Huis Clos

by Andrew Stuttaford

With the situation in Kiev deteriorating rapidly (a number of people have been killed today, and the other kidnap victim — one was released — whom I referred to last night has reportedly been found dead) and growing talk of martial law, it’s worth taking a look at the opposition leadership.

Writing in Foreign Affairs, Annabelle Chapman gives brief profiles of Vitaly Klitschko, Oleh Tyahnybok, and Arseniy Yatsenyuk, the “unlikely trio” (as she correctly calls them) who banded together after parliamentary elections in October 2012 to create what they called a united opposition. Klitschko, a former world boxing champion, heads the populist/reformist UDAR (the Ukrainian Democratic Alliance for Reform, the acronym meaning literally “punch”), Tyannybok is the leader of Svodoba (Freedom), a radical nationalist party, with, not so infrequently, all the ugliness that that can imply. Yatseynuk (Fatherland) is minding the store for Yulia Tymoshenko, the jailed leader who once was a powerful symbol of the Orange Revolution.

To say this is a far from ideal selection is an understatement, but the poison injected into civil society by seven decades of totalitarian rule (not to speak of the worst of 20th-century barbarism) can take a long while to drain, especially in a country plagued by a greedy and overbearing neighbor, weak economic development, ethnic division, and, in certain regions, profound questions of national identity. Under the circumstances those looking to take Ukraine into the European mainstream have to work with what they have got.

Over to Chapman:

Yatsenyuk lacks charisma and has failed to capture Ukrainians’ attention like Tymoshenko once did. But a number of Ukrainians have told me that he is the safest and most realistic candidate the opposition has on offer, as he is neither an inexperienced sports celebrity nor a fiery nationalist.

Assuming (and it’s no small assumption) that a quasi-democratic political process is allowed to continue, what then?

Chapman runs through the possibilities:

The opposition has called for an early presidential election, but Yanukovych has ignored them. They will have to wait until the next one, in March 2015. Very early polls suggest that Klitschko has the best chance of winning against Yanukovych in a runoff (roughly 43 percent of respondents would vote for him, compared with Yanukovych’s 25 percent). But the all-important question of who will run remains unanswered. Klitschko wants the opposition to put forward a single candidate (presumably himself), whereas Yatsenyuk maintains that it should run multiple politicians. Running more than one candidate would split the opposition vote in the first round. But there is also an increasingly valid objection to Klitschko’s vision: One registered opposition candidate makes it easier for the authorities to target and eliminate him.

In Yanukovych’s Ukraine, elimination is a real possibility. His biggest rival, Tymoshenko, is conveniently behind bars. In October 2013, the Ukrainian parliament passed a law that prevents Klitschko, who has permanent resident status in Germany, from running for president. (He says he still will.) Yatsenyuk could be next: On December 8, the media reported that Ukraine’s security service, the SBU, has launched investigations against the opposition for “activities aimed at overthrowing the government” — in other words, a coup. The stories named no names, but the next day, police raided the Kiev headquarters of Yatsenyuk’s Fatherland. Fearing it would be next, Klitschko’s UDAR evacuated its own offices that night. A set of laws that was pushed through parliament by Yanukovych’s supporters only adds to the sense of siege. One of the laws strips members of parliament of their parliamentary immunity, which could open the door to further arrests.

If Klitschko and Yatsenyuk are pushed out of the game, Tyahnybok, the nationalist, would be the only realistic opposition candidate left. And that could be exactly what Yanukovych has in mind. Recent polls suggest that even Tyahnybok could win against Yanukovych in a standoff. However, his candidacy would further polarize the country between [“Russian’’] east and [the more nationalist] west, and put liberal Ukrainians in a sticky situation. Besides, the margin between Yanukovych and Tyahnybok is so small (less than two percentage points) that Yanukovych could be tempted to try to steal the vote — and get away with it.

Things have now reached such a point that I don’t think that he would have much alternative. Yanukovych essentially has two options. He can remain in charge or he can “retire” to Russia. After the last few weeks (and, for that matter, much of what has gone before), his chances of avoiding prosecution in a genuinely democratic Ukraine would be next to zero.

There’s no easy way out for Yanukovych. There’s no easy way out for Ukraine. And the longer the impasse lasts, the more radicalized (there’s some discussion on this aspect of the story in a Christian Science Monitor piece here) the opposition becomes.

 It’s hard to be optimistic at the moment.

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