The Lessons of Euromaidan

February 27, 2014 Topic: Politics Region: Ukraine

The Lessons of Euromaidan

What it taught us about Ukraine—and about Russia.

After a three-month standoff on the streets of Kyiv, the Yanukovych government dissolved within a 48 hour period and Mr. Yanukovych vanished. The opposition leaders are now in charge of the country, but the protesters are staying in the streets. Presidential elections are scheduled for May. This turn of events has been dizzying and offers many lessons to the careful observer about Ukraine’s political culture and where the country is heading.


The first lesson is that repression of civilian demonstrators is a political loser in Ukraine. This crisis began as a protest of tens of thousands against Mr. Yanukovych's decision to walk away from a trade association agreement with the European Union. When he tried to drive them off the streets by force in late November, he failed and faced demonstrations of hundreds of thousands. For weeks thereafter, Mr. Yanukovych tried to avoid the large-scale use of force because he understood that it was not popular in the country.

The second lesson is related. Ukraine's forces of order—the police, the security services and the military—are not reliable instruments for repressing peaceful citizens. During the Orange Revolution and this crisis, the military was not at all involved in crowd control. (In fact, during the Orange Revolution, the army issued a warning to a specially groomed police unit that it would protect protesters if the police unit tried to crack down on them.) In both crises, the regime had to rely on select police units—not even all special police (Berkut) units. Mr. Yanukovych never had enough police to clear the streets by normal crowd control methods. So in frustration, and with advice from his Russian friends, he chose last week the high-casualty strategy of live fire and snipers—to terrorize protesters off the streets. Unfortunately for the Yanukovych government, this only enraged the protesters and the international community; and his demise followed rapidly.


Another reason for the implosion of Mr. Yanukovych's support was his failure to heed Hyman Roth. Roth was a mob kingpin in The Godfather Part II, modeled on the real-life Meyer Lansky, who prospered because "he always made money for his partners." In the last two years of his presidential term, Mr. Yanukovych, his son Oleksandr and their small circle were seen as gaining wealth not only at the expense of the Ukrainian people, but also of their fellow oligarchs from the east. As a consequence, there was no rallying in the Party of the Regions to President Yanukovych when the end came.


The crisis also demonstrated that the traditional East-West ethnic, language and cultural splits in the country are weakening. Mr. Yanukovych's support base was in the east and south, regions, which have a larger percentage of ethnic Russians and Russian language speakers than the rest of Ukraine. When Mr. Yanukovych lost his Presidential bid in 2004—after his effort to steal the vote failed—he recouped politically by campaigning relentlessly in the east and south. What's more, during the Orange Revolution a good number of senior political figures from the east spoke publicly about the need for some kind of federal arrangement that would give them greater autonomy from Kyiv. Some even spoke of secession.

Reflexively, Yanukovych headed east February 22 when his support evaporated in Kyiv. But when political leaders of the east met in Kharkiv that day, there were several thousand demonstrators in the streets expressing support for the changes in Kyiv. That never happened during the Orange Revolution. There were also few strong voices for regional autonomy this time around. In fact, Rinat Akhmetov, the richest man in Ukraine and major bankroller of the Party of the Regions, and Ihor Kolomoiskyi, the billionaire from Dnipropetrovsk, spoke out on the importance of maintaining the country's unity.


The past months have also demonstrated that the EU's scalpel was far more effective than the Kremlin's blunderbuss in Ukraine. Moscow's threat of an economic boycott played a visible role in Mr. Yanukovych's decision to back away from the trade deal with the EU in November. He found it convenient to blame his decision on Moscow; but his real motivation was domestic. The EU had insisted throughout the negotiations that any deal required the release from jail of Yulia Tymoshenko, Yanukovych's rival in the 2010 presidential elections and the country's most formidable politician. Mr. Yanukovych had hoped that the EU would drop this condition; by late November, he realized that the EU was serious about Tymoshenko's release.

When the protests were three weeks old, Mr. Yanukovych stopped in Moscow and returned to Ukraine with the gift of lower gas prices and a loan package worth up to USD $15 billion. He thought that this present would solve his political problem, but the protesters were unimpressed and the demonstrations continued. In February, Mr. Yanukovych went to Sochi for the Olympics and to see Mr. Putin. While we do not know what Mr. Putin said, we do know that Sergei Glaziyev, the Kremlin’s point man for Ukraine, was urging the use of force to deal with the demonstrations. Shortly after returning from Sochi, Mr. Yanukovych authorized the use of live fire and snipers, which took scores of lives.

The violence shook the EU out of its normal lethargy. Washington had levied visa sanctions against senior Ukrainian officials January 22 and encouraged Brussels to follow. As recently as mid-February, the EU would not consider sanctions. But on Thursday February 20—following days of violence in Kyiv—the EU announced that it would take up sanctions, and ten Party of the Regions members defected. On Friday February 21, when the EU announced sanctions, enough additional members of the Party of the Regions had jumped ship to get constitutional reform passed in the Rada, Ukraine's parliament. That reform was the basis for the deal between President Yanukovych and the opposition party that the EU (not Russia ) brokered.

The EU was a more potent player than Russia in this instance because elites throughout Ukraine, including in the east and south, see their future in Europe. They want access to European markets for their goods. They want their luxury residences in Europe and they keep their (often ill gotten) gains in European banks. They deserted Yanukovych in droves because they did not want to be sanctioned. In short, the Kremlin's ham-handed diplomacy of sticks and carrots directed at the whole population of Ukraine could not shake the opposition to Mr. Yanukovych; whereas the EU's small-bore aim at the nasty implementers of repression undermined his support. This elite preference for Europe is an important reason for the reduced danger of a split between east and west in Ukraine.


While commentators correctly see the Orange Revolution as the spiritual predecessor of the Euromaidan, it shares as much with the Arab Spring. Like the Orange Revolution, the Euromaidan:

● was a major street demonstration directed against a repressive government;

● relied on massive logistical support from the people of Kyiv and the broader countryside; and

● looked to create a democratic society and market economy oriented toward the West.

Yet the Euromaidan is also an uprising of the social media age. Like the protests throughout the Arab World and unlike the Orange Revolution, it:

● emerged spontaneously in response to a government decision (backing away from an agreement with the EU) that was never expected to produce a major reaction;

● had and still has no seasoned political leadership;

● was subjected to severe police measures.

The Yanukovych government crumbled because 1) EU sanctions prompted numerous Rada deputies to desert the Party of the Regions and 2) the protesters rejected the compromise agreement the EU negotiated that would have kept Mr. Yanukovych in office, but with reduced powers. The opposition leaders could not withstand rejection by the protesters.

The demonstrators represent a new political force in Ukraine that will not simply endorse opposition leadership. Besides rejecting and rendering obsolete the February 21 deal, the demonstrators have showed a pronounced skepticism for all opposition leaders, including the newly freed Yulia Tymoshenko who faced some catcalls on Kyiv's Maidan in her first appearance there.

The demonstrators have shown the ability to stay on the streets and to defend the Maidan, but can they organize for political action? Are Dmytro Yarosh and the "Right Sektor" able to become effective political actors? Will the street action that proved so effective to stop repressive police measures become a new tactic for intimidating democratic governments? Or with the choosing of a caretaker government and honest elections in May, will the protesters fade to a place of honor in Ukrainian history as heroes of the Maidan? And if they do, will the opposition parties be able to provide honest and effective governance, especially with a debt default looming?

More trials are certainly ahead, but the answers to these questions will provide a more reliable guide to the future of the country than the machinations of the Kremlin, or the best wishes of Brussels and Washington.