Last Thursday, in response to new and draconian laws that abridged their civil liberties, several Ukrainian democracy activists tweeted and texted that they now “lived in a dictatorship.” Some Western observers may have been tempted to think that this was an overreaction, given what seemed, then, to be the continued vitality of the EuroMaidan movement for civic renewal. The brutal turn of events in Ukraine since then should have made matters clear: Ukraine is, at the moment, a thugocracy in which President Viktor Yanukovych and his associates are using the veneer of legality to crush dissent and reinforce their stranglehold on power.
No one knows for sure who or what turned the EuroMaidan in Kiev violent over the weekend. The likeliest explanation is that some combination of deliberate provocation and frustration among the dissidents ignited a latent combustibility, such that the world watched live-streaming videos of Molotov cocktails, burning buses, and general chaos. What was not so evident in those videos was the growing fear that, according to those on the scene, has become a dominant emotion among the forces of civic renewal in Ukraine.
Those fears arise, in the first instance, from the continued refusal of the Yanukoych government to engage in any serious conversation with the opposition. That underlying fear has been exacerbated over the past 96 hours by the increasingly vicious tactics of the regime. Yes, rubber bullets have been used by the authorities (so far); but those bullets are being deliberately aimed at protesters’ faces, and some have been blinded as a result. Wounded civic-reform activists have been dragged out of ambulances and arrested. Protesters have been doused with water and then thrown out into sub-freezing temperatures. At 4 a.m. this morning, a EuroMaidan leader, Igor Lutsenko, was kidnapped from the Zhovtneva Hospital in Kiev, where he had brought another activist for treatment; Lutsenko hasn’t been heard from since. [UPDATE: Igor Lutsenko was freed after 15 harrowing hours in captivity following this kidnapping. He was released in a forest and has told friends that he feared for his life on three occasions during his ordeal. Kidnappings of other activists have been reported.]
One veteran of Ukraine’s decades-long struggle to achieve real independence from the Soviet past made a telling comparison between then and now. Then, he said, we lived under totalitarianism, but everyone knew what the rules were. Now, it’s not quite totalitarianism, but it’s something very bad: The people holding the levers of state power are bandits, without ideology, who believe only in power and money, and who are prepared to do just about anything to hold on to those two false gods.
While the violence that erupted in Kiev and elsewhere over the past weekend (and that has continued, at one level or another, ever since) reflects in part the deep-set frustrations of many reformers, it also reflects the exhaustion many feel after two months of seemingly fruitless protest, and the desperation that some Ukrainians sense about their situation. One close observer pointed out to me that it wasn’t just over-amped teenage protesters who were throwing rocks and burning buses to create barricades against the internal security forces in Kiev. It was also people in their 70s who have concluded that they have nothing to lose by resorting to violent protest and who, facing a grim future, have decided that being shot down by the Berkut is preferable to living miserably under a thugocracy. That sense of desperation was no doubt reinforced by the Ukrainian minister of justice’s announcement that the anti–civil liberties laws passed last week on Black Thursday will go into effect tonight (January 21).
Efforts are being made to call the protest movement back to its original character as a nonviolent effort at long-term civic reform and national moral renewal. Major-Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church issued an eloquent video plea for nonviolence and a resistance strategy of living in the truth (even as the former rector of the Church’s Ukrainian Catholic University was being hauled into court on bogus traffic-violation charges and students at the university were being called in for questioning by the internal security forces). Ukrainian Orthodox patriarch Filaret warned, in a statement today, that “society is on the verge of civil war,” issued an appeal to all Ukrainians to act responsibly, and warned President Yanukoych away from “the path of force,” bluntly telling him that “as you have the most power and authority in the country, so the measure of your accountability in the highest.” Ukrainian protesters in Lviv and Ivano-Frankivsk have blocked the transit of internal security forces to Kiev and have been asked by some of those internal security forces to keep up their blockade, as at least some of the internal security forces don’t want to be part of the brutality. Yet while all this is going on, the situation is being made even more difficult by Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov’s comments blaming the violence over the weekend on the United States and suggesting that the Putin regime in Russia would be willing to help calm things down in Ukraine — an offer that only underscores the exceptionally high geopolitical stakes in this increasingly grim situation.
Some observers have suggested that efforts should be made to peel the major Ukrainian oligarchs away from the Yanukovych regime, thus weakening its financial and political power base and making the regime more amenable to a national round table that would consider the country’s future. Yet the oligarchs, to date, have been far more part of the problem than components of any possible solution. One, Victor Pinchuk, is a major beneficiary of the new economic deals that Yanukovych has made with Putin’s Russia. (Or do we now say, simply, Putin, he being Russia?) Another, Dmytro Firtash, has let his communications empire become a virtual mouthpiece for the Yanukovych regime in recent weeks, although his media outlets honestly reported the early weeks of the EuroMaidan movement. But the spin today on the television outlets Firtash controls is one reason that the south and east of Ukraine are not being informed of what is really going on in the rest of the country. The oligarchs would have to make real sacrifices to be part of any coalition capable of wrestling Yanukovych to a serious national round table, and there is little public evidence to date that they are willing to take those risks and make those sacrifices; if that could change, so might much else.
Given the chaos on the streets of a European capital and the risk that the chaos will explode into a bloodbath, some have also suggested that the U.N. Security Council be called into session to propose international mediation and appoint a distinguished mediator or mediators, who would go to Ukraine and try to assemble a round table involving all interested parties. But foreign minister Lavrov’s recent statements — hinting as they do at a Russian interest in letting things boil over to the point where Russian “aid” would be welcomed as a calming presence — suggest that the Russians would quickly deploy their veto to squash any serious effort at mediation by the Security Council.
Which leaves the United States and the European Union; which leaves, in reality, the United States.
Throughout this past weekend, Americans supportive of the Ukrainian democracy movement kept receiving e-mails from what had become the violent front lines in Kiev, pleading with us to “Call the White House!” Yet, as of mid-Tuesday afternoon, the most that has come out of the White House has been a (reasonably strong) January 19 statement from National Security Council spokesperson Caitlin Hayden, expressing “deep concern” over the violence in Kiev, blaming the “increasing tension” on the Ukrainian regime’s failure to “acknowledge the legitimate grievances of its people,” and concluding that “the U.S. will continue to consider additional steps — including sanctions — in response to the use of violence” by the Yanukovych government. But surely the time has come for the administration, working with those congressional leaders who have already demonstrated support for Ukraine’s civic-renewal movement, to stop “continuing to consider” and to take specific steps to address this explosive situation.
Define precisely, and now, what sanctions the U.S. will impose if the Black Thursday laws are not immediately suspended. Appoint a bipartisan team of special envoys to go to Kiev with the mission of bringing Yanukovych and the reform leaders together to discuss the most immediately achievable of the opposition’s demands: stringent electoral reform, repeal of the Black Thursday laws, and a new cabinet of competent technocrats. A firm, unequivocal statement of support for the Ukrainian civic-reform movement is also long overdue from the Oval Office and could, combined with effective work by the bipartisan envoys, lay the foundation for serious international mediation leading to a national round table.
A longtime observer of the Ukrainian scene said to me today, more in sorrow than in anger, that “people who are facing despair and death tend to see clearly who their friends are.” Those people, in Ukraine, know that they have friends in the American NGO community, who have been making every effort to support them. But they do not know that of the president of the United States and his secretary of state. And it is staggering and shameful that they do not.
— 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.