Ukrainian Agreements

by George Weigel
Parliament moves to curb Yanukovych’s power, but skeptics say he has to go.

As the world watches the closing of the Sochi Olympics on Sunday evening, the people of the Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv and the nearby town of Staryj Sambir will be completing burial rites for Bohdan Solchanyk. A historian in his late 20s and a lecturer at UCU, Solchanyk was shot in the head by a sniper on Kiev’s Independence Square on February 20. Having done advanced studies in Ukraine and Poland, he was looking forward to completing his doctoral dissertation; a marathoner who taught contemporary Ukrainian history, he has now become a part of that history. As one of his colleagues put it after his murder, “He taught students the recent past and died for the country’s future.”

Before examining just what was and wasn’t accomplished on February 21 by the EU-brokered agreement between President Viktor Yanukovych and the three leaders of Ukraine’s opposition political parties, it is important to pause, to remember Bohdan Solchanyk, and to understand precisely what happened in Kiev on February 20. For what happened is not well understood in the West, and what happened is not well conveyed by anodyne headlines reporting, immediately afterward, that “turmoil deepens” in Kiev.

What happened in Kiev on February 20 was this: In broad daylight, with cameras recording everything, regime-controlled snipers opened fire on civil-reform advocates in the main square of a European capital, while three European foreign ministers were en route to Kiev to negotiate with both the government and the opposition. The snipers used high-powered rifles; they fired precisely, aiming at heads, necks, and chests; they used ammunition that penetrated what modest body armor the protesters wore; some snipers deliberately shot to wound, and when rescuers came to the aid of the wounded, snipers shot to kill the rescuers, in a coordinated effort to ramp up the lethality of their actions. That these murders — of his own people — were ordered by Viktor Yanukovych is not in serious dispute. Moreover, more than a few Ukrainians of experience and prudent judgment believe that the snipers were not Ukrainians but Russians providing a lethal form of what Russian politicians and analysts are sometimes pleased to call “fraternal assistance”; at the very least, no serious observer of the situation believes that Yanukovych would have taken such a step without Vladimir Putin’s let and leave.

So while the awfulness of February 20 in its most deadly form did not spill over into February 21, what happened on February 20 cannot be forgotten. And what happened on February 20 casts a very large shadow over the immediate future of Ukraine, despite the agreements reached on February 21.

Those agreements reflect some effective work by the EU foreign ministers who negotiated them (Laurent Fabius of France, Frank-Walter Steinmeier of Germany, and Radek Sikorski of Poland) as well the first bite of serious EU sanctions and the crumbling of Viktor Yanukovych’s parliamentary support. At first blush, the agreements seem substantial, and it seemed, as of late February 21 in Kiev, that they prevented an imminent spiral into bloody chaos. What was agreed? Parliament (where the opposition now seems to have a working majority, thanks to defections from Yanukovych’s Party of Regions) has voted to restore the constitution of 2004, which Yanukovych had changed to obtain virtually autocratic powers; to form a coalition government of national unity (presumably composed of opposition forces and those who have bolted Yanukovych’s party) within ten days; and to undertake further refinements in the 2004 constitution, which are to be completed by September. That will then clear the way for accelerated presidential elections, which are to be held no later than December 2014, rather than March 2015, as currently scheduled. Electoral-reform laws and a new national electoral commission are also promised. The agreements further stipulate that the lethal lawlessness of recent months will be investigated in tandem by the government, the opposition, and the Council of Europe. The government agreed not to declare martial law (a “state of emergency”), and both the government and leaders of opposition political parties pledged to avoid violence. Parliament is also expected to pass a law granting amnesty to all arrested in recent protests. Finally, parliament fired Yanukovych’s interior minister and passed a law calling for the release of imprisoned opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko.

Absent the murders of February 20, such a package would likely have been welcomed by many of those who have kept faith with the Maidan movement for Ukrainian civic renewal on Independence Square these past three months. But with the coffins of some of the sniper victims being brought onto the central stage of the Maidan, voices were heard deploring the agreements, in no small part because Yanukovych retains the Ukrainian presidency. Not a few of those who saw their fellow activists murdered in cold blood on February 20 believe that, whatever the black-letter constitutional law, Yanukovych has forfeited any moral claim to authority, and they want him out. Some want him tried for crimes against the nation, ranging from kleptomaniacal theft to abuse of the judicial system to murder; others might settle for his leaving the country, especially if his ill-gotten goods could be denied him, at least in considerable part. That Yanukovych flew out of Kiev at 11:40 p.m. on February 21, on a plane headed for Kharkiv, was immediately interpreted by some as suggesting that he feared a Ceaușescu ending to his story. At the very least, that late-breaking end to a dramatic day suggested that Yanukovych understands that he has lost control of the capital and the parliament and that he may be looking for end-game options.

The choice of Kharkiv was not accidental. There, on February 22, Mikhailo Dobkin, a Ukrainian close to Vladimir Putin and the leader of a configuration of intransigents known as the Ukrainian Front, will host a gathering of pro-Yanukovych parliamentarians and local government officials from the south and east of Ukraine to consider their options. And that Yanukovych was accompanied on his flight from Kiev to Kharkiv by Andrey Kluyev (the head of the presidential administration and the man widely considered responsible for the first violent acts of repression against the Maidan movement last year) and Volodymyr Rybak, the speaker of the parliament, suggests the possibility that what will be discussed in Kharkiv will be a “federal” solution to Ukraine’s future, which in this context would mean a south and east of Ukraine that was in de facto association with Putin’s Russia, both Kluyev and Rybak being close to the Russian leader. That such a “federal” scenario, which many would regard as de facto partition, is one of the straws in the wind at the moment is also suggested by the fact that the regional parliament of Crimea, the most Russophile part of Ukraine and the home of the Russian Black Sea fleet, met on February 21 to consider that region’s position.

The next weeks will therefore be a great test of the maturity and prudence of the Ukrainian civic-renewal movement and its supporters. The release of Yulia Tymoshenko, while a matter of elementary justice, will add a volatile personality, not unfamiliar with mischief-making, to the mix of an opposition leadership that has yet to demonstrate a capacity to unify around a single leader or a coherent program. The question of what is to be done with Viktor Yanukovych will not be easily resolved; various factions in this people’s movement (which is not identical with the opposition political parties and their leaders) will have to wrestle with the question of whether entirely understandable demands for justice can, in some circumstances, set further obstacles in the way of peace and genuine democracy — especially if those demands for justice do result in a Ceaușescu scenario that subsequently explodes into the kind of chaos that would give a post-Sochi Vladimir Putin the opportunity to provide “fraternal assistance” in aid of restoring order. Western supporters of Ukraine’s quest for national renewal are going to have to keep in mind that the complex Ukrainian equation does not reduce to “the government” and “the opposition” (identified with the opposition parties and their leaders); there has always been a third factor in all this, and that is the people of Maidan, who, after February 20’s bloodshed, have been reinforced in their determination to avoid business as usual.

As for Western governments, the cheerful smile on the face of Frank-Walter Steinmeier as the EU-brokered agreements were being concluded was disconcerting. Important first steps have been taken, but Ukraine is by no means irrevocably set on a path to the rule of law, genuine democracy, and a restoration of elementary decencies in public life. To press forward with what modest progress has been made, thanks to the blood of those killed on February 20, it is imperative that the EU, and the grownups in European governments, remain fully and seriously engaged in Ukraine’s transition beyond the Yanukovych kleptocracy. That means, among other things, maintaining vigorous visa and asset sanctions, where they have been put in place, or applying those sanctions, where they have not been implemented yet. There can be no letup on the pressure on the Yanukovych regime and its supporters that has been applied thus far; if anything, that pressure should be intensified.

It would also be helpful — indeed, it would be an exercise in basic national self-respect — if the American president would make it unmistakably clear to his Russian counterpart that the United States is going to remain fully engaged in Ukraine, diplomatically and through American non-governmental organizations, and that the U.S. will regard further Russian attempts to misrepresent those efforts or to impede them as a matter of serious consequence.

Historian of American foreign policy Walter Russell Mead made an impressive case in the February 21 Wall Street Journal that what Vladimir Putin wants from the drama of Ukraine is nothing less than a reversal of “the verdict of 1989.” That is precisely what must be denied him: so that the West remains true to its own victory in the Cold War; for the sake of a stable, peaceful future in Europe; and, perhaps above all, to keep faith with Bohdan Solchanyk, with those who will gather around his grave on Sunday, and with all those who mourn the dead of recent days, whose sacrifice reminds their countrymen, and us, that freedom is never free.

— George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.