Ukraine’s Ongoing Trial by Fire
The EU must seek a mediating role in Kiev, and ultimately do more to support civil society
The situation in Kiev is tenser than ever, made no better by foundering talks between President Viktor Yanukovych and leaders of the opposition. These refused to accept offers he made on January 25, dismissing them as delaying tactics. They continue to demand his resignation and new elections. But Yanukovych remains intractable. Fronts have hardened completely. Violence has escalated. DGAP expert Maria Davydchyk comments on Ukrainian power relations and the EU’s potential as mediator.
Why have the protests in Ukraine become so much more radical?
The protests against the Ukrainian government and President Viktor Yanukovych started two months ago. It was sparked by the foreign policy about-face on the part of the Ukrainian government, when Kiev announced on November 21, 2013 that it would not sign the long-planned association agreement (for political and economic cooperation) with the European Union.
Up until now, Ukrainian leadership has not considered the most important demands of the demonstrators. The decision to “postpone” signing the EU association agreement has not been reversed. Nor is President Yanukovych prepared to resign. And because of this, the protesters in Kiev are getting more restless. They are out on Independence Square – known as the Maidan – and in other public spaces in the city. And as frustration has grown over time, they are continually gaining supporters. Now, new demands are being made. The situation – which is especially fluid at the moment – has evolved from a peaceful protest expressing desire for European into a much more violent and unpredictable protest against state power and the entire Ukranian political system as a while.
The government quickly abandoned its hopes of sitting out the unrest. On January 16 the Ukranian parliament passed a package of legislative changes that drastically restricted the basic rights of citizens, including the freedom of assembly. But this only pushed the protesters further – particularly the resolutions affecting the country’s constitution.
Opposition leaders called further street demonstrations in response. Indeed, they saw no other way to keep the president and government from implementing these changes to the law.
As far as the more radical protesters are concerned, however, the declarations and demands of the initial, peaceful “Euromaidan Movement” have not gone far enough toward changing Ukraine’s political situation. They reject the idea of entering into negotiations with the current political leadership and have dismissed efforts to reach a compromise as a waste of time – time that the government is using to win over the Ukranian population, dealing a major blow to the opposition. They claim that the government and opposition have been unable to enter into any form of constructive dialogue during the two-month-long confrontation.
The cause of the protest’s violent escalation is twofold. On one hand, there is a lack of decisiveness and strategy on the part of the opposition. On the other, the government is utterly unwilling to compromise and has introduced restrictions.
What powers are defining the protest on the streets?
In the recent turn to violence, a key role has been played by people affiliated with an informal group, the so-called “Right Sector” (Pravy Sektor). This first sprang up about two months ago and has been steadily acquiring followers ever since. Other nationalist and right-leaning organizations such as “Ukranian National Assembly–Ukranian National Self-Defence” (UNA–UNSO) and “Patriot of Ukraine” have merged into this. Their supporters, which include many young people, students, and members of right-leaning football clubs, embrace very nationalistic attitudes and are bound together by the idea of building up a independent “true” Ukrainian national state.
By their own account, these people are joining the protests spontaneously, without central organization or a leader. What is clear – and extremely disturbing – is that many seem to be prepared for extreme violence, for example ignoring opposition leaders’ calls for peaceful protest of January 19. They don’t believe that the government is actually ready to take part in serious talks with the opposition.
The radicalization of so many demonstrators and the drastic sharpening in tone of the protests shows just how deep a state of social crisis Ukraine is presently in. The country’s standard of living has fallen in the last ten years; unemployment has gone up. Most Ukrainians have lost all faith in politics. Constructive dialogue between the government and the population is simply not taking place.
Many people have therefore chosen to take to the streets with their demands for better living conditions, for freedom, and for civil rights – and for disentangling the interests of the oligarchs from those of government. Their main demand is Yanukovych’s resignation. In this, the aims of the moderate opposition and the peaceful demonstrators largely overlap with those of the radical protesters. Both these forces have chosen different paths, however, and the violent exchanges are dividing the population. The people assembling on the Maidan in Kiev are also there to discuss which means are appropriate for achieving their mutually desired end.
What is the opposition’s role in the current situation?
The opposition movement that backed the first protests is affiliated with parties that are already in parliament. As a whole, this group has found itself under enormous pressure in the course of the conflict, and the pressure is growing fiercer every day.
At first, members of so-called Right Sector stood side by side on the Maidan with the peaceful opposition– to protect the demonstrators, for instance. But a gulf quickly started to open up between the opposition leaders – Vitali Klitschko, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, and Oleg Tyagnibok – and those who support the radical right. These not only blame the opposition for overall failure but also accuse its leaders of using the protests as tools for their own political ambitions. Klitschko was booed on January 19 – and sprayed with a fire extinguisher – when he sought to persuade Right Sector activists to stop using violence.
President Yanukovych’s ruling Party of Regions is meanwhile accusing the opposition of having lost control over the protests. MPs are demanding that President Yanukovych take hard measures to reestablish order in the country, including declaring a state of emergency in Kiev.
For their part, the demonstrators are demanding concrete political steps from the opposition. They want their themes to be taken up, and they want to confront the government with them. For opposition leaders, who have remained primarily concerned with their political power objectives, the most significant impediment is a lack of unity over what to do next. They wobble between taking an uncompromising line with the government and pursuing the possibility of negotiating.
After the violence escalated, opposition leaders came together to release a joint list of demands, although this contained little more than a call for the president’s resignation and new elections, along with a condemnation of those who were responsible for ordering the use of police force against demonstrators on November 30, 2013. Far from outlining a proper road map for peacefully resolving the protests and setting a desperately needed reform agenda, the members of the opposition found their lowest common denominator.
In latest negotiations, opposition leaders did in fact manage to win a partial victory, though it was hardly enough to satisfy most demonstrators: Yanukovych announced a special session of parliament on January 28 to decide on a restructuring of the cabinet. Indeed, at this meeting, there was a successful vote to repeal the legislative changes of January 16. Many demonstrators, however, see this as a mere play for time. Yanukovych had offered to bring the opposition leaders with him into the administration, proffering the post of prime minister to former foreign minister and opposition leader Arseniy Yatsenyuk and the job of deputy prime minister to Klitschko, but the politicians rejected the offer.
These proposals on the part of the president underline just how powerful the opposition is in the current power struggle in Ukraine. The more time passes, however, and the more radical the protests become, the more Yanukovych will be able to mobilize his own followers.
What kinds of support is there for the president and his government?
Most of the people’s wrath is aimed straight at Yanukovych. He is being blamed for the country’s economic and social downward slide, for raging corruption, and for cronyism with the oligarchs. The oligarchs are his most important supporters. The latest budget, which will involve privatizing state-owned property amounting to about two billion dollars and awarding numerous public contracts, is indeed geared primarily toward the oligarchs – and securing the business elite’s loyalty.
An agreement made with Russia in December, moreover, looked likely to make it possible for the Ukrainian government to cover its public deficit. Here, too, Kiev had its oligarchs in mind: they would not have to pay for national debt; Russia would. On top of this, an agreement between the Russian energy giant Gazprom and the Ukrainian Naftogaz would bring down the price of natural gas in Ukraine by 30 percent, bringing about a modest reduction in energy costs for the Ukrainian chemical and steel industries. These are some of the measures that could help Yanukovych keep his power in the short term.
It is important to keep in mind, however, that the oligarchs do not unconditionally back the current president and his administration. Quite a few of them are sympathetic toward the Maidan movement, and they feel threatened by the influence exerted on Kiev by their Russian counterparts. They are therefore trying to keep open their channels of communication to the opposition, the better to continue to exert influence over the legal framework in the event that a power change does take place. A few oligarchs are, moreover, in favor of economic modernization and opening their country toward the rest of the world – including the EU – to help overcome the current one-sided focus on Russia. However Ukraine’s dependence on Moscow remains, as before, enormous. The Kremlin is the second major source of Yanukovych’s strength.
It is rather doubtful that the cabinet reshuffling now underway is in fact going to stabilize the president’s position. Whether it helps point the way out of the crisis will depend on the names being put forward. But this is not going to change the system, which is what the demonstrators are asking for. The pressure on Yanukovych is going to get even more intense.
Considering the situation, the president already made a significant personnel decision when he fired the chief of his presidential administration, Sergey Levochkin. His position was taken over by the former secretary of security and defense, Andrej Kljujev (check spelling!), a close associate of the president.
What should Germany and the EU do?
There are a number of possibilities. What they shouldn’t do, at any rate, is look away. It is in the EU’s interest to act as a mediator among disputing parties in its backyard. But it must also use a healthy degree of discretion. This is especially important in terms of supporting Ukrainian parties. Focussing all its assistance on the former boxing champion Vitali Klitschko is problematic. This type of one-sided engagement is just the sort of thing that makes some Ukrainians view EU activity as unwanted interference.
Moreover, EU member states must recognize the decisive role played by the big oligarch consortia, their varied interests, and their vast influence on parliament and the ruling government. This simple fact needs to inform its foreign policy more thoroughly.
It would be important to work together with all the forces that are ready to help Ukraine build up functional institutions – and, most especially, to help a healthy civil society grow and prosper in Ukraine. Europe should show a great deal more solidarity with non-governmental organizations and in particular support those NGOs that work to build up democratic institutions and strengthen civil society.
Five Questions, January 26, 2014