Ukraine and Yanukovych: A Tug of War

January 22, 2014
situation in Ukraine is similar to what was happening in Poland in 1981: the shaky regime is trying to regain the levers of power | Photo: AFP

This article was published yesterday in the business journal Vedomosti. Last night and today, clashes between protesters and Ukrainian security forces have intensified. — Ed.

“The laws on dictatorship” adopted by show of hands by the Verkhovna Rada on January 16, were met by Ukraine that was in a state of a frozen political conflict.

The protest forces centered on Kiev, Maidan, did not get any concessions from the government, except some symbolic ones. The authorities, that briefly lost initiative, gradually regained control of the situation. After Yanukovych received economic assistance from Moscow, the government moved to rein in the oligarchs who control the major TV channels. In late December, censorship returned to the airwaves. Attacks on activists of the protest movement became more common. In this regard the most spectacular example was the attack on Tatyana Chornovil, a journalist beaten by three thugs on Boryspil highway.

Yanukovych hoped that adoption of repressive laws would finally turn the tide. Restrictions on the media and the Internet (libel law, granting officials the right to restrict access to sites without a court order, institution of criminal punishment for “extremism”, etc.), prohibition on popular practices of civic activism (convoys of cars and buses carrying protesters with pro-European slogans became a real headache pain for owners of luxury estates in the suburbs of Kiev), introduction of in absentia trials – all this are just a few threats the authorities used to demonstrated to Maidan that their intentions are very serious. Instead of an exhausting siege of the protesters’ camp Yanukovych went for a blitzkrieg. One of the Ukrainian political analysts said this about the situation: Ukraine, not in words but in deeds, joined the Customs Union – a union of post-Soviet autocracies. A peaceful protest was essentially equated with armed resistance.

This legislative repression was carried out by Yanukovych’s people in a special operation mode. Only a few deputies representing the ruling Party of Regions were informed about the content of the new legal norms. In order to pass this package, the leadership of the Verkhovna Rada resorted to an unprecedented breach of procedure.

Not surprisingly, the leaders of the opposition triumvirate – Vitali Klitschko, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, and Oleh Tyahnibok – were not ready to Yanukovych’s retaliatory strike. Over three days they couldn’t agree on a compelling common position, with which they could convincingly speak to the Maidan. This became evident at the eighth national assembly on Sunday. The calls to form parallel governments by Yatseniuk were met by citizens with whistles and disappointment. People who for the last two months have expected from the opposition to come up with a coherent plan of action, have listened enough to calls for early presidential and parliamentary elections, as well as promises to dismiss the government. Moreover, the attempt to form a new national movement on the basis of Maidan failed.

This failure of the opposition sends a signal to activists. The true street battles that started on Sunday afternoon near the government building lasted until Monday morning and can erupt again any time.

Yanukovych deploys special police units in Kiev. Investigators question citizens injured in clashes with “Berkut”, and internal security forces. Klitschko, who before other opposition activists realized their vulnerability and talked the President into promising to start negotiations to end the bloodshed, urged Ukrainians to come to the capital to protect the country’s independence.

By Monday evening a delicate balance was established in Ukraine. It won’t be for long, though: the authorities’ reliance on creeping repression even before the notorious laws were adopted leads to radicalization of the protest and delegitimatizes opposition.

History teaches us that there are two ways out of this situation. First, to reach an agreement on early elections and to establish a technocrat government. Second, to declare the state of emergency which leads to further escalation of the conflict.

A historian from Lviv Yaroslav Gritsak speaks about experience of “roundtables” that put an end to the communist regimes in Eastern Europe, primarily about negotiations between the “Solidarity” and the Polish Communists in February – April 1989.

Unfortunately, this comparison to the situation in Eastern Europe is not entirely valid. The Polish dialogue was preceded by decades of struggle of civil society and the opposition with a totalitarian regime. It was preceded by the tragedy of emergency rule imposed in December 1981 by General Jaruzelski: hundreds killed, tens of thousands detained, the opposition defeated and temporary demoralized. In 1989 the Polish leadership could no longer rely on “international aid” from Moscow. Gorbachev had more important things to worry about, other than protecting the Eastern European empire. And finally, neither Jaruzelski, nor “Solidarity” could even imagine that the very first free elections would end in an inglorious defeat of the ruling party.

The situation in Ukraine is more like December 1981 in Poland: the shaky regime is trying to regain the levers of power. In the Northeast it is backed by an “ally”, the Kremlin, that got an appetite for geopolitical revenge. The Ukrainian opposition is not the ten million strong “Solidarity”, but several disparate components, too deeply embedded in the political arrangements of the current regime and losing popular support. Finally, the ruling elites in Ukraine have no illusions about winning free elections. According to any polls Yanukovych is guaranteed to lose the second round to both Klitschko and Yatsenyuk [read an analysis that is somewhat skeptical of this claim — Ed.]. In this situation, any negotiations can be only about guarantees for the future ex-president, but the opposition is too fragmented to be able to provide such guarantees to anyone – be it the former president, or law enforcement officials who are forced to shoot to protect themselves from disgruntled citizens.