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The View from the Maidan
President Yanukovych has Putin’s backing, but protesters still present a huge threat.


Protesters in Independence Square

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But Yanukovych has shown little respect for parliamentary procedures, so the opposition has to consider what other measures are open to them.

Another leader of the protesters, a former Kiev deputy mayor and Svoboda party leader, Serhiy Rudyk, told me only hours after the Moscow agreement, “We are preparing to stay on, if necessary, for a second month. This cannot end without the opposition securing some of their key demands. If we don’t win, we will go to jail.”

But will sitzkrieg, even if it’s maintained, be enough? Maybe not. So opposition leaders have also called on the EU, the U.S., and other states to target Yanukovych and his cronies with economic sanctions and travel bans.

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Halyna Senyk, from the Kiev-based Anticorruption Action Centre, points out that most Western countries have the laws to target Yanukovych. He is certainly vulnerable to certain kinds of Western pressure: In the three years since he became president, he and his family have amassed huge wealth. His younger son, Oleksandr, who was living on a dentist’s salary in 2010, was a billionaire by 2012. Can he demonstrate that he earned this fortune by extracting nothing but molars?

Another anticorruption campaigner, Daria Kaleniuk, explains that the Yanukovych family moves its huge assets out of Ukraine and around the world by hiding behind opaque entities, just the kind of practice Western financial corruption laws can crack down on.

Kaleniuk explains: “Many banks and businesspeople know the massive extent of corruption surrounding Yanukovych, but they pretend that they do not have information about them,” in part because it’s compiled by journalists in Ukrainian.

To take on that excuse, Kaleniuk, Senyk, and others have set up Yanukovich.info, a website that has translated into English the mass of data about the Yanukovych family’s mysteriously acquired wealth. These activists propose a new system that would manage corrupt assets confiscated by courts and use some of the proceeds to fund pro-democracy agendas in their country under United Nations supervision.

But is Yanukovych playing for higher stakes that may make him indifferent to Western financial sanctions, or at least confident that over time they will be abandoned if he comes out the clear winner in this struggle? Many in the opposition think that he has now turned his back on the EU altogether, that he will drop any democratic pretense, that under Putin’s political patronage he will govern increasingly autocratically, and that he will find a way to cling to power in the presidential elections due in 2015.

That is speculation. But in the light of the five parliamentary special elections in mid December, four of which the government won by using election-rigging techniques that they barely bothered to conceal, it’s not unsupported. Yanukovych has not made any concessions at all to the demonstrators or even voiced serious proposals for talks with them. He is acting like a political leader who simply does not need to consider what the electorate thinks.

Andrey Kurkov, a bestselling Ukrainian novelist, drew this somber conclusion: “I think Yanukovych’s inclinations are toward creating the sort of despotic regime that Putin encourages and that exists in Belarus. I believe that if he could reintroduce serfdom into Ukraine, he’d do it.”

But if Yanukovych is genuinely indifferent to Western pressures, that may not be true of his more influential supporters and financial backers, such as Ukraine’s richest oligarch, Rinat Akhmetov. Akhmetov’s immense wealth created Yanukovych’s party and propelled him to power. If he had thrown his weight behind opposition demands, many argue, Akhmetov could not only have kept the EU project on course but halted the violence as well.

As a result, opposition and democracy activists told me they will add to the anticorruption websites data about Yanukovych’s oligarch allies. Earlier this month, London supporters of the democracy demonstrations in Ukraine protested outside Akhmetov’s London offices and his £136 million flat (London’s most expensive apartment). And Akhmetov is perhaps more vulnerable than Yanukovych to this kind of pressure. He is desperate to integrate his businesses into the Western world and is anxious that he might be targeted by sanctions, especially travel bans.

Hints are now being dropped that Akhmetov might be open to a more active role in resolving the standoff. A source very close to him admitted that the oligarch controls up to 60 members of parliament from the ruling Regions party, and suggested that Akhmetov supported the idea of a coalition government of “technocrats” to resolve Ukraine’s economic and fiscal crisis. But despite these murmurs, Akhmetov has as yet done nothing visible to resolve the dangerous situation in his country. And in Yanukovych, and maybe Putin, he would be making dangerous enemies.

After Yanukovych’s return from Moscow with his agreement, an uneasy standoff remains between his regime and the protesters in the Maidan.

Ukrainian protesters have hit the streets before to tilt their country toward democracy and the West, but they’ve never before been so militant. They’re now hardened by the two failed assaults against them and by the confidence gained from successful resistance to them.

The Maidan now has a force of people to guard it, including former soldiers and police. They know the likely tactics against them. They wear bits of army uniforms and Soviet military helmets and they carry shields. They also have sticks, water “bombs,” and other means of fighting stashed nearby. They even have containers of oil ready to spill on the stairs of the buildings they control, including Kiev’s town hall, in case security forces try to enter.

Another attempt to disperse the camp by violence would almost certainly result in serious casualties. If just one person is killed, matters could escalate to a dangerous new level, where full-on civil conflict would be just one error of judgment away. So far, Yanukovych has shown very poor judgment.

— Askold Krushelnycky is an author and former foreign correspondent for the UK Sunday Times. He heads AKIN, a business intelligence company working in the former Soviet and satellite states.

 



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