Politics & Policy

The View from the Maidan

President Yanukovych has Putin’s backing, but protesters still present a huge threat.


Kiev — As the mass anti-government protests in the Ukrainian capital of Kiev continued into their second month, President Viktor Yanukovych’s rapprochement with his Russian counterpart last week, signing debt and gas deals, seemed to signal that he had burned his bridges with the West and that, as the protesters believed, he seeks to turn Ukraine into an autocracy on the model of Belarus.

The demonstrations erupted after Yanukovych’s last-minute decision to renege on an agreement that would have brought Ukraine into a closer partnership with the European Union — closer, indeed, than any country not actually in it. After promising his country for more than two years that he was committed to the EU accord, the president backed out a few days before the summit in Vilnius where it was supposed to be signed. Instead, he opted to work for closer ties with Russia, Ukraine’s former colonial master and troublesome neighbor, culminating in last week’s deal, which entails Russia’s bailing out Ukraine’s government finances and selling the country steeply discounted gas.

Russian president Vladimir Putin quite unblushingly used threats and intense economic pressure to torpedo the Ukraine–EU agreement. He wanted Ukraine to join the Moscow-led Customs Union, which so far comprises Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan. The body is seen by many as a steppingstone to some form of Kremlin-led political bloc to replace the Soviet Union, whose disintegration Putin laments, and as a building block in his attempted restoration of Soviet-style power.

#ad#Opinion polls had generally shown that the pro-EU policy was popular with most Ukrainians. In part this was because the agreement’s free-trade elements offered a way to rebuild their depressed economy. But the agreement had also become a powerful symbol of Ukrainians’ desire to deepen their country’s democracy. It was designed to bind Kiev to a raft of reforms that would cut back the corruption that pervades politics, business, the bureaucracy, law enforcement, and the judiciary. The agreement also protected human-rights standards, press freedom, and efforts to combat electoral crookery.

Ukrainians refer to the European Union or Western Europe as simply “Europe.” When they talk about “going into Europe,” it is shorthand for civilized political conduct, the rule of law, guarantees of personal security, and economic well-being. In sum: The phrase means the chance for a decent life.

So Yanukovych’s about-turn angered millions in the country. Protesters, mostly young, poured into Kiev’s central Independence Square, the Maidan Nezalezhnosti (affectionately dubbed “the Maidan”). Yanukovych’s first response was to send in a special-forces unit, Berkut, with a particularly nasty reputation. They clubbed many senseless and injured more than 150 seriously — some 25 of them Ukrainian and foreign journalists.

This vicious reaction, together with a continuing refusal to talk with demonstrators, was rooted in the president’s failed attempt to win the presidency in 2004. Mass protests against widespread electoral rigging on his behalf — an uprising that became known as the Orange Revolution — forced fresh (and fairer) elections in which a pro-democracy candidate, Viktor Yushchenko, won respectably.

Following Yuschenko’s disastrously feeble leadership, however, Yanukovych narrowly won the presidency in 2010. He promptly jailed his new chief political rival, former Orange Revolution heroine and premier Yulia Tymoshenko. He has since then poured huge sums of money into equipment, new weapons, and training for his security units, including Berkut, whose main role is to suppress any future such protests.

Yanukovych probably calculated that the brutal Berkut attack would cow the demonstrators into submission and then scatter them. Instead, the reverse happened. Hundreds of thousands of Kiev residents and people from other areas flooded the capital’s streets in another round of massive demonstrations. Some independent estimates put the number of protesters at more than a million. They then pitched tents in and near the Maidan and began a nonstop protest.

A second violent attempt by thousands of security forces to break up the demonstration and close down the camp was also repulsed. It also hardened attitudes. Initially spontaneous outrage had brought people out onto the streets, without any involvement from the three main parliamentary opposition parties. But the parties now piggybacked onto the demonstrations, helping to shape the protesters’ demands — for Yanukovych and his government to resign, for a resumption of talks on the EU agreement, for the release of arrested protesters, and for punishing those who ordered the brutal attacks.

These demands were not necessarily unrealistic. Until December 17, when Yanukovych flew to Moscow and signed several agreements with Putin, a resumption of the EU relationship was in theory still a live possibility, even though Brussels was increasingly open in displaying its disgust at the Ukrainian leader’s repeated bad faith. The demonstrators’ persistence may also have prevented Yanukovych from signing up to the Kremlin’s full-fledged Customs Union. But the agreements he did sign in Moscow have made him utterly dependent on a $15 billion government-bailout package from Russia (Kiev is on the verge of bankruptcy) and on Moscow’s promise to cut crippling Russian gas prices — which, not coincidentally, are the main reason for Ukraine’s ruinously high debt.

The three main opposition leaders immediately condemned the deal as selling Ukraine to Russia. They are Arseniy Yatseniuk, 39, an economist and lawyer and acting leader of Tymoshenko’s Batkivschyna (Fatherland) party; Oleh Tyahnybok, 45, a doctor who heads the Svoboda (Freedom) nationalist party; and a world heavyweight boxing champion, Vitali Klitschko, 42, who formed the Udar (Punch) party, the only political movement that has widespread traction in both the pro-Russian east and the largely pro-European west of the country. Their condemnations were brutally unqualified.

Klitschko callied Yanukovych his “personal enemy,” declaring “he has given up Ukraine’s national interests, given up independence and prospects for a better life for every Ukrainian.” Yatsenyuk said, “I know of only one place where you can find free cheese — and that’s in a mousetrap.” He pledged that the opposition parties would block the Moscow agreement in parliament, saying “not a single document which contradicts European integration will pass.”

#page#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.

#ad#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.