is currently funding part of the war effort and several battalions.

In short, currently at least, Mr Kolomoisky is probably too big to fail from a Ukrainian perspective (and his own) – something that will undoubtedly rub against any reform programme when his vested interests are overly threatened.  He is as capable as President Putin of escalation to the detriment to Ukraine – within the politics business and economics – if pushed, and with President Poroshenko and Prime Minister Yatseniuk having in effect ceded local political control of Dnepropetrovsk and Odessa to the Kolomoisky camp, keeping him on-board, but as constrained as possible, is a task unto itself.

A task, it has to be said, that none of the enlightened who visit the author, and that wheel and deal in influence, are any more capable of achieving, despite the enormous amount of knowledge they have sucked from the brains of many people like the author for many years..

Just as with events in eastern Ukraine, the longer the situation continues and is allowed to cement itself, the harder it will be to undo.

Of all the questions asked over all the years they have been asked, how to effectively control the appetites of the oligarchy, and put parameters upon their influence, has still to be met with an effective answer.

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Perhaps the next question to seriously ponder is, should “decentralisation” occur, how to effectively control the regional barons within their constitutionally gifted “decentralised” fiefdoms without any effective institutions of State – be those State institutions central or regional.

If constitutional change relating to “decentralisation” of certain powers is to occur before the end of 2015 – what chance of rebuilding central and regional institutions of State – particularly the management therein – robust enough to withstand the regional barons/”mini-garchs”, prior to legally formalising the patchwork of regional fiefdoms that de facto already exists?

To be blunt, there is scant evidence that any such rebuilding of regional institutions is occurring – certainly with a management robust or ethical enough to cope with any such change – prior to the year end.

It is perhaps a more critical issue than how to deal with the likes of Mr Kolomoisky.

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