Opposition Advisor Warns of Secession Dangers
European Union mediators and Ukrainian opposition leaders still face a challenge in winning full acceptance of today’s deal to end the country’s political crisis, said Oleh Shamshur, a Ukrainian diplomat who advises opposition party leader Vitaliy Klitschko. While Klitschko’s party and the two other main opposition groups in parliament “are in agreement with the main elements of this deal,” the broad-based protest movement that has occupied streets of central Kyiv since November is likely to insist that a firm and early date be set for the snap presidential election that is central to the agreement, said Shamshur, a former ambassador to the United States, in an online discussion this morning hosted by the Atlantic Council. Shamshur underscored that he was offering his personal analyses rather than speaking for the opposition.
The European Union mediators who helped broker the agreement “met with the Maidan council,” the broad, ad hoc leadership of the main protest group camped in Kyiv’s Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square), Shamshur said. “But the council was not willing to live with [President Viktor] Yanukovych as president” for an extended period before new elections, he said. “The question is whether the leaders of the opposition parties would be able to persuade them to accept the deal.”
Public trust in Yanukovych has virtually disappeared, Shamshur said, notably following this week’s police assaults on the protest encampments, which ignited violence that has left more than 100 people dead – some of them shot by police snipers. “People are afraid that Yanukovych will bite them, cheat them, again,” Shamshur said. “People in the Maidan … who were under fire only this morning, they would demand the immediate resignation of the president.”
The peace effort is “extremely fragile,” Shamshur said. The situation still “can be imagined as a powder keg if they [government forces] again resort to violence. Even one case, for example, of some sniper shooting, can lead to an explosion which would derail the whole process,” he said.
Shamshur, who was ambassador in Washington from 2005 to 2010, and who also has served as deputy foreign minister, answered questions from Atlantic Council members, journalists and the public in a discussion moderated by the Council’s executive vice president, Damon Wilson. Among his observations were these:
- RUSSIA IS FOMENTING THE VIOLENCE AND THE CRISIS. The government of Russian President Vladimir Putin pushed Yanukovych not to sign the association agreement that it had negotiated in the past year, the decision that ignited the protest in November. In more recent days, “the role played by the Russian leadership in this crisis is, was, I would even say, unsavory, in the sense that they went as far as encouraging the violent crackdown on the demonstrators publicly.” The Russian state-dominated press has referred to the protesters as “extremists and scoundrels, and implicitly they deserve what they get,” he said.
- A DANGEROUS NEW FLASHPOINT MAY BE CRIMEA. “The area which we should watch very carefully now is Crimea,” the strategically vital peninsula on Ukraine’s southern, Black Sea coast. Russia is intent on keeping its massive naval base at the Crimean port of Sevastopol, and Russian nationalists view the peninsula as part of greater Russia. Shamshur noted the statement last week by the speaker of Crimea’s regional parliament, Volodymyr Konstantinov, in which he spoke of seeking Russian protection amid Ukraine’s crisis. “The statement by the head of the Crimean parliament in Moscow was tantamount to … [a] call for separation from Ukraine and joining Russia,” Shamshur said.
- ANOTHER AREA OF DANGER IS RUSSIAN-SPEAKING EASTERN UKRAINE. Shamshur addressed eastern and southern Ukraine, where Crimea and the cities such as Kharkiv and Donetsk have Ukraine’s highest percentages of ethnic Russian citizens. “Some people, like Mr. Dobkin [Mayor Mikhail Dobkin] in Kharkiv, they are again convening [meetings] with the idea that if democracy wins in Kyiv, they would be … thinking very seriously of creating a separate state or quasi-state entity in the east and southeast of Ukraine,” Shamshur said. “That’s something that should be taken very seriously. I do believe that we can put our house in order ourselves. But these attempts … especially if amplified from the outside, are extremely dangerous.”
- RUSSIA LIKELY WILL ABANDON YANUKOVYCH AND SEEK A NEW ALLY IN UKRAINE. “My opinion is that Putin and his entourage are losing patience ant trust in Yanukovych … [as] he is not able to fix the problem the Moscow way,” Shamshur said. “They understand … that after this crisis, he stands absolutely no chance to win this election” envisioned by the peace agreement. “I do not think they will be sticking with this candidate” in eventual new elections, Shamshur said. “They would be looking for a substitute. Whom they would choose is still an open question.”
- THE US AND EU ROLES HAVE BEEN POSITIVE, BUT CAME LATE. Shamshur noted the US and EU governments’ steps to sanction financial activities by Yanukovych and his key allies, and to ban them from receiving travel visas to their countries. “The imposition of sanctions by the United States and then by the European Union has been quite helpful, and I think it was one of the factors that led to the decision of Yanukovych to accept even [the idea of] deal-making per se,” Shamshur said. “But I think … it was a bit too late. A couple of days ago, … was a chance, by using those sanctions, especially financial sanctions, to modify the behavior of Yanukovych and his entourage. Now we are mostly dealing with the results of this inaction. What was achieved might have been much greater and, most importantly, it might have prevented the bloodshed, at least the scale of the bloodshed, that we have seen in the streets of Kyiv.” Of the US and EU sanctions, he said, “It was maybe not too little, but definitely too late.”
- THE PROTEST MOVEMENT IN KYIV IS LIKELY TO CONTINUE UNTIL NEW ELECTIONS ARE HELD. “It’s still not clear” whether the protesters at Maidan Nezalezhnosti will agree to end their occupation there, Shamshur said. “It depends on what kind of final deal we will see, how it will be explained and promoted by the opposition leadership, and most important, how it will be implemented. My guess is that even if we have all those three factors fulfilled and working in a positive direction, people will be largely unwilling to leave the Maidan … until the election of the president” in a vote that is seen to “be fair and democratic,” he said. Now, “what is demanded by the people in the streets, by the majority of the people, is a total re-set of the country’s power structure … so that Ukraine can evolve, eventually and finally, into a mature democracy,” he said.