While Ukraine's political situation remains uncertain, its economy teeters on the brink

If the political instability is not reined in soon enough, the currency will spiral out of control.

As the protests in Ukraine have escalated over the last three months, President Viktor Yanukovych has appeared progressively weaker. The timing of his sick leave last week could not have been more apt. The president has now offered a raft of substantive concessions in a bid to appease the protesters, not least the chance to lead a new cabinet, but in every instance he has been rebuffed. His subsequent decision to take leave was a signal that his options have rapidly reduced.

The government’s resignation was a serious blow to Yanukovych’s legitimacy. Without a cabinet underneath him he has become an isolated figure. The opposition recognises this and in the ensuing negotiations will maintain their stance of demanding early presidential and parliamentary elections.

As a western observer, one could be forgiven for thinking that there is an overwhelming majority of Ukrainians in favour of EU integration, with Vladmir Putin and Yanukovych the only figures standing in their way. But in reality the country is bitterly divided: Western Ukraine has very strong cultural and linguistic ties with Russia, and its inhabitants are deeply concerned about the impact of competition from the EU on its dilapidated, yet important industrial sector. Even the opposition is not unified, and it is difficult to reconcile the views held by the far-right nationalist party, Svoboda (which is at the vanguard of the current movement), with the EU’s supranational mantra. In any case, an election held in the current atmosphere would surely serve as a de facto referendum on EU integration, but it would undoubtedly be a close-run contest.

While Ukraine’s future continues to be contested, its economy teeters on the brink. So far Russian bond purchases and gas price concessions have provided a financial buffer, but if Yanukovych’s grip on power is eroded further and an opposition-led government becomes more likely, this support could be revised and potentially withdrawn. The EU would not be able to step in without major political reforms inside the country and in the meantime bond yields would rise amid sustained downward pressure on the currency.

Moody’s have already downgraded Ukraine’s sovereign rating to Caa2 with a negative outlook, citing growing strains on liquidity caused by the surging demand for dollars as the domestic population seek to convert their savings. On 31 January the hryvnia fell 2.5 per cent against the dollar – the largest single-day loss in almost five years. This is of significant concern, as with a USD15 billion loan from Russia, the government had spent several weeks using its financial reserves to prop up the country.

As the central bank has scaled back its commitment to maintaining a dollar-peg, this downward pressure is manageable in the short-term. Within the context of low inflation and slow export growth, it could even provide a boost. The danger, however, is that if the political instability is not reined in soon enough, the currency will spiral out of control, placing increased pressure on the corporate and financial sectors so as to impinge on their ability to service foreign debt.

The insurance market is acutely aware of this risk, and accordingly, capacity for credit cover on Ukrainian counterparties is exceedingly tight. It is set to remain so for the rest of Q1 and beyond.

Anti-government protesters on a barricade in Kiev on 7 February, 2014. Photograph: Getty Images.

JLT Head of Credit & Political Risk Advisory

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Is there such a thing as responsible betting?

Punters are encouraged to bet responsibly. What a laugh that is. It’s like encouraging drunks to get drunk responsibly, to crash our cars responsibly, murder each other responsibly.

I try not to watch the commercials between matches, or the studio discussions, or anything really, before or after, except for the match itself. And yet there is one person I never manage to escape properly – Ray Winstone. His cracked face, his mesmerising voice, his endlessly repeated spiel follow me across the room as I escape for the lav, the kitchen, the drinks cupboard.

I’m not sure which betting company he is shouting about, there are just so many of them, offering incredible odds and supposedly free bets. In the past six years, since the laws changed, TV betting adverts have increased by 600 per cent, all offering amazingly simple ways to lose money with just one tap on a smartphone.

The one I hate is the ad for BetVictor. The man who has been fronting it, appearing at windows or on roofs, who I assume is Victor, is just so slimy and horrible.

Betting firms are the ultimate football parasites, second in wealth only to kit manufacturers. They have perfected the capitalist’s art of using OPM (Other People’s Money). They’re not directly involved in football – say, in training or managing – yet they make millions off the back of its popularity. Many of the firms are based offshore in Gibraltar.

Football betting is not new. In the Fifties, my job every week at five o’clock was to sit beside my father’s bed, where he lay paralysed with MS, and write down the football results as they were read out on Sports Report. I had not to breathe, make silly remarks or guess the score. By the inflection in the announcer’s voice you could tell if it was an away win.

Earlier in the week I had filled in his Treble Chance on the Littlewoods pools. The “treble” part was because you had three chances: three points if the game you picked was a score draw, two for a goalless draw and one point for a home or away win. You chose eight games and had to reach 24 points, or as near as possible, then you were in the money.

“Not a damn sausage,” my father would say every week, once I’d marked and handed him back his predictions. He never did win a sausage.

Football pools began in the 1920s, the main ones being Littlewoods and Vernons, both based in Liverpool. They gave employment to thousands of bright young women who checked the results and sang in company choirs in their spare time. Each firm spent millions on advertising. In 1935, Littlewoods flew an aeroplane over London with a banner saying: Littlewoods Above All!

Postwar, they blossomed again, taking in £50m a year. The nation stopped at five on a Saturday to hear the scores, whether they were interested in football or not, hoping to get rich. BBC Sports Report began in 1948 with John Webster reading the results. James Alexander Gordon took over in 1974 – a voice soon familiar throughout the land.

These past few decades, football pools have been left behind, old-fashioned, low-tech, replaced by online betting using smartphones. The betting industry has totally rebooted itself. You can bet while the match is still on, trying to predict who will get the next goal, the next corner, the next throw-in. I made the last one up, but in theory you can bet instantly, on anything, at any time.

The soft sell is interesting. With the old football pools, we knew it was a remote flutter, hoping to make some money. Today the ads imply that betting on football somehow enhances the experience, adds to the enjoyment, involves you in the game itself, hence they show lads all together, drinking and laughing and putting on bets.

At the same time, punters are encouraged to do it responsibly. What a laugh that is. It’s like encouraging drunks to get drunk responsibly, to crash our cars responsibly, murder each other responsibly. Responsibly and respect are now two of the most meaningless words in the football language. People have been gambling, in some form, since the beginning, watching two raindrops drip down inside the cave, lying around in Roman bathhouses playing games. All they’ve done is to change the technology. You have to respect that.

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war