The events that came to a head in Kiev at the weekend are unlike anything seen in Europe since the collapse of communism a generation ago. Then, street protests brought down one dictator after another. Now, weeks of protest have forced President Viktor Yanukovych to flee from the capital.
He is said still to be claiming that he is the rightful president of the country from which, reportedly, he has just made an unsuccessful attempt to leave by private plane. But he is a busted flush. Even MPs from his own party are reported to have issued a statement saying: “Ukraine was betrayed and ... full responsibility rests with Yanukovych and his entourage.”
It is almost inconceivable that this discredited individual will ever be back in the presidential palace, where he enjoyed the corrupt and opulent lifestyle that has been so graphically exposed to public view. There are arrest warrants for two of his most senior officials, the former incomes minister Oleksandr Klimenko and former prosecutor-general Viktor Pshonka; his foreign minister and education minister have been sacked; and there must be other allies now worrying about whether their pasts will catch up with them.
The extraordinary drama offers hope that this huge country – almost twice the size of Germany and with a population of nearly 46 million – can flourish as a democracy, free from the endemic corruption that has allowed a handful of Ukrainians to accumulate vast wealth. But where there is hope, there is also immense risk. This is not a united country. While the Ukrainian-speaking people of Lviv, in the west, which spent the early part of the last century under Austrian and then Polish rule, look to a future in Europe, in Donetsk, in the Russian speaking east, demonstrators took to the main square yesterday in support of President Yanukovych.
With its central government weakened, there is a real danger of the country splitting along ethnic, religious and geographical lines. The large Russian minority may think it threatening that one of the first acts of parliament, post-Yanukovych, was to downgrade the status of their language. The Crimea, which was arbitrarily transferred from Russia to Ukraine by a communist diktat 60 years ago, could all too easily be the breeding ground for a separatist movement. Another risk is that, by force or outside intervention, unity will be imposed in a manner that leaves one side or the other alienated and aggrieved.
At this critical time, we can be relieved that Yulia Tymoshenko, Yanukovych’s greatest rival, has renounced any intention to return to her old job as prime minister. Though she was the public face of the pro-democracy Orange Revolution nine years ago, and though her imprisonment was a visible symptom of Ukraine’s drift towards dictatorship, nonetheless, she lost office after a general election in 2010 which was seen by outsiders as free and fair. The prospect of her returning to power would be divisive in a country that urgently needs to unite.
With more than 80 people dead, the best hope is that the violence is over, and that in May there will be elections which will result in a government free of corruption and that has the necessary skill and patience to bring peace to Ukraine.