Made in Ukraine: The Standoff in Kiev

A political crisis as complex as the country it splits.

Hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians have taken to the streets of Kiev demanding the resignation of President Viktor Yanukovych. This outburst of anger seemed to come out of nowhere. In fact, just two weeks ago, pundits around the world were commenting that Vladimir Putin had bested the European Union (EU) and the US by persuading, if not compelling, Yanukovych to walk away from a trade deal with the EU.

The backdrop to the current standoff in Kiev is the deep and growing unpopularity of President Yanukovych, who won a free and fair election in 2010 against Yulia Tymoshenko. He has presided over a corrupt administration that has rolled back many of the democratic freedoms that his predecessor, Viktor Yushchenko, had introduced and strengthened. The economy, too, has stagnated, growing at a rate of just 0.2% in 2012 and projected to not grow at all this year. In a contrast known and resented by many Ukrainians, the wealth of the broader Yanukovych family has grown substantially. Not surprisingly, Yanukovych’s poll numbers have been consistently low the past couple of years. An October 14 poll conducted by Kyiv’s Razumkov Center gave Yanukovych only 25 percent of the vote in a possible presidential election against rival Vitali Klitschko, who polled 38 percent.

The Domestic Origins of the Crisis

The immediate dynamics behind the standoff are relatively simple. For months, the EU and Ukraine had been negotiating an association and trade agreement to be signed at the Vilnius EU summit on November 29. As a requirement for this agreement, the EU demanded various reforms relating to the economy and the rule of law and the freeing of jailed opposition leader Tymoshenko. This last point was the deal breaker because she remains the most formidable politician in the country and Yanukovych does not want her as a factor in the 2015 presidential election. The EU tried to broker a compromise in which she would be freed for medical treatment in the West—i.e., she would leave Ukraine—but even the specter of Ms. Tymoshenko in Europe was too much for the Yanukovych administration. (What if she were to sneak back into the country?) So when Yanukovych announced on November 21 that he was suspending talks with the EU on the agreement, he hid behind Russian President Putin, claiming that it would seriously hurt Ukraine's access to the Russian market. Putin made this easy to do because he is apoplectic about the notion of Ukraine drawing closer to the EU. That would interfere with his mercantilist vision of pulling Ukraine into Russia’s Customs Union with Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. To make his point, the Kremlin levied trade sanctions on Ukraine earlier this year. Putin and Yanukovych also had a mysterious meeting in early November, during which Putin presumably threatened Ukraine with further measures if the deal was signed. Kremlin threats could not be easily dismissed, since approximately 25% of Ukraine’s exports go to Russia and Ukraine depends on Russian gas supplies. But while important, these economic realities are not necessarily decisive. For starters, polls have shown that 45 percent of Ukrainians wanted to sign the deal with the EU, whereas only 14 percent wanted the country to join the Customs Union. Equally significant, many Ukrainian oligarchs, including some in Yanukovych’s Party of the Regions, supported the deal with the EU; they do not see much future for themselves in a Moscow-dominated Customs Union. What’s more is that at the Vilnius Summit, little Moldova, which also faced the same threats from Moscow, signed the trade association with the EU; Georgia has also successfully defied massive Russian punitive trade sanctions.

Demonstrations Begin

The relative popularity in Ukraine of the deal with the EU made it likely that there would be some response to Yanukovych’s decision. So tens of thousands of protesters turned out over the weekend. Here is where the Yanukovych administration made a big mistake: they deployed riot police to break up the protests with force, sending scores to the hospital and arresting many others.

Perhaps this decision was driven by Yanukovych’s memory of the Orange Revolution, when massive demonstrations prevented him from assuming the Presidency by means of electoral fraud. At that time, he was demanding that President Leonid Kuchma clear Kiev of the protestors by any means possible. Whatever his reasoning, he forgot that Ukraine’s political culture does not look kindly on the use of force against peaceful protestors. (This does not mean that there is no political violence in the country. That violence occurs in the shadows; for example, the beheading of internet journalist Georgiy Gongadze.)