Conflict in Mukacheve: Local problem of nationwide scale
The Mukacheve incident leaves more questions than answers. One thing is clear – it’s impossible to soft-pedal on the issue. The government will have to make decisions that may not be easy.
On Saturday afternoon the western Ukrainian city of Mukacheve suddenly returned to the 90s. Two people were killed and another 13 were injured in a shootout between the members of Zakarpattia regional unit of the Right Sector organization and people close to Ukrainian MP Mykhailo Lanyo. To resolve the situation, a special operation was launched involving the Security Service of Ukraine and the National Guard. While security forces continue their attempts to disarm the Right Sector fighters, the right wing organization insists that their actions of its fighters were justified and also organizes rallies in several cities across Ukraine. In turn, the Zakarpattia deputies – above-mentioned Mykhailo Lanyo and Viktor Baloha (both politicians, who are local residents, are called by the media the parties to the conflict on redistribution of the smuggling market) trying to absolve themselves of responsibility for the conflict, pointing at each other.
Meanwhile in Kyiv, at the meeting of the Military Cabinet of the National Security and Defense Council on Monday, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko voiced the obvious: the conflict in Zakarpattia lies on the redistribution of smuggling flows. According to the President, the events in Mukacheve laid bare a number of urgent problems that need to be immediately resolved. "We must unravel long-standing problems that require immediate solutions. I'm talking about tribalism, smuggling, corruption and the like. The picture of what is happening there today is not black and white. It's just astoundingly black," said the head of state.
Poroshenko demanded decisive action by the law enforcement agencies in the fight against smuggling.
"There must be a harsh and precise investigation against everyone involved in this: searches, detentions and direct criminal responsibility. Neither the deputy mandates will help, nor the connections in top government offices," said Poroshenko.
The head of state ordered personnel reshuffles to be carried out following the investigation.
"Smuggling is not just a problem of Zakarpattia. Once we started to press on the issue, all the Evil has showed its face. Smugglers from Zakarpattia have challenged Ukraine. I want to say that we accept the challenge," said the Ukrainian President.
Prime Minister Yatsenyuk has also made his move regarding personnel matters, instructing Roman Nasirov, Head of the State Fiscal Service, to dismiss all officials of the Zakarpattia customs – from ordinary personnel up to the head of regional customs office. By the end of the day, the SFS announced on its website that the entire team of the Zakarpattia customs office had been suspended until the results of the official investigation.
Just one step from clanism to federalization
However, a single solution is unlikely to help put an end to smuggling, says political consultant, head of the Third Sector analytical center Andriy Zolotaryov. "Smuggling cannot be stopped with one single decision (dismissal of Zakarpattia customs officers) as [this problem] has been taking its roots across the region for the past 20 years. But first, it would be of a great advantage to start pushing the flow of goods across the border into a legal framework, " he said.
According to the expert, in one Vynohradarsky district alone eight to 12 trucks of smuggled cigarettes syphon across the border weekly. "A pack of cigarettes costs 80 cents in Ukraine, while in Europe it is priced at EUR 5. Net profit on each truck is UAH 450,000-500,000. And that's just the cigarettes, excluding human and drug trafficking, which is also common in the region. It’s all hundreds of millions of dollars a month, and it is clear that these funds don’t fill the budget; they don’t help in strengthening the state and solving the national problems... Real work should be done… soft, low-profile, although real, work to push the issue into a legal framework. Alas, meanwhile, this is not the law that reigns over the region, but specific clans – of [people like] Lanyo and Baloha," said Zolotaryov.
The expert believes that the events in Mukacheve revealed an old Ukrainian problem, which officials in Kyiv have sought to ignore for over 20 years. Zakarpattia has been living not under Ukrainian laws. This has own “Mukacheve-style”: The presidents and prime ministers are coming and going, but the local clans stand strong. Today, the problem is sharper than a knife: either the State submits all kinds of private structures, public organizations, volunteer battalions, or these structures engulf the State."
In this context, gradual dismantling of vertical corruption in Zakarpattia, and, after that - in other border regions of Ukraine - is the step which Kyiv would have to take. "The situation in Mukacheve is dangerous because it could detonate a chain of events which, coupled with the future economic and social problems, as well as the super-electrified local elections, threatens to lead the country to a process of feudalization ", said Zolotaryov.
According to a political consultant, the first step in addressing this issue – is to act in accordance with law. That is, on the one hand, to ensure that public offices cease are not associated with "a place of feeding and making money." On the other hand – to ensure that people do not walk around with weapons openly, hundreds of kilometers away from the ATO zone.
Public and Power: the answers to difficult questions are needed
In turn, co-director of foreign policy and international security programs at the Razumkov Center Aleksei Melnyk said that the Mukacheve conflict must be resolved peacefully without further bloodshed, "For the parties, which are now negotiating, preliminary, clearly defined conditions should be outlined." In particular, the issue needs to be closed of the illegal armed groups, formally including the Zakarpattia unit of the Right Sector, otherwise the story will repeat itself.
According to the expert, a small amount of the radical part of society cannot put the Ukrainian authorities on its knees, especially given the threat of large-scale destabilization. "Let’s leave out the patriotic contribution of the Right Sector, but if there are reports that the Right Sector fighters are blocking roads near Kiyv, I, as a citizen, raise the question: are there any power structures in our country?" he said, adding that the state should have a monopoly on the use of force.
However, according to Aleksei Melnyk, the president as commander in chief and as the guarantor of the Constitution, in this regard, should also answer the embarrassing questions. "And I'm afraid that it will be quite an unpleasant conversation. I mean, that the people do not get what they expected from the new government. People get frustrated when there is no real reform, there is no real fight against corruption, and all the [negative] things that happened under Yanukovych still linger," he said.
According to the expert, the situation in Mukacheve is only one example of the "abscess that broke". This story can repeat itself. "There is a concern that will chain reaction will occur, or the domino effect, across Ukraine. Because it is no secret that smuggling continues, these schemes are still alive, and they couldn’t be active without protection from high offices."
Aleksei Melnyk said that the fight against corruption and smuggling had to be dealt with, if not immediately following the Maidan victory, then at least after the election of Poroshenko. "More than a year has been wasted. And during that time, a lot of mistakes were made. It’s not only mishaps in human resource management, but also the imitation of real reforms... Corruption scandals in courts and prosecutors' offices and the like…. And it it’s rather naïve to expect that another series of arrests would be perceived by the public as a real fight against corruption. How can anyone convince the people in Mukacheve, or even across Ukraine, that top government officials, the Interior Ministry and the Security Service knew nothing about all of this [a large-scale smuggling along the western border of Ukraine]. If they say they did not know, then there is no point in continuing the dialogue, if they knew - then there is another question that would be even more difficult to answer - why nothing has been done to prevent the incident in Zakarpattia," the expert concluded.
Eliminating the cause
Events in Mukacheve could contribute to a collapse of domestic policy, says Vadym Karasyov, political scientist, director of the Institute of Global Strategies. According to Karasyov, it is a commercial semi-criminal conflict in its form, and practically, it is a conflict involving a military-political movement. "This conflict leads to a general militarization of politics, when any problem - commercial to political – may be resolved by force of arms, rather than within a legal framework," he said.
At the same time, in his opinion, it is naive to rely on bureaucratic forms of solution to the conflict, in particular, by reshuffling top officials in Zakarpattia region – the idea voiced by Ukrainian authorities. "It is a much deeper conflict than that of Mukacheve or Zakarpattia. The authorities need to think hard to eliminate the outcomes, but causes for such conflicts," he said.
"System solution of a problem with smuggling is the European integration. When sorts of tariff and non-tariff barriers are removed, there will be no sense in smuggling. We must realize that if we do not stop smuggling, then we will be perceived as a hole in Eastern Europe, and we will never get any visa free regime. We need to restore order in the customs, gain control over the flow of goods. And it should be the government’s task," said the analyst.
In all fairness, it should be noted that smuggling is by no means a Ukrainian know-how, and there are also beneficiaries on the other side of the border. In this regard, we hope that the temporary investigative commission of the Verkhovna Rada, which is to draft a report on the Mukacheve incident by July 17, will give an answer not only the question of who provides cover-up for contraband cigarettes and drugs in Zakarpattia, the sale of tens of kilograms of amber from Rivne, Zhytomyr and Volyn regions, but will also tell us, who purchases it illegally in the EU.