Kiev Diary II

by David Satter

Kiev — The situation in Kiev is evolving in two separate dimensions. If one were to pay attention to only one dimension, it might seem that Ukraine’s political crisis is heading for a peaceful resolution.

At the official level, Sergei Arbuzov, the deputy premier, said Ukraine has agreed on steps leading to association with the European Union. President Yanukovych, meanwhile, is taking part in a “round table” at the Palace Ukraine with leaders of the opposition.

On the streets of Kiev, however, where the situation is changing every hour, protesters are preparing for war.

The regime called off what appeared to be a planned attack on the Maidan December 11 and then to general amazement withdrew all Berkut riot police and internal troops from the center of Kiev. This gesture, however, only convinced the protesters that Yanukovych had decided to change tactics. They seized the opportunity to build bigger and more formidable barricades and to set up their own roadblocks at the points that had just been abandoned by the police.

In the Maidan, where the smoke of dozens of fires rises in the air and people stand in long lines for meals, the situation is as tense as it has ever been, with protesters expressing uncertainty, intermittent optimism, and fear that a violent confrontation could occur this weekend as the regime brings thousands of supporters into Kiev for an “anti-Maidan” in the nearby European Square.

The barricade on Institutskaya Street is now preceded by a World War II–style tank trap made of steel beams and pipes. The barricade on the east side of the square is five meters high and packed on both sides with thick walls of bags of frozen snow. The barricades on the Khreshchatik are being reinforced with a heavy truck and barbed wire. A sign on a bridge at the scene of previous clashes reads, “Berkut, welcome to hell.”

On the Khreshchatyk, a group of protesters are sitting around a wood fire in front of a two-meter-high barricade blocking access from Proreznaya Street made of bags of frozen snow. I asked how they explained the decision of the regime to pull back the internal troops and Berkut police after an initial attack on Wednesday. “There is no way to understand it,” said one of the men. Another said in English, “Yanukovych — crazy.”

On the question of EU membership, protesters said that association with the EU is no longer enough. “It’s gone beyond that now,” said Andrei, a jurist from Dnepropetrovsk, “now it’s a revolt against a feudal method of government.”

The difficulty for Yanukovych in resolving the crisis — if that is his intention — is that he is distrusted by nearly all elements of society. He is hated by the elite, who were the first victim of his gluttonous seizure of property. But he is also hated by ordinary people who feel that they live under the heel of a criminal organization.

“After the fall of the Soviet Union,” said Vladimir, the director of a construction agency in Kiev whom I met in the Maidan, “people who got their hands on state property became millionaires in an hour. But once property was divided up, Ukraine began to move toward being a civilized society. When Yanukovych took over, there immediately began to be a redistribution in favor of his family and friends. This was carried out by functionaries who did not have any means. But they witnessed how it was done and began to do the same thing but on a smaller scale.”

As people suffered from the multiplier effects of strong-arm tactics at the top, they witnessed the very public rise of Yanukovych’s son, Olexander, 40, a dentist who became a multibillionaire in a period of two or three years. He and a group of young businessmen who are his personal friends now dominate the Ukraine government and economy. Yanukovych used his son in part to create a counterweight to two oligarchs who remain powerful, Rinat Akhmetov, his former patron, and Dmytro Firtash. But the open promotion of Olexander inspired a visceral reaction against the government. The younger Yanukovych’s acquisition of an economic empire was well covered in the relatively free Ukrainian press. At the same time, thugs all over Ukraine began demanding to take over businesses, claiming — often without any basis — that they came “from Olexander.”

The seizure of property by members of the Yanukovych family also had a visibly damaging effect on the Ukrainian economy. The new owners were predisposed to the same cronyism that allowed them to seize property in the first place, and the quality of management invariably suffered. This is a serious issue because the world economic crisis hit Ukraine very hard and there is no real recovery to this day.

Anders Aslund, one of the world’s leading experts on the Ukrainian economy, has analyzed the ways in which the Yanukovych family has used its control over the economy to impoverish Ukrainian society. These are embezzlement from the tax administration and the customs, the end of competitive bidding so that regime-connected firms can benefit from the inflated prices in state contracts and from the sale of gas at ridiculously low prices, which make it possible for favored companies to reap windfall profits on its resale. Aslund estimates that these three practices have generated $8 to $10 billion a year to the Yanukovych family during each of the last three years.

The opposition has scheduled rallies for this weekend, but the regime is also planning to hold rallies. This creates the possibility of a confrontation.

On Friday afternoon, a platform for speakers was being set up in European Square which is about 500 meters from the Maidan. Participants in the official rally were already reported to be arriving in Kiev by train and bus, along with 20 busloads of Berkut riot police, who could be used to protect the government rally or to attack the opposition.

At the same time, bomb threats against the central Kiev metro stations, the Borispol Airport, and the railroad stations have led to temporary closures. A person has been arrested in connection with the threats, but they could be preparation for a real bombing.

In light of the international pressure on the Yanukovych regime, it will be very difficult to attack the Maidan or declare an extraordinary situation without a violent incident that could be treated as a justification. With Maidan consolidating its defenses — there are believed to be 4,000 persons in the self-defense units — and Yanukovych scheduled to travel to Moscow December 17 to discuss economic cooperation, there is increasing fear that the presence of the two rallies will make that possible.

Arseniy Yatsenyuk, the leader of the Batkivshchyna party, has warned that the authorities are planning a provocation for this weekend. Yuri Lutsenko, the former minister of internal affairs and now an opposition activist, said that the authorities are planning to arrest all of the opposition political leaders.

It might seem that Yanukovych would have everything to lose from a violent end to the Euromaidan. The result would be isolation from Europe that would doom Ukraine to a future of economic stagnation.

The people who came to power with Yanukovych, however, are, in many cases, veterans of criminal gangs who went into business. Many would now like respectability. But they continue to have a criminal psychology, and as the pressure on them increases, it is not clear what they are ready to do.

— David Satter is an author affiliated with the Hudson Institute, Johns Hopkins University, and the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia. He is in Kiev on special assignment from Radio Liberty/Radio Free Europe.