Eternal revolution? Ukrainian interior minister’s strongman is gone, but chaos and scandal in troubled country are here to stay
“Revolutions” are complicated business, and once they start it is not always clear when they end. Is it when the last shot is fired? When is the last old flag withdrawn? Or is it when – or if – stability returns again?
Take the French version. Was it in 1799, with Bonaparte’s coup d’etat, or perhaps in 1815, with the definitive failure of his attempt to export his benefits to Europe, from Madrid to Moscow? And what about the Russian Revolution? Did it end in November 1917? Or perhaps in 1920, when the Bolsheviks had won the Civil War decisively?
The most pressing current example, however, is Ukraine. There have been disputes over the exact name of the Maidan 2014 events in Ukraine. Revolution is a category supported by many, contested by others, some of whom prefer the “coup”. Suppose it is a revolution.
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Was it all over when former President Viktor Yanukovych fled in February 2014? Or when the first president who was not – at least then – part of the old power elite took over, that is, with the victory of President Volodymyr Zelensky in 2019? Or does it just end now, with the resignation of Interior Minister Arsen Avakov?
Why would the veteran power broker be so important? On the one hand, because he was – as everyone agrees – an extraordinarily powerful politician in post-2014 Ukraine. He served under two national leaders, or three if you include an interim president, and four prime ministers – five if you have an interim president.
He is indeed the one and only Kiev politician to have survived in the same office since 2014. For a long time he was clearly indispensable and dangerous enough to impose himself on everyone, including – until now presidents. . And this has happened in an otherwise volatile political system that tends to quickly dispense with its top leadership. Avakov also accomplished this feat by hiding in a political niche.
Imagine a minister just as old, but in charge, for example, of education. Education is important, without a doubt, but – unfortunately perhaps – being the head of police and security is a whole different category of power.
Clearly, President Zelensky’s support for – and probably his fear – of Avakov has waned. Just a year ago, the president did not see an end in sight for his term in office. “really strong minister.” A month ago, however, he made it clear that Avakov had to leave if the case of the scandalous – and shockingly unsolved – murder in 2016 of Russian journalist Pavel Sheremet, who was killed by a car bomb, was to take a new turn.
The Sheremet case may have finally played a role in the timing of Avakov’s resignation. But let’s be clear: Avakov did not fall because of the Sheremet case, as important and resonant as it is.
Because, if this kind of failure could have cost him his burden, it would have done so long ago. Avakov or his ministry have been linked to a number of major incidents in the country and, to say the least, never inspired confidence. He has had a string of scandals involving criminal violence, strangely botched or sabotaged investigations, and cover-ups – involving links to police, special forces and nationalist formations.
The list of these incidents is long. Particularly egregious cases include a bizarre and deadly – gang-style – intra-police shootout in December 2016, the particularly cruel and deadly sulfuric acid attack on anti-corruption activist Ekaterina Gandzyuk in 2018 which insisted not to trust Avakov’s cops, the police death of five-year-old Kirill Tlyavov in 2019, and on and on …
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Avakov’s personal responsibility is a relevant question, but this fact should not obscure the simple fact that his political responsibility – simply the consequence of being Minister of the Interior – should have ended his tenure and political career. Many times.
So how did Avakov survive so long as Home Secretary? Assuming his tenure is actually over and he doesn’t reappear, resurrect, return to his role, ready to continue.
For many Western politicians and media, Avakov started his office with a reckless advance credit. But at the time, just after the ousting of former President Viktor Yanukovych, the bar was very low. This was around the time the US government controlled RFE / RL described Andrey Parubiy – literally a former neo-Nazi and still (at least) a very far-right leader – as “a seasoned politician.”
Yet that kind of blind trust has eroded, except perhaps among pathologically biased people. This cannot explain Avakov’s political longevity. What can we do then? This brings us back to the question of the end of revolutions.
Some Ukrainians may take offense at the idea that in his own way Avakov defended key aspects of the 2014 revolution and the political order it created. And, without a doubt, it would be very unfair to caricature Ukraine as “The land of Avakov.
But it is unrealistic not to recognize the obvious: such a long career – in such a powerful office, against the backdrop of so many failures, scandals and suspicion – is no coincidence. On the contrary, Avakov’s long journey to the top points to the dark side of the Ukrainian revolution, namely the devil’s pact with the far right concluded in 2014 and which he has never renounced.
And let’s be clear here too: Ukraine was not ruled by the far right, as biased observers or propagandists sometimes claim. But, since 2014, governing Ukraine has always required reconciliation with the far right.
And that is exactly what Avakov, with his submission to organizations such as the Azov Battalion and its offshoots, personified more than any other top leader.
It was this devil’s pact, the turn to violence and an alliance with the far right – welcomed at the time by irresponsible Western cheerleaders, like the big league Anne Applebaum or the mediocre Alexander Motyl – that has fostered a connected ultra-nationalist fringe (nationally and internationally), media savvy and completely emboldened. Some Western observers, by no means insensitive to Ukraine, have now recognized this fact.
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This extreme right has terrorized political opponents, the LGBTQ community, Roma and others, journalists and anyone not on trial “national” enough by its perverse standards. He conquered places within the power structure of the Ukrainian state. He is extremely well armed and trained. It is a threat to the democratic development of Ukraine and the internal peace nourished, until now, by the Ukrainian state.
Avakov’s longevity in power remains a mystery. But if I had to guess the reason, my money would be in his key dangerous position in handling the dirty compromise with the far right taking much of it under his de facto protection. Avakov’s failure to reform the police is one thing, and to be fair, it’s not that unusual. His “Success” building a special relationship with the far right is another. This is also where its true originality and heritage lie. And there is nothing to be proud of here.
If Avakov’s resignation as Home Secretary were to turn into the beginning of the end of this devil’s pact, the dark side of the real Ukrainian revolution, warts and all, then that would end one aspect important but difficult to recognize from it. . And better late than never. It’s a big if.
But such an outcome is unlikely, given that even his designated successor seems to have little hope of real change.
Avakov may be gone, but the Avakov era – and the turmoil it brought – may not be over.
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