Lecture: Dominique Arel, The New Ukraine and the War with Russia

In the past year, Ukraine has experienced tectonic changes in its internal and external orientation, with the fall of the fall of the authoritarian regime of Viktor Yanukovych, a de facto war with Russia leading to the loss of the most heavily ethnic Russian areas (Crimea and the heart of Donbas) and a new anti-Russian and pro-Europe constitutional majority in parliament. The lecture addresses the political, economic, and regional constraints that the Ukrainian government is facing in seeking to reestablish legitimacy, recover territory, and implement cardinal changes.


15th Annual Central Eurasian Studies Society Conference at the Harriman Institute

The Central Eurasian Studies Society (CESS) had its 15th annual conference last weekend at the Harriman Institute of Columbia University. CESS handed its Book Award for this year to Morgan Liu for his book Under Solomon’s Throne: Uzbek Visions of Renewal in Osh, published by the University of Pittsburgh Press in 2012.

There were interesting panels and roundtables on various topics ranging from Sufism to political economy and from archeologic research in pre-Soviet Central Eurasia to cinema in Iran.

Three members of the REES community attended the conference in various roles.

Jen Murtazashvili of GSPIA presented a paper on institutional design in post-2001 Afghanistan, while also taking on the role of discussant in a panel on illicit political economy and security and at a roundtable on re-polarization of Eurasia.

David Montgomery of Anthropology Department presented a paper on the role of Islam and tradition as a way of learning about oneself and the world in Central Eurasia, while also leading a panel on nomadism and its political legacies as a discussant.

Farhod Yuldashev of GSPIA presented a paper on the consequences of land reform for state capacity and economic development in rural Central Asia.

Link for conference program.

Link for CESS blog that includes live blogging about many panels and presentations.


Thoughts on Ukraine’s Election

Ukrainians voted for a new parliament yesterday, and with 50 percent of the votes counted, the breakdown looks like this:

Narodnyi Front: 21.61%

Blok Petro Poroshenko: 21.45%

Samopomoch: 11.1%

Opposition Bloc: 9.82%

Radical Party: 7.38%

Batkivshchina: 5.69%

The European Parliament, PACE, and the OSCE have all given the election a clean bill of health by declaring it to be fair and legitimate by democratic standards. Even Russia appears ready to recognize the results, according to statements made by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

The results point to a major victory of Ukraine’s pro-European parties. As Poroshenko stated, voters had “powerfully and irreversibly supported Ukraine’s path to Europe.” This gives probable Prime Minister Arseniy Yatseniuk the mandate to continue economic reforms and move Ukraine further toward setting the stage for European integration. It also means Ukrainians can expect more economic austerity.

The Ukrainian economy is reeling, with the hryvnia having lost 40% of its value in relation to the dollar. This means that what was worth $12,400 at the beginning of the year is now worth $6,800. As a result, Ukrainians have withdrawn $8.1 billion from their accounts looking to convert their hryvnias into increasingly scarce foreign currencies. Moreover, the price for utilities have shot up with the cost of hot water increasing by 50 percent, heating by 98 percent (in some localities) during the winter, water by 93 percent, sanitation by 105 percent, gas by 73 percent, and electricity by 10 percent. The recent gas deal with Russia will supply just enough to get through winter. Ukraine still owes Russia $5 billion for its delinquent gas bill. Kiev says it can only pay $2-3 billion by the end of the year. All of this has prompted Timothy Ash, the head of emerging markets research at Standard Bank, to tell the Washington Post, “I now fear systemic economic failure — unless there is a positive confidence shock.” Whether the parliamentary results provide that positive shock remains to be seen.

Another take away from the election is the feeble results for the much feared Ukrainian radical right. Svoboda is close, but still below, the 5 percent threshold. And Opora, an independent election monitor, has predicted the nationalist party won’t make it into parliament. What has happened to Svoboda’s electorate, especially since it polled 10.44 percent in 2012? Anton Shekhovtsov explains:

I presume that more moderate voters went back to the national-democratic forces, such as the People’s Front or Samopomich [“Self-help”]. Part of Svoboda’s former electorate apparently went to the Right Sector and Oleh Lyashko’s Radical Party. The inclusion of these two parties into the far right category is tentative. As a political party, the Right Sector is ideologically quite different from the movement under the same name that was formed during the 2014 revolution; the party is less radical than the movement, so I suggest the term “national conservative” as a more relevant one. Lyashko’s Radical Party is dangerously populist and a typical anti-establishment force. Although both the Right Sector and Lyashko’s Radical Party have extreme right members, they are still a minority. In contrast to Lyashko’s Radical Party, the Right Sector will not be able to enter the parliament, but its leader Dmytro Yarosh will most likely be elected in one of the single-member districts.

So there will certainly be some far right-wingers in parliament, but they won’t be a enough to form a formidable political bloc. This robs Russia of one of its most trotted out boogeymen.

The big loser in all this is Russia. Ukraine has made a significant step toward the west, making its political (but not economic) decoupling from Russia a foregone conclusion. Now Putin can only hope the factions in the Rada will eat themselves alive like they did after the Orange Revolution. Ukraine still has the east to reckon with, and with the strong showing of both the “war party” (Yatseniuk’s Narodnyi Front, Radical party, and Batkivshchina) and the “peace party” (Poroshenko’s Bloc), at least when it comes to negotiating with Russia, the Rada looks hopelessly divided. How divided remains to be seen.

Food Prices Soar in Russia


The Russian ruble has taken a massive hit over the last month. It’s currently trading at a new historic low of 40.06 rubles to the dollar. According to Bloomberg, “the ruble is sinking more than any other currency in the world.” And one place the inflation is being felt in grocery stores around the country.

The surge in food prices accelerated after Putin placed a ban in August on some imports from the U.S. and Europe in retaliation for the economic sanctions against Russia. The 17 percent annual rate of inflation on meat, for example, is up from 11 percent in July and follows a 3 percent decline in prices at the end of 2013. Overall food inflation has almost doubled to 11 percent from about 6 percent last year.

Inflation is certainly one place where Putin is vulnerable. If prices continue to soar it might put a dent in Putin’s astronomical popularity. But so far, Putin, who turned 62 on October 7, is not feeling any anger. Yet.

So far none of this has dented Putin’s popularity, which soared following his incursion into Ukraine. His approval rating rose to 86 percent in September from 65 percent in January, according to pollster Levada Center, which surveyed 1,600 people across Russia over four days.

Still, some Russians are wondering how long they can put up with the soaring prices. One customer, Galina Mityaeva, reported to Bloomberg:

“Every time I go to the store, food is more expensive,” Mityaeva said as she strolled through the grocery aisles on a recent afternoon. “People are angry right now. In the store lines, you can hear people complaining: ‘What can I afford to buy with 1,000 rubles?’”

Podcast: Timofiy Mylovanov, The Game Theory of the Events in Ukraine

Cinema of a Civil Protest

On October 3, 2014, Yuriy Gruzinov,  a cinematographer with Bablyon’13, presented a series of documentary shorts from the project Cinema of a Civil Protest, about the revolution and conflict in Ukraine.

Babylon’13’s Manifesto states:

It is a notable fact, that the driving power of the civil protest is the generation formed within the timeframe of independence. The generation that may be called the one of immediate action, and which deems basic European values as determinant and hence is ready to protect them.

The new civil society generates meaningful ideas. But at the moment there are too little of those, who are ready to fulfil these ideas. This circle has to grow and then we’ll get a chance to persuade the whole Ukraine, that time has come to begin vast social reforms. And, strictly speaking, a documentary is a tool that is able to change people’s perception of reality

Here are some of the documentaries Gruzinov presented: