Ukraine on the Brink
January 30, 2014
With the casualties mounting in the long-running protests against the government of President Viktor Yanukovych, Ukraine is approaching a tipping point. Yanukovych appears caught between a desire to put down the demonstrations in Kyiv and elsewhere by force and a recognition that, as former President Leonid Kravchuk warned in parliament, the country is on the brink of civil war. Efforts to suppress the protests by force have backfired dangerously, and Yanukovych needs to negotiate a political transition while there is still time.
Ukraine’s protests, centered on Independence Square (Maidan Nezalezhnosti) in Kyiv, broke out on November 21 after Yanukovych abruptly called off negotiations on an Association Agreement with the European Union. Despite his origins in eastern Ukraine (where pro-Russian sentiment is stronger and support for European integration lower), Yanukovych had emphasized that Ukraine’s future lay in Europe ever since he was elected to the presidency in 2010. His abrupt reversal, which came in the face of escalating Russian pressure, cut the feet out from under the many especially younger Ukrainians who saw Ukraine’s current economic and political model as a dead end and favored deeper integration with the West.
In response, hundreds of thousands took to the streets of Kyiv and other cities, demanding that Yanukovych reverse his reversal, despite the more than $15 billion and lower gas prices that Moscow had offered to prevent the signing of the Association Agreement. Violent clashes broke out between these “Euromaidan” protestors and police forces starting on the night of November 30 after Berkut police special forces attempted to clear Independence Square.
The violence raised the political stakes. While the initial protests focused on the decision to pull out of talks with the EU, police violence galvanized a much broader segment of Ukrainian society against Yanukovych’s kleptocratic, increasingly repressive government.
After this abortive assault, Yanukovych did his best to ignore the protests, apparently hoping that the holidays, cold weather, and frustration would cause them to dissipate. By mid-January, this bet appeared to be paying off. The protests were shrinking in size and intensity, with more and more Ukrainians appearing glumly resigned to the status quo.
And then Yanukovych overreached again. A bill rushed through parliament on January 16 criminalized participation in unsanctioned demonstrations, threatening prison sentences of up to 15 years. The crackdown that this legislation portended galvanized the opposition, and by the next day, hundreds of thousands had again taken to the streets, with up to 200,000 gathering in Kyiv alone. Protests spread around the country, including to the generally pro-Russian, pro-Yanukovych areas of eastern Ukraine.
Not only have the protests expanded, but their initial pro-European message quickly evolved into more generalized anger at Yanukovych and his government. A more radical fringe has also emerged alongside the mostly young, middle-class Euromaidan activists. The leader of the anti-EU and antisemitic Svoboda party Oleh Tyahnybok has become one of the faces of the opposition along with the pro-European Vitali Klitschko and Arseniy Yatseniuk. A loose network called Right Sector (Pravy Sektor), composed mainly of ultranationalist soccer fans and which is opposed to both Russia and the EU, has taken advantage of the demonstrations to attack police and sow mayhem.
Emboldened by the new laws and apparently panicked by the resilience of the protests, the government has continued pushing the standoff in a more confrontational direction, even while sending out peace feelers to the opposition. The first deaths came the night of January 21, when two demonstrators were shot. That same night, two activists, Igor Lutsenko and Yuri Verbitsky, were kidnapped from a Kyiv hospital. Both were badly beaten, and Verbitsky was later found dead in a forest outside the city. Demonstrators meanwhile accuse the government of employing agents provocateurs known as titushki to orchestrate attacks on police and justify a crackdown; dozens of alleged titushki have been detained by activists on the square.
Recognizing that the situation was starting to spiral out of control, Yanukovych began reaching out to the moderate opposition. He offered Yatseniuk the post of prime minister and Klitschko that of deputy prime minister. Yatseniuk and Klitschko both refused, demanding that Yanukovych resume talks with the EU and call early presidential elections. Faced with a narrowing set of options, Yanukovych sacked his prime minister and announced he would repeal the anti-protest laws on January 28. He then went into a hospital for treatment of a respiratory infection, leaving the repeal law unsigned.
Despite these concessions, the demonstrations have not abated, Russia announced on January 30 that it is suspending its promised financial assistance, and Yanukovych now faces a set of increasingly unpalatable choices.
Unlike its post-Soviet neighbors Russia and Belarus, Ukraine over the past decade has had a relatively free press, genuine opposition parties who are allowed to run in elections and sit in parliament, and generally free elections (apart from the 2004 vote that precipitated the Orange Revolution). The 2010 election in which Yanukovych became president was judged free and fair by the OSCE and the Council of Europe, and led to a peaceful handover of power by Yanukovych’s defeated predecessor Viktor Yushchenko—though the 2012 parliamentary vote in many ways represented a step backward.
While Ukraine’s elites are no more enlightened than their Russian and Belarusian brethren, something resembling democracy has survived until now because it has made governing deeply divided Ukraine manageable.
Ukraine is a split country, with closely balanced eastern and western halves tugging it in opposite directions. The east-west divide is visible in everything from language (few easterners are native Ukrainian speakers) to religion to politics. Yanukovych won over 90% in Ukraine’s easternmost regions and less than 10% in formerly Polish areas of western Ukraine in 2010. Support for EU integration is also much stronger in western Ukraine. This split also extends to the oligarchs who are, as in pre-Putin Russia, the main drivers of politics. Largely because of this divide, no leader can hope to unite the entire country, but democracy at least provides rules of the road acceptable to both sides, who know they have a reasonable chance of coming to power in the next election.
Even before the current round of protests began, Yanukovych appeared set on undermining Ukraine’s already tenuous democracy. It is this slide into corrupt authoritarianism, more than support for integration with the Europe, that is driving the protests across Ukraine. Opposition to Yanukovych, coupled with resentment at Russia’s perceived meddling, is also uniting disparate groups in Ukrainian society.
Yanukovych has few good choices. Holding early elections, as the opposition demands, would lead to a landslide for anti-Yanukovych forces, but waiting until the next scheduled election in January 2015 will leave Ukraine highly combustible. In either case, it is unlikely Yanukovych can stay in power. Even Moscow would like to wash its hands of him, if it could find a better alternative.
The best way forward at this point would be for Yanukovych to install a caretaker prime minister while announcing early, but not snap elections for the presidency, along with his own intention to step down, probably in exchange for immunity for his own person and property, as well as that of his family and other regime figures. The fate of the EU association agreement that sparked Ukraine’s unrest will be decided by Yanukovych’s successor, following an election campaign that will very likely be a referendum on Ukraine’s relationship with Europe and with Russia.
Most important would be a commitment to finding a political solution and a pledge by all sides to refrain from further violence, with the knowledge that the threat of mass disorder will continue to hang over the transition to a new government. Events of the last two months have shown that Ukraine cannot be governed by force. Ukraine’s survival depends on ensuring all its people—east and west—have a stake in its future. If it eventually leads to a more united, democratic Ukraine, the current crisis will not have gone to waste, and Yanukovych will in exiting be able to undo some of the damage he has done over the last few months.
Jeffrey Mankoff is a fellow and deputy director of the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.
Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).
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