Can Ukraine's Revolutionaries Pay the Bills?

By Rajan Menon

The crisis in Ukraine tends to be presented and interpreted by Western experts as the result of the citizenry's rage over ex-president Viktor Yanukovych's decision to ice the Association Agreement with the EU, opting instead to turn to Russia for a $15 billion bailout and a one-third discount in natural gas prices.

But that's a half-truth at best.

This revolution was a culmination of Ukrainians' simmering anger at a government that had systematically forfeited the public trust with its mismanagement, venality and corruption. Simply scan the photos of opulent -- albeit aesthetically challenged -- homes, some of them mansions, that senior Ukrainian officials inhabited, and the extent of the thievery is apparent.

So the revolution has been realized, and Yanukovych is gone -- now for the hard part. According to the acting finance minister, Yuri Kolobov, Ukraine needs an infusion of $35 billion over the next two years. And in the short term, it requires several billions of dollars just to cover the interest on its debt. Will the EU and the U.S. come through? Cheering the protest movement was easy; delivering the aid Ukraine needs when much of the EU is still in the economic doldrums, and the United States has emerged from, them in a still-unsteady state will prove much harder.

Yes, the IMF will provide some of the cash, but not without concrete commitments from the Ukrainian leadership that it will implement economic reforms, many of which will require belt tightening that will hurt Ukrainians, especially the jobless, the retired and the poor. What's more, these tough steps will have to be taken before the new leaders have built up political capital by showing that they have what it takes to make people's lives better.

Now, Ukraine's leaders may well prove up to the task. But revolutionaries have talents and temperaments that typically are not readily transferrable to good governance, which is un-heroic and even has an element of the clerical. Consider Boris Yeltsin and Lech Walesa: great at the barricades, not so great at the routines of administration.

Watch how the bond and credit default swap markets respond to the new Ukraine. Their behavior will provide telling information about investors' confidence and the burden that Ukraine will have to carry in order to secure new loans. This year, only Venezuela's bonds posted bigger losses in percentage terms than Ukraine's, and bond buyers remain skittish. Who can blame them? Ukraine's interim president, Oleksandr Turchynov, himself warned that the country was in a "pre-default situation."

Russia, needless to say, won't rush to write a check. Look at it from Vladimir Putin's point of view: Why would you come to the rescue of a country that wants to exit your orbit and align with Europe and the United States? Why would you further the consolidation of a revolution backed by the West with the aim of diminishing your security and standing? Here, in effect, is what Putin will say to Ukraine: "So you love democracy? Good luck. And oh, here's the bill."

Moscow won't just fail to offer help; it may decide to impose some hurt. Talk of Russian military intervention amounts to heavy breathing by those who've read too many Tom Clancy wannabes; Putin isn't a fool. He knows that the short, victorious war that Russia managed to conduct in Georgia in 2008 can't be replicated in a country of 45 million people that's nearly the size of Spain.

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Rajan Menon is the Anne and Bernard Spitzer Professor of Political Science at the Colin Powell School, City College of New York/City University of New York, and Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council.

(AP photo)

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