Will Ukraine’s Yanukovych Survive This Crisis?

With as many as 500,000 Ukrainians taking to the streets in recent days to protest over their government’s failure to sign an Association Agreement with the European Union, President Viktor Yanukovych must find himself wondering whether he is facing a second Orange Revolution.

Twelve days on, there’s no let up in the demonstrations, and cracks are appearing in the edifice of governmental power. Two members of parliament have already resigned — along with the head of the presidential administration (though Yanukovych refused to accept the resignation) — and some powerful oligarchs appear ready to similarly jump ship from what’s beginning to look like an imperiled regime.

Yanukovych is right to wonder whether it’s 2004 all over again, not least because the opposition, riding a wave of popular anger sparked by the jettisoning of the EU deal, is calling for him and his entourage to resign. Yes, the protests have occurred mainly in the central and western regions — the most pro-EU and anti-Yanukovych parts of Ukraine — but there have also been more modest anti-government demonstrations in the Russophone south and east (the Donbas), Yanukovych’s bastions.

More important, there have been no rallies — apart from some lackluster, stage-managed ones — in support of Yanukovych, even on his home turf. Russia has shown no inclination to come to his rescue, though Vladimir Putin has bizarrely likened the demonstrations to a pogrom, adding that they were not spontaneous but organized well in advance to shape Ukraine’s 2015 presidential election.

Exactly nine years ago, in November 2004, multitudes of Ukrainians thronged the streets to denounce Yanukovych’s fraudulent “victory” in the presidential elections. They sent him packing then. Now, it looks like they may do so again.

Having proclaimed Ukraine’s European destiny for close to two years, and having raised popular hopes that the Soviet legacy would finally be shed with the signing of the EU agreement, Yanukovych scuppered the deal at the last minute, creating public outrage, and pretty much guaranteeing the current anti-regime rallies. Demonstrators have now adopted a European identity, waving EU flags while chanting “Ukraine Is Europe!”

No less worrisome for Yanukovych, the protests have spread at an alarming rate. Students from several universities have declared strikes, while smaller anti-regime rallies have also taken place across the country. Several members of Yanukovych’s Party of Regions have handed in their papers; some have declared their solidarity with the demonstrators; others have called on Yanukovych to resign. Riot police in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv have refused to crack down on demonstrators, while militiamen in Kiev ran from the scene of the mass demonstrations. Several western Ukrainian provinces have officially declared general strikes.

In sum, popular mobilization continues, while the regime appears to be cracking.

Yanukovych now faces a dilemma. If he does nothing in the face of the massive demonstrations in the capital and other major cities, he risks a repeat of the Orange Revolution that drove him from power. If he decides to unleash the army and police, there is no guarantee that the forces of coercion could reestablish control.

Moreover, it’s unclear that the army would be willing or even able to crush the protesters. It’s underpaid, underfed, untested and certainly has no experience acting as a police force. The militia is just as unreliable; will these recently drafted provincial boys be willing to crack heads? Some will, but many — when faced with the popular anger of regular Ukrainians — may not.

Though the elite riot police may be more reliable, there aren’t enough of them to reestablish control throughout the entire country. At a minimum, mass demonstrations are sure to continue: if the police seize one square in the capital city, demonstrators will just move to another one. And Ukrainians may refuse to be intimidated. They know that, if they lose this fight, their country risks becoming the Zimbabwe of Eastern Europe for years to come. They know that this is a turning point.

People with nothing to lose often roll the dice, resorting to desperate measures. Now, in contrast to 2004, there exists a significant cohort of pro-European ultra-nationalists in Ukraine, and they have shown that they’re not afraid of fisticuffs. If the security forces resort to excessive violence, some Ukrainians will almost certainly respond in kind.

The world is now watching Yanukovych, and both the Americans and Europeans have explicitly warned him against resorting to violence. For him to do so now under such circumstances would likely result in further isolation and rejection.

All in all, violence is much too risky a strategy for him to follow. If it fails — as it likely would — he will have no options left but to resign in humiliation. If violence succeeds, the gains will prove temporary, tensions will intensify and Yanukovych’s isolation at home and abroad will be nearly complete.

The next few days will be critical. The longer the demonstrations continue in Kiev and throughout the country, the slimmer Yanukovych’s chances of surviving the crisis.

If he’s smart — and the evidence for this proposition is hardly overwhelming — he’ll accede to the opposition’s demands and try to position himself as the people’s candidate. Minimally, he’ll fire the government and try to co-opt opposition leaders. Whether or not that would work is anybody’s guess, but the degree of popular hatred of Yanukovych is so deep that what might have worked a week ago may no longer be possible today. If he remains stubborn, then he may be felled by people power.

Whatever the case, Yanukovych will either depart the scene or become a completely ineffective and illegitimate ruler. If he stays, Ukraine will become ungovernable; if he goes, it just might break out of the cycle of stagnation that it’s been in for close to two decades.

How will Vladimir Putin — who opposed Ukraine’s acceding to the EU Association Agreement and thinks of Ukraine as a province of Russia — respond to the ongoing tensions? A Russian military intervention to rescue Yanukovych risks tearing the country apart, energizing the anti-Putin opposition in Russia and initiating a new Cold War with the United States and Europe.

An ungovernable, unstable and stagnant Ukraine teetering on the brink of economic collapse would also be an enormous drain on the Kremlin’s dwindling resources. Might it not be better to let Ukraine go its way and try to keep it within Russia’s sphere of influence by means of soft power? It’s noteworthy that, although the Russian media’s coverage of the mass demonstrations in Ukraine is scandalously one-sided — depicting them as the handiwork of violence-prone fanatics — Putin has offered no tangible support for Yanukovych himself.

Rajan Menon is the Anne and Bernard Spitzer professor of political science at the City College of New York and senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.

Alexander J. Motyl is professor of political science at Rutgers University-Newark.

Image: Main entrance to the Cabinet of Ministers of Ukraine in Kiev, December 2 (Photo: Flickr/Ivan Bandura (Mac_Ivan))