Ukraine Roars Back to Life

Politics in Ukraine had become a rather dull affair. That all changed when President Viktor Yanukovych overreacted to peaceful street protests with excessive force. The security services clubbed protestors who were protecting the Maidan – the hub of all protest activity after Yanukovych unexpectedly rebuffed the European Union– early Saturday morning. His overreaction brought an estimated 1 million people to the streets on Sunday. One sign summed up the zeitgeist: “I’m Ukrainian and I can’t calm down.”

What’s at stake in Ukraine is almost existential – the future of a large European country that bridges East and West. After being courted by the European Union for years, Yanukovych stunned Ukraine watchers and his own people by signaling that he would not sign the association agreement, a step toward formally joining the European Union, in Vilnius, Lithuania, on November 28.

Why the President backed out may be simple: as economist Anders Aslund has observed, Ukraine’s economy is a “basket case.” Ukraine depends mightily on Russia’s subsidies and discounted gas prices. Yanukovych needs to keep the country afloat until he can eke out another narrow election victory in 2015. 

But Yanukovych may not last until then. Yesterday he spent the day defending his capitulation, urging opposition parties to wait until 2015 to challenge him, and presumably practicing his remarks for his “pivot to Asia.” While large swaths of Kiev have been blocked by cars, crowds, barricades, and one tractor, Yanukovych prepared to jet off for a state visit to China.

At the moment, Yanukovych appears to be pinned. Without Russian subsidies, the corrupt apparatus that personally benefits his family would falter. He faces massive and debilitating street protests. Protestors and opposition politicians have demanded the government’s resignation and new elections. Five members of parliament from the ruling Party of Regions have already called it quits. In addition, protesters blocked the Cabinet Ministry and have occupied Kiev City Hall and the Trade Unions building since Sunday.

Now the waiting begins. While Yanukovych encourages the Chinese government to invest heavily in his country’s pockmarked roads, thousands of protesters have dug in their heels and unfurled their tents in the center of the city. We’ll see which side blinks first.

Before the pundits begin the Orange Revolution comparisons, they should pause. This revolution will not be likened to a fruit or a flower, and it differs from its predecessor. The gross manipulation of the 2003 presidential election results catalyzed the Orange Revolution. The peaceful demonstrators were intent on blocking then-Prime Minister Yanukovych from the presidency and bringing a Western-oriented reformer to power. This time, though, the street protesters aren’t intent on putting a particular person in the presidential chair.

“People are not on the street to support exact politicians,” opposition leader Yegor Sobolev told the New York Times. “[T]he real power should be citizens, not ministers, not presidents, not politicians.”

Even from her weakened state in a Kharkiv prison, opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko continues to exert an outsized influence. Her daughter Eugenia read her mother’s statement on Saturday, exhorting her fellow countrymen to “Fly, drive, walk to Kiev from all parts of Ukraine, but gather everyone on 1 December.” And so they did.

Even if the current government manages to wait out the crowds, their days are likely numbered. Before the current protests broke out, three times more Ukrainians supported European integration than a trade union with Belarus, Russia, and Kazakhstan. This number was bolstered over the past six months by the government’s own propaganda and supported by oligarchs who want access to European markets.

The protests are not simply pro-European Union, but are more generally about modernizing and plotting a European course. This path, as Steven Blockmans points out, does not necessarily mean or translate automatically into future accession to the European Union. Yesterday Jose Manuel Barroso, head of the European Commission, agreed to meet with a Ukrainian delegation to discuss closer ties with the European Union. But Barroso stressed that there would be no re-opening of negotiations on the proposed association agreement or a planned free trade deal. 

Polish Foreign Minister Radosław Sikorski and Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt were even more clear: “The European Union remains prepared to sign the agreement as soon as President Yanukovych is ready to do so….[but] we will not be drawn into a meaningless bidding war over Ukraine’s future.”

Whatever Ukraine’s future, those still huddled in the rechristened EuroMaidan should recall the repeated reminder to them from the Lithuanian Ambassador to the US Žygimantas Pavilionis, “We did it. You can, too.”

Melinda Haring is an associate scholar at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. 

Laura Linderman is the associate director of the Eurasia Center at the Atlantic Council. 

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Image: Independence Square in Kiev, Ukraine December 1 (Photo: Flickr/Ivan Bandura (Mac_Ivan))