The crisis in Ukraine and its possible aftermaths

The president should resign to save his country from disintegration

January 30, 2014 1:30PM ET
Anti-government protesters hold a rally on Independence Square in Kiev on Dec. 8, demanding association with the European Union. The protesters’ grievances have since broadened to include corruption and misrule by Ukraine’s ruling party.
Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images

Ukraine is in the throes of a revolutionary situation. On the one hand stands the regime — illegitimate, battered, weak, completely reliant on violence for its survival. Opposing the regime is a coalition of protesters, which enjoys vast popular support, is acquiring momentum in the provinces and hopes to transform the country into a genuine democracy.

Amid growing protests, President Viktor Yanukovich announced on Thursday that he is taking unspecified medical leave, citing severe respiratory disease and fever. The latest development leaves efforts to resolve the nearly three-month-old political crisis through negotiated settlement in limbo. Shortly after announcing the sick leave, the embattled president accused opposition leaders of escalating the situation simply to fulfill their own selfish “political ambitions.”

The choice before the regime is no longer survival or defeat. It is between forms of defeat. Yanukovich and his regime, as well as Ukraine, would benefit most from his immediate and voluntary resignation. Yanukovich could probably negotiate an amnesty for himself, and the country would be spared a civil war.

A continuation of the current standoff, followed by regime collapse, is the next best alternative. Violence would be avoided, but an amnesty would be less likely and the economy would continue to deteriorate, to no one’s benefit. A bloodbath followed by civil conflict and regime collapse would obviously be bad for everyone. Yanukovich might not in fact survive. Many Ukrainians are now referring to him as Yanuchescu, after Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, who met a bloody end in 1989. The country would experience enormous hardship, and a breakup of Ukraine then becomes possible.

Modest demands

Two months ago, when mass demonstrations first rocked Ukraine’s capital, Kiev, protesters insisted on only two demands: that the government sign an association agreement with the European Union, which Yanukovich had scuttled, and that Prime Minister Mykola Azarov be fired for rejecting the agreement. The protesters’ grievances have grown over time to include the complete overhaul of the Yanukovich system of government. Protesters want to replace dictatorship with democracy, crony capitalism with a genuine market economy, and massive state corruption with the rule of law.

The regime turned a deaf ear to the protesters’ initially modest demands and instead responded with sustained violence involving daily beatings, firebombings, disappearances and killings. These actions radicalized the opposition, which is now demanding a new constitution, the resignation of the president and early parliamentary and presidential elections. As the protesters’ demands expanded, the regime intensified its use of force, introducing a raft of repressive legislation on Jan. 16 and killing several demonstrators in the street fighting that followed.

The opposition then proceeded to establish a People’s Council, as an alternative to the Supreme Rada, the corrupted regime-controlled legislature, while local democratic activists throughout the country began seizing the buildings occupied by Yanukovich’s governors, the Provincial State Administrations, and establishing local People’s Councils. Pro-regime riot police, with the assistance of hired hooligans called “titushki,” launched counterattacks in various cities including Kiev, Donetsk, and Zaporizhzhya, thereby adding to the sense of growing chaos.

The situation has clearly slipped out of the Yanukovich regime’s control. The regime enjoys the support of no more than 25 percent of the population, overwhelmingly concentrated in three provinces in the southeast: Donetsk, Luhansk and the Crimea — which have traditionally served as the largely Russian-speaking base of both the Communist Party and Yanukovich’s Party of Regions. The rest of the population detests the regime and its leadership. Large numbers of leading intellectuals, artists and journalists have openly declared their opposition to the regime.

Ukraine’s top oligarch and key supporter of Yanukovich, the Donetsk-based multibillionaire Rinat Akhmetov, has twice stated his opposition to a violent resolution of the crisis. About 80 members of the Party of Regions appear to have broken ranks with their comrades, thereby potentially creating a split within the regime’s institutional base of support. The economy is in free fall: the Ukrainian currency, the hryvnia, has lost 25 percent of its value, the deficit is growing and GDP is declining. For a regime that relies only on the forces of coercion, there are now some worrisome signs that members of the armed forces, riot police and militia are ready to defect or declare their neutrality.

The savage beatings, disappearances and killings — which continue unabated in the provinces — underscore the regime’s bad faith.

Faced with such destabilizing prospects, on Jan. 28 Prime Minister Azarov resigned, while the regime rescinded some of the repressive laws it had adopted earlier. Whether this was made in good faith is doubtful. More than half the draconian laws adopted in violation of the constitution still remain in force. The regime seems unwilling to consider the opposition’s key demands — early presidential and parliamentary elections and a revision of the constitution that would prevent a president’s ability to amass dictatorial powers.

On Jan. 29, the regime adopted a 15-day amnesty for jailed protesters contingent on the clearing of the protester-controlled Maidan, the area around Independence Square in downtown Kiev. The amnesty was immediately rejected by the opposition as a ruse intended to extract maximum concessions from them in exchange for a partial reversion of the regime’s illegal use of violence. The savage beatings, disappearances and killings — which continue unabated in the provinces — underscore the regime’s bad faith.

Negotiations are currently taking place under the patronage of Ukraine’s first president, Leonid Kravchuk, and they may result in some positive changes. Much will be clearer if and when Yanukovich appoints a new Cabinet. Although they have formally resigned, all former ministers except Azarov are still carrying out their official duties. If this condition persists, it will be clear that Yanukovich has no intention to compromise. If he replaces the current Cabinet with an even worse collection of anti-reformist individuals drawn exclusively from his political camp, his message to the opposition will be clear: No change is forthcoming, and violence is the only thing you may expect. A positive sign would be a technocratic Cabinet of reform-minded individuals acceptable to both ends of the political spectrum. Such a Cabinet could draw on the near-rebellious members of the Party of Regions who are aligned with Western-leaning oligarchs Serhii Tihipko and Rinat Akhmetov.

A simple choice

The reality is far less cheerful for Yanukovich than he may think. His regime has lost control of the country, and it is losing the loyalty of its own cadres. No regime can rely solely on the use of force for long, especially if the majority of the population and the elite are against it, the economy is collapsing and the international community is poised to impose painful sanctions on key officials. The United States, Canada and the European Union have all said they would impose sanctions if a violent crackdown were to occur.  

As a matter of fact, the Yanukovich regime is effectively doomed. If it fails to crush the opposition in a bloodbath, the regime will wither away as opposition increases. If it succeeds in crushing protest in the Maidan in Kiev and elsewhere, it will only spark a massive national resistance movement that will, ultimately, wear down the regime and, possibly, lead to a breakup of the country, with Luhansk and Donetsk provinces splitting away and the Crimea being swallowed by Russia.

The choice before Yanukovich is actually quite simple. He can save himself and the country, or he can destroy himself and Ukraine.

The only question is: Does he see it?

Alexander J. Motyl is a professor of political science at Rutgers University in Newark, New Jersey.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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