Ukraine is experiencing its biggest political crisis since the 2004 Orange Revolution. A week ago the protests drew as many as 350,000 people in Ukraine’s capital, Kiev, and were met with a bloody crackdown by the police in the early hours of last Saturday. This morning, violence flared up again as police tried and failed to storm the occupied Independence Square.
Unlike the “Color Revolutions” of 2004-05 that resulted from fraudulent elections in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan, the current “Euromaidan” protests have been triggered by the government’s decision not to sign the Association Agreement with the European Union two weeks ago. The lack of an electoral backdrop to the crisis and the unwillingness of Ukraine’s leaders to abandon a failed policy of pitting the EU against Russia makes it much more difficult to resolve and potentially dangerous.
Police brutality has escalated the situation leading to demands from the protestors that Ukrainian President Victor Yanukovych resign from office. While the crackdown drew swift condemnation from the United States and the EU, the Ukrainian government has done little to diffuse the growing tensions. The Prime Minister, Mykola Azarov, has accused the protestors of attempting to stage a coup while Russian President Vladimir Putin has ludicrously stated that the “Euromaidan” protests have nothing to do with EU-Ukraine relations. He characterized the events as “more like a pogrom than a revolution.” If more force is used by the authorities, then the situation could quickly spiral out of control and lead to violence that has so far been avoided in Ukraine’s tumultuous politics.
An old divide
Since becoming independent in 1991, Ukrainian society has been sharply divided between those who live in the western half of the country and aspire for closer integration with the European Union and those living in the East who seek closer ties with Russia.
Over time, Ukrainian politicians have attempted to turn this painful social cleavage into a tactical advantage in political and economic negotiations with both Brussels and Moscow. The ruling officials hoped that the negotiations over the Association Agreement with the EU would become a bidding auction between the EU and Russia of who can deliver more financial assistance. The scale of the protests appear to have come as a surprise for the Ukrainian President Victor Yanukovych and his political allies; and suggest that their preference for playing the EU and Russia off each other is unsustainable.
The protestors are predominantly young and middle class Ukrainians who are dissatisfied by lackluster economic growth, rampant corruption, and generally poor governance and who see closer links with the EU as both a personal opportunity for upward social mobility and a chance for Ukraine to modernize. They may hold vague or even naïve notions of what the EU Association Agreement would tangibly offer Ukraine, but they are showing by their numbers alone that the youth is in favor of European integration. It is particularly telling that even in the eastern strongholds of President Yanukovych students have come out in protest against the decision to not sign the agreement.
Facing off against the protestors is a government that is trying to perform a difficult balancing act of defending privileged business interests, dealing with strong Russian pressure, and somehow placating the opposition. The decision to delay the EU Association Agreement had as much to do with the legitimate concern among many Ukrainian oligarchs that Ukrainian industry would not survive in the face of EU competition as it did with the Kremlin’s scare campaign.
Unlike in 2004, the opposition does not have charismatic or strong political leadership at its helm to capitalize on Yanukovych’s dismal approval ratings. Yanukovych probably still believes he can weather the storm relatively unscathed. The Orange Revolution was a formative experience for Yanukovych and he is both strong and determined enough to withstand a considerable direct challenge to his presidency. A single miscalculation on his part however, or more heavy handedness by the police risks igniting a revolution whose outcome would be difficult to predict and impossible to control.
The protest movement also has major ramifications for both the EU and Russia. For the EU, the raw outpouring of such vocal support from Ukraine’s youth and middle class is a much needed example of the Eastern Partnership’s potential for success after a disappointing Vilnius Summit. The EU should not fall into the trap of offering more financial concessions to Kiev, this will only delay the necessary hard choices that need to be made by Ukraine.
For Russia, it shows that although certain business interests may favour closer integration with the Eurasian Customs Union, a pro-Russian course would be a tough sell among the public outside of the east. The anticipated Russian financial assistance that is rumoured to be as high as $20 bn that was made conditional on the postponement of the Association Agreement may bring Moscow a much lower return on investment— both politically and economically —than currently anticipated by the Kremlin. Simply put, the money could be better spent in Russia because Yanukovych and his oligarch allies will continue to try to keep Russia and the Eurasian integration project at arm’s length.
Ultimately it is up to the Ukrainians themselves tackle corruption, improve government services, and modernize the economy. The EU Association Agreement alone will not fix Ukraine’s shortfalls nor will billions of dollars in Russian economic assistance poured into the coffers of the select few who hold the commanding heights of the Ukrainian economy.
The failure of the Yushchenko Presidency led to apathy and disillusionment among many erstwhile supporters of the Orange Revolution; the new “Euromaidan” protests have rekindled public demands for change. This provides a tremendous opportunity to channel public grievances into real political impetus for economic upgrading and improvement of governance. A stronger, more prosperous Ukraine would not have to build its entire national strategy on playing off Russia against the West.
That option is rapidly dissolving no matter what Kiev does. The opportunity for positive change should not be squandered by provocations from radical protestors or state-sanctioned thuggishness towards demonstrators which risks igniting a full-blown revolution. The EU and the United States can play a helpful role, but change can only come from within.