Moves and Countermoves is a weekly column on developments of political importance and opposing reactions
Ukrainian President Poroshenko dismissed controversial oligarch Kolomoisky from his post as Dnipropetrovsk governor last week, renewing debate over whether Kyiv will finally break the stranglehold that oligarchs hold over the state. The dismissal came after armed men affiliated with Kolomoisky seized Ukrtransnafta offices in a dispute with new management appointed by the Poroshenko administration.
Armed Raids and Private Armies
Though Poroshenko ordered the arrest of those involved in the Ukrtransnafta raid, the threat posed to his government from private militias is far from suppressed. Kolomoisky’s 2000-strong Dnipro Battalion alone could create a significant insurrection, especially given their de facto dominance over both the Dnipropetrovsk Oblast and sections of Ukraine’s “Anti-Terrorist Operation.”
Close cooperation between Dnipro and other volunteer battalions (which maintain independent funding and training capabilities) presents another problem. As was previously assessed by Leksika, the combination of private armies, competing ideologies, differing agendas, and strong personalities will likely lead to a power struggle for the Ukrainian state itself.
All Roads Lead to Kiev
The Poroshenko-Kolomoisky dispute, which shows all signs of intensifying, fits well into this broader scenario. Poroshenko said on March 23rd that “We won't have any governors with their own pocket armed forces,” and Alexei Makarkin, of the Moscow-based think tank Center for Political Technologies, reports indications that Kolomoisky no longer has the same degree of leverage, and may find his position under threat.
“For the Ukrainian authorities, the importance of battalions financed by Kolomoisky has fallen significantly; the more capable of these battalions have already been integrated into the official forces … So I wouldn’t exclude the possibility that Kolomoisky will have to abandon his post [as governor] sometime soon, though he will likely remain in politics, thanks to those lawmakers who are loyal to him,” Makarkin said.
Confronting Problems at Home
It is possible that the high-profile nature of the Poroshenko-Kolomoisky conflict may force Ukraine to finally confront the iron triangle of oligarchic rule, corruption, and financial instability which has plagued it since the end of Soviet rule. In a speech at the Brookings Institute, Ukrainian Finance Minister Natalie Jaresko outlined Kyiv’s challenges in confronting such harsh realities. She explained that Ukraine is struggling in “the war of creating a reformed market economy that is strong and capable and can lead Ukraine forward.”
Though Ukrainian society has largely united in the defense against outside threats, serious divisions remain at home which prevent significant progress. Systemic corruption following the collapse of the USSR has plagued Ukraine more extensively than its neighbors and necessitates dramatic reform. If Ukraine is to follow Croatia’s example in forming a strong nation-state in the post-Communist world, reigning in the oligarchs is an important first step.
For its part, Ukrainian civil society shows signs of beginning such a process. Residents of Dnipropetrovsk held a "unity rally" on March 28th to help mend the Poroshenko- Kolomoisky rift and to ease concerns that Ukraine may “unravel into privately ruled fiefdoms.” Though it remains unclear if such efforts will prove successful, they are clear indications that Ukrainian society favors continued reform and national unity.
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