Ukraine: Is Yanukovych Finished?

Under severe pressure from multiple angles and with Russia unwilling to back him to the hilt, Ukraine's president may be done for.

For a while it looked as if Ukraine’s embattled president, Viktor Yanukovych, had survived the political tidal wave that followed his decision to mothball the Association Agreement he’d hammered out with the European Union and instead to accept a lifeline from Russia (a $15 billion loan plus a one-third reduction in the price of natural gas) in order to manage Ukraine’s economic mess. Unlike the Association Agreement, which required thoroughgoing political and economic changes that would have undermined the crony capitalism and corruption that have been the hallmarks of Yanukovych’s political order, Moscow didn’t require any rock-the-boat reforms in exchange for the deal it offered on December 17. It was happy to have averted what looked like the start of Ukraine’s alignment with Europe and drift away from Russia.

But Yanukovych overplayed his hand. No sooner had the dust started to settle, with Ukraine’s protesters figuring out what to do in the wake of Yanukovych’s deal with the Kremlin, than the Ukrainian parliament, controlled by Yanukovych’s party, passed a raft of laws on January 16 that effectively banned public demonstrations. The outrage that followed reenergized the protest movement, Kyiv’s Maidan bustled anew with protests, and clashes between the security services and demonstrators became routine. After three protesters were killed and reports emerged of others disappearing or being tortured, public anger boiled over and crowds began to surround, and even take over, government buildings in various parts of the country. Moreover, “People’s Councils” have sprouted in parts of central and western Ukraine, and some have outlawed the ruling Party of the Regions as well as the Communist Party.

One of Yanukovych’s big problems is that the mass movement is no longer limited to the central and western parts of Ukraine, where the antipathy toward him and his Party of Regions is strongest. True, these areas remain the most fervently opposed to the regime and to Russia and the most favorably disposed toward Europe. In eight western oblasts (provinces)—Volyn, Lviv, Ivano-Frankivsk, Rivne, Ternopil, Khmelnytskyi, Chernivtsi and Vinnytsia—the government now appears to exercise little, if any, control. But its position in Sumy and Poltava in the northeast seems equally shaky. Worse still for Yanukovych, demonstrations have erupted in various places in Ukraine’s Russophone Donbass region: Dnepropetrovsk, Odessa, Kharkiv and Zaporizhzhya. Though the government’s position remains relatively strong in the east, what’s becoming clear is that the opposition to Yanukovych has now become national in scope, even though a unified leadership does not guide it. The notion, which is commonplace, that what’s happening in Ukraine can be reduced to the country’s east-west divide is being revealed as simplistic.

Moreover, the protests are no longer, and indeed never actually were, just about the Association Agreement. The main sources of discontent have been the Ukrainians’ pent-up frustration over pervasive corruption and economic mismanagement, both made worse by Yanukovych’s failure to use the years since his election in 2010 to implement the reforms needed to jump start Ukraine’s economy and to strengthen the rule of law. So pervasive was Ukrainians’ disappointment with the Orange Revolution’s aftermath that Yanukovych had a golden opportunity to make things better. He squandered it. Now, even if he turns on a dime and decides to sign the Association Agreement, it’s going to be a case of too little, too late. The street feels that it now has the momentum and has Yanukovych on the ropes.

An added problem for Yanukovych is that there isn’t really anyone in the opposition with whom he can do a deal to calm the revolutionary waves. Whether as a genuine effort at conciliation or as ploy to divide the opposition, he offered last week to bring Arseniy Yatsenyuk, leader of the Batkivshchyna (Fatherland) Party, and Vitali Klitschko, who heads the Ukrainian Democratic Alliance for Reform (UDAR), into the government, as prime minister and deputy prime minister respectively. Neither politician accepted, and for three good reasons.

First, the protest movement’s rank and file has so soured on Yanukovych that both men would have lost considerable political capital had they joined his government. Second, since Yanukovych did not offer a post to Oleh Tyahnybok, who leads the far-right Svoboda Party, the latter would have denounced his competitors and presented himself as the only leader who cannot be bought. That’s not an outcome that Yatsenyuk or Klitschko wants. Third, in a political system that concentrates power in the hands of the President, whatever gains there are to be made by becoming Prime Minister (let alone a Deputy Prime Minister) are far outweighed by the risk of losing of public support by joining an unpopular government that appears to be living on borrowed time.