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.
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.)
This is the point at which a significant demonstration turned into a massive one. The interesting thing is that this development was, like the first demonstrations in the Arab Spring, largely spontaneous and leaderless. This is very different than the Orange Revolution. In 2004, well established and organized opposition parties prepared for both presidential elections and the prospect that the government would rig the elections. The demonstrations that broke out the day the falsified election results were announced were disciplined and led from the top. Right now in Kiev, opposition politicians such as Vitali Klitschko, Yuriy Lutsenko, and Arseniy Yatsenyuk are running to catch up with the crowds, who are well disposed to them, but not under their control.
The picture also differs from the Orange Revolution because there is currently no clear, achievable objective for the protests. In 2004, the protesters demanded that the results of the falsified second round of elections be nullified. That was an easily understood and legitimate goal that could count on international support. The achievement of that goal led to a third, honest round of presidential elections that opposition candidate Yushchenko won.
Finding a Solution to the Crisis
The demonstrators and their would-be leaders are scrambling for such an objective. But while some call for a “revolution” and others for Yanukovych to resign, the fact remains that he is the fairly elected President of Ukraine and rejecting a trade deal with the EU is hardly suitable grounds for removing him from power.
The demonstrators have probably taken heart from the palpable weakening of the Yanukovych regime. The resignation of Yanukovych’s Chief of Staff Serhiy Lyovochkin after the crackdown was a clear sign of this. So too were the resignations from the Party of the Region of several Rada (parliament) members. But those resignations were not enough to shift the balance of power in the Rada, and on December 3 the opposition lost a motion of no confidence in the government.
So there is a standoff. After surviving the vote of no confidence, Prime Minister Mykola Azarov told the demonstrators that remaining in the streets is essentially a crime. Meanwhile the protesters have vowed not to leave until the government resigns and an early presidential poll is scheduled.
Pragmatic leadership will be required on both sides of the Kiev barricades to resolve this impasse. A taste of this came on December 4 from an unexpected source, the three previous presidents of independent Ukraine: Leonid Kravchuk, Leonid Kuchma, and Viktor Yushchenko—rivals all. They issued an unprecedented joint statement expressing “solidarity with the peaceful civil actions of hundreds of thousands of young Ukrainians.” The former presidents urged the government to enter “an open dialog with civic society. The solution to the political crisis needs to be urgently found in the format of a national round table.”
Despite Azarov’s latest advice to the demonstrators, the government would have to be brain dead to resort to violence a second time. The opposition must realize that, while they may be strong on the streets of Kiev, they do not control the Rada, and the whole country is not rallying to their cause. The key is for the opposition and the demonstrators to look for worthwhile objectives short of driving Yanukovych from power. Several are there for the picking: the release of the selectively prosecuted Yulia Tymoshenko from jail (and not to exile in West Europe); the removal of any obstacles to the presidential candidacy of Vitali Klitschko; and with the release of Tymoshenko, the signing of the association trade agreement with the EU.
Yanukovych may have authoritarian tendencies, but he can be pragmatic. He certainly understands that his position is much weaker than two weeks ago, and he must find a politically acceptable way to clear the streets of his capital. So things he might not have countenanced earlier are now possible.
The sides may need a mediator to help them reach an understanding. The good offices of the three ex-presidents might be a good place to start. It is a welcome sight to see former leaders in the post-Soviet space serving as non-partisan wisemen for the good of their country. This is a made-in-Ukraine crisis.
John Herbst is director of the Center for Complex Operations at the National Defense University. He served as U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine from 2003 to 2006. This piece represents the views of the author and not of the National Defense University.
Image: Flickr/Ivan Bandura. CC BY 2.0.