Is EuroMaidan going to change the face of Ukraine irrevocably or can the forces of the government and President Viktor Yanukovych recover? Is this Ukraine’s version of an Arab Spring or something that ultimately will change little?
We have watched with fascination the development of events in Kyiv over the past three weeks but the outcome remains uncertain. Although the protesters have demonstrated the ability to attain crowds in excess of 200,000 on a regular basis and have established emphatically their presence in the square, the presidency and government remain in place. Aside from the largely symbolic toppling of the small Lenin statue on Taras Shevchenko Boulevard, there have been few discernible changes to date.
Generally, the Western world has watched with benign detachment, with EU leaders offering some platitudes of encouragement and expressions of satisfaction that so many people support the country’s links to Europe and away from Russia. Few souls could watch without emotion the titanic encounter on December 11 between the demonstrators and the Berkut when the latter attempted but failed to clear the square in the early hours. That event demonstrated the commitment of the civic uprising.
But looked at from the perspective of the president—and that is not something that is especially easy to do—how should the situation be assessed?
For the moment, government buildings and the president’s residency are secure. There has been no attempt to storm them. Thus while a renewed attempt to clear the square is currently not feasible, daily business can continue. Indeed the president will visit Vladimir Putin in Moscow tomorrow, ostensibly to return waving the paperwork for a substantial new loan and proclaiming: “It is financial peace in our time.”
Prime Minister Mykola Azarov has survived for now. At the somewhat unpalatable round table of the current and past presidents, there was a suggestion that he should be the first sacrifice. Yanukovych baulked at the notion. Azarov and his Donetsk-based cabinet are still in authority.
Western leaders have not come down unequivocally on the side of the revolution. John McCain does not represent Barack Obama. In fact he is a “loose cannon,” known for his savage attacks on authoritarian governments, but not for bringing about their removal. Ukrainian American nationalist leader Askold Lozynskyj, who has also addressed the crowd in the Maidan, is another. For Yanukovych, nothing could be better than having right-wing demagogues express their support for the cause.
European leaders are another matter. Some have spoken of improving the terms of the Association Agreement. But no one has stated overtly that future discussions will be limited to the opposition. Thus in theory, the Azarov government could still go to a future meeting at some point, providing it is firmly committed to signing.
The Europeans have gone further than they did in 2004-05, when the Yushchenko presidency was affirming its commitment to the EU. But for the sentiment in Ukraine to retain momentum, a guarantee of future membership would be an astute step, whatever the current state of the Ukrainian economy or democratic processes.
Russia, like Yanukovych, is doing little other than encouraging its media to make disparaging remarks about the protests, deflating numbers and highlighting extremist elements. Few in the Moscow leadership will have endured sleepless nights because of musical concerts in central Kyiv.
Is the opposition leading or following the EuroMaidan? It is difficult to tell. Certainly the opposition leaders are present, and often. They make speeches, they are defiant, but they urge caution, peaceful protests, which is what one would expect of democratic politicians. What else can they do?
It is unlikely that they can effect change through Parliament. They do not have sufficient delegates. It is uncertain whether a call for a general strike would meet with approval, particularly in the eastern industrial regions, where there is much, justifiable fear over what a deep and comprehensive free trade agreement with the EU would bring.
Their best hope would be early presidential or parliamentary elections. In the latter case they might include a motion to eliminate the office of the presidency altogether. But how are they going to enforce this demand? What further pressures can be brought on the government to resign? The round-table discussions continue, now including the opposition, but that is a small concession for Yanukovych to make, as is the suspension of Kyiv city officials who authorized the crackdown on December 1.
It also raises another issue: who really controls Ukraine? No other country in Europe is so dominated by oligarchs, figures who have amassed grotesque wealth but lack political ambitions other than to be left alone in their wealthy playground.
Most of these oligarchs would like the door to the EU to be wide open. But that does not mean closing the one to Russia either, particularly for figures like Dmytro Firtash, the president of the Federation of Employers of Ukraine, who has exploited the gas conflict between the two countries. Oddly, there have been few protests against the inequalities manifest in Ukrainian society. Yet the Regions Party is, if nothing else, visible proof of the power of the wealthy, in this case Donetsk and Kyiv-based businessmen.
And oddly, Yanukovych might reflect, despite the portrait of Tymoshenko on the Maidan Christmas tree, there is no overwhelming chorus screaming that the first step must be her immediate release. One reason might be the vested interests of other leaders in spearheading the revolutionary cause, which could be undermined by her formidable presence in the square. But it was Tymoshenko’s continued imprisonment that ultimately destroyed the prospects of the Vilnius summit. And she is a more dangerous foe than any other leader.
The best allies of the president—in addition to a Russian loan—are cold weather and shortage of supplies to the Maidan. Ultimately, he must reason, the crowds will dwindle, and the Berkut can retake the square, preferably without violence—or at least, anything that can appear on camera. He retains the support of a solid third of the country. His oligarchs have not rejected him, though perhaps they could wish for a more assertive and self-confident leader.
Thus while his credibility as president is seriously in doubt, Yanukovych may not be entirely crestfallen with the development of events to date. The EuroMaidan is looking increasingly like the July Days of 1917 in Petrograd: a mass uprising without leaders and without an end game in sight.