How to Avoid All-Out War in Ukraine

Ukraine is on fire. Though it is part of the same Black Sea region as Turkey and a solid economic partner, Kiev is far from many minds in Turkey.

The few that are paying attention are making comparisons between the violence during the Gezi protests and what is happening today in Ukraine’s squares. Some comparisons are useful, but overall the situation in Ukraine today is much more dangerous and deserves attention in its own right as a threat to regional peace and security.

Both in Turkey and in Ukraine, the excessive use of force by police against peaceful protesters led to a quick and sharp deterioration of the situation. A key lesson from both is that full investigations of inappropriate action by the police is needed to calm tensions and re-establish trust in law enforcement. Prosecutions have begun in Turkey, but they should move faster and be more thorough.

In Ukraine, no investigation of state officials’ excessive force and inhumane treatment of protesters, journalists, medical professionals and other civil society activists since November 2013 has started. Ongoing violence makes such an investigation all the more urgent. If Ukraine’s prosecutors and domestic legal bodies refuse to carry out a comprehensive investigation, a high-level international mission with NGOs and the Council of Europe, or the European Union, should demand that the government cooperate in the monitoring, documenting and reporting of and advocacy against violations.

Ukraine did not have to explode again into violence this week. Until Tuesday, it seemed that the crisis could be resolved in negotiations between President Viktor Yanukovych and opposition leaders or in parliament. Last Friday, the government released the last 243 prisoners who were arrested during the past months of unrest in an act of amnesty toward opposition activists. Protesters vacated some of the government buildings they had been holding, some for two months.

But real resolution of the conflict requires a new Ukrainian constitution and the appointment of a new government. Prime Minister Mykola Azarov resigned on Jan. 28, ostensibly to allow for a new government to be formed. Since then, President Yanukovych did not take the next step to reduce tensions by appointing a technical government. Such a government should include not only opposition figures but also technocrats and respected civil society leaders to help pull Ukraine out of not only its deep political crisis but also the ongoing collapse of its economy.

Constitutional reform is needed to restore the balance of power that existed under the previous constitution in 2004, but this has been altered by the president, who has weakened the judiciary and maintained tight control over the government and parliament. With the backing of sympathetic oligarchs, several of whom are part of his Party of Regions, President Yanukovych has been able to pretty much run his country as a one-man show. Therefore, he was able to suddenly backtrack last November on plans to sign a long negotiated association agreement with the EU without any consultations and instead pledge to join the new Russia-dominated customs union.

Understanding the frustration that led to activists marching
President Yanukovych’s refusal to move on setting up a new technocratic government, or to seriously commit to constitutional reforms, explains in large part the frustration that led to activists’ march on parliament on Tuesday that was so violently repressed and has apparently caused at least 25 deaths.

Now, nobody seems to be in a mood to pull back. The president is blaming opposition leaders for the violence, saying that the only thing that can be done now is for protesters to go home. Tens of thousands of activists are vowing to continue their struggle and in parts of western Ukraine they have taken over local governments and, reportedly, security installations. On the other hand, in Russian majority Crimea, where a sizeable Tartar population also lives, new calls to bolster local autonomy are being voiced with a pro-Moscow message.

Amidst all this, the European Union and the United States have been slow to react. While some in European capitals worried that financial sanctions or travel bans on Ukrainian governmental officials would only make them more isolated and keen to cooperate with Russia, events this week show that they are necessary if the European Union wants to have any leverage and respect locally. Sanctions should be lifted only when an investigation into the past months of violence is allowed and a technical government is in place. Sanctions should also be threatened against those oligarchs sitting on the sidelines and spiriting large sums out of the country.

Even though the protests started out as a demonstration in support of Ukraine’s association with the EU, trust in European capitals has plummeted among Ukrainian civil society as EU officials have done little more than express concern and hold meetings with political elites over the past months of crisis.

But this civil society is the one ray of hope in the current crisis. In some ways similar to the Gezi protests in Turkey, Ukrainians across the country have come together — doctors, journalists, youth and just average citizens who are rallying to provide basic services, information and a sense of security. They are those who are working tirelessly to pull their country out of the current crisis and find peaceful solutions. They also pose a real threat to the corrupt and violent elites and risk soon being prosecuted on trumped-up charges. These groups deserve more external moral, financial and humanitarian support.

Neither the Turkish government nor civil society should stand by the sidelines. Both have an interest to condemn the violence and call for a return to the reform path. Turkey remains ahead of Ukraine as an official EU candidate country. It should at least sign on to an EU member statement on Ukraine expected in the coming days, and if sanctions are agreed, join them too. This will also help Turkey push forward its recent regained interest in the EU and engagement in its neighborhood.

Sabine Freizer is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Dinu Patriciu Eurasia Center.

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Image: Barricade with the protesters at Hrushevskogo street on January 25, 2014 in Kiev, Ukraine. (Photo: Flickr/Sasha Maksymenko/CC License)