Ukrainian protesters blockaded the main government building on Monday, seeking to force President Viktor Yanukovich from office with a general strike after hundreds of thousands demonstrated against his decision to abandon an EU integration pact, Reuters reports:
Demonstrations on Saturday and Sunday, which saw violent clashes with the police, drew as many as 350,000 people, the biggest public rally in the ex-Soviet state since the “Orange revolution” against sleaze and electoral fraud nine years ago.
“Russia’s desire to dominate is taken for granted in Ukraine. This problem is going on for several hundred years; Ukraine lives in a polygon between Moscow, Istanbul and Warsaw,” said Yuri Lutsenko, a onetime leader of Ukraine’s 2004 Orange Revolution:
He said Russia used several levers of power, including its ability to egg on separatist movements in the Ukrainian south, the Russian Orthodox Church’s ability to stoke unrest, the possibility of levying trade sanctions and, of course, the ability to shut down natural gas pipelines.
“Figuratively speaking, the two heads of the Russian eagle from its coat of arms are looking in different directions, but every day they try to bite Ukraine,” he said.
A geopolitical tug-of-war between the EU and Russia over Ukraine’s future has brought Europe’s second largest country by area once again to the brink of upheaval, the FT reports.
Some 300,000 people took to the streets Sunday, and Ukrainians today continued to defy a court ban on protests. The BBC reports that demonstrators blocked government workers from reaching the Cabinet of Ministers building, while others besieged city hall. The Associated Press says some local officials seemed set to join the revolt.
Yanukovich will head to China on Tuesday looking for loans and investment, despite the massive protests, Reuters reports.
Ukraine’s currency and bonds came under pressure, along with share prices…But the tug-of-war between Brussels and Moscow for influence in Ukraine has so far done little to alleviate its looming debt crisis….. Beijing has already provided the former Soviet republic with loans worth $10 billion, but the government must find more than $17 billion in 2014 to meet gas bills and debt repayments. Including the private sector, Ukraine must make debt repayments of more than $60 billion next year, equivalent to a third of its gross domestic product.
“Yanukovich is trying to show that the European Union and Russia are not the only possible partners for Ukraine,” said Volodymyr Fesenko of Ukraine’s Penta think-tank.
Beijing may demand assurances over Ukraine’s political and economic stability, said Fesenko, adding: “Ukraine is unlikely to secure direct financial aid (from China).”
“It is a very bad time to go abroad. The president’s absence may make talks with the opposition much more difficult,” said Ukrainian political analyst, Gleb Vyshlinsky.
“If the president fails to fire the government, we’ll hold him personally responsible,” for the violence against demonstrators, opposition leader Arseny Yatseniuk told reporters inside a trade-union building, which protesters have taken over and converted into a “national resistance headquarters.”
The protests in Kyiv don’t look like an Orange Revolution, but could amount to a de factor coup against Prime Minister Mykola Azarov aimed at changing the configuration of power, said Gleb Pavlovsky, a former Kremlin insider and president of the Effective Politics Foundation.
“Yanukovych has kept Azarov for the very purpose of writing off all the sins to his Cabinet and firing him at any moment. It is possible that it is going to happen now,” he told The Kyiv Post.
Officials from both Russia and the West—which had been trading angry barbs over Ukraine in the weeks leading up to Mr. Yanukovych’s sudden reversal on the EU deal last month to improve ties with Russia—seemed taken aback by the scale of the protests but had few obvious levers to influence the situation in a country that had become the object of a Cold War-style geopolitical battle, the WSJ reports.
“The Russians are now spectators to what is going on,” said Steven Pifer, a former U.S. ambassador to Kiev and now an analyst at the Brookings Institution in Washington. “It’s something that’ll take place between the street and Yanukovych.”
The EU’s demand that the government release jailed opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko proved too much for Yanukovich, analysts suggest.
“To [Mr] Yanukovich, releasing his sworn enemy Yulia Tymoshenko as a precondition to association with the EU, then signing?.?.?.?and finally reaping the bitter harvest of the Russian reaction looked like a path not only to losing the 2015 election, but very probably going to jail, too” said Dmitry Trenin of the Carnegie Moscow Center think-tank.
But the West’s democracies were too timid in the face of Kremlin aggression, according to some observers.
“Russia did a much better job of explaining pocketbook issues in a very forceful way than Europe did in explaining abstract political benefits,” said Bruce Jackson, the president of the Project on Transitional Democracies, an American nonprofit group that has concentrated on Eastern Europe. “Russia wanted this more than we did, certainly more than America did; we didn’t even show up,” Mr. Jackson told The New York Times:
That criticism was echoed by Arseniy P. Yatsenyuk, who leads the largest opposition coalition in the Ukrainian Parliament. In an interview on Thursday, Mr. Yatsenyuk said that he had been warning the West for months that Mr. Yanukovich could not be trusted to sign the accords.
“I was a little bit astonished when our Western partners really trusted this president,” Mr. Yatsenyuk said in Vilnius. “I was talking to everyone in Brussels and Washington, saying, ‘Guys, wake up!’ ”
Many lawmakers in the Party of Regions haven’t made up their minds on how to react to the protests, said Volodymyr Fesenko, a political analyst.
“They are used to supporting the strongest person, but no one has won yet, so most are keeping a silent neutrality,” he told The Wall Street Journal.
The protesters express their Europeanness and emphasize politeness, friendliness and cleanliness because this is “the European way” and everything else is perceived as backward, inconsiderate and annoying — in short, it’s “sovok,” the dustbin, a euphemism for the disappointing post-Soviet state, says Oleh Kotsyuba, the online editor of Krytyka, an intellectual journal in Ukraine (supported by the National Endowment for Democracy):
More conservative Ukrainians have a different view. They’ve lumped together tolerance, nondiscrimination and openness into the term “tolerasty,” a neologism that suggests that those who are oriented toward the West are weak, decadent and dangerous. Sexuality is a hot-button issue: To join the Union, Ukraine would have to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.
According to this view, the promotion of so-called European values would lead to the annihilation of the Ukrainian family. This is a powerful discourse. For decades, religion, speech, language and culture were suppressed in Ukraine. The horror of tragedies like the famine of 1932-33 were never confronted.
“The activists are very much aware of the power of these scare tactics. With their apolitical messages, they are trying to alleviate the fears of a post-Soviet society that has only begun to grapple with the traumas of its past,” she writes for The New York Times.
They have been inspired by prominent intellectuals, like the political philosopher and essayist Mykhailo Minakov, who has called on the protesters to heed the lessons from the Orange Revolution: peaceful demonstrations, generational and cultural solidarity, ideological neutrality and reintegration around European ideals as a counterbalance to nationalist and separatist impulses.
Even if they don’t succeed in pushing Ukraine’s leaders toward Europe, the activists are continuing the work of building a nonviolent, nonideological movement of justice and solidarity.
The strength of the fragile civil society that these activists are helping to build will be most tested not in the streets, but back home, where liberal values will be challenged every day, after the current battle for them is won, or lost, says Kotsyuba, a doctoral candidate in Slavic languages and literature at Harvard.
Ukrainians are revolting against a political system based on mis-governance, rent-seeking and corruption established two decades ago which the Orange Revolution failed to dismantle, according to Jana Kobzova and Balazs Jarabik, an analyst at the London-based European Council on Foreign Relations, and a researcher at the Madrid based think tank, Fride, and the Central European Policy Institute in Bratislava, respectively:
The elites got away with it for so long because they had the resources to do so. They used the state budget, rent-seeking schemes with Russia (primarily in the gas business) and played Brussels against Moscow in highfalutin talk of geopolitics designed to extract money from both sides. Those resources are now drying up. Ukraine’s GDP is expected to contract next year and public finances are in disarray.
Russia has not yet provided the cheap gas and big loans that many thought would follow if Yanukovych gave up on EU association. Brussels did not offer to “compensate” Yanukovych for the cost of approximating industrial and legal standards with EU norms, they write for The EU Observer.
Instead, the EU should offer co-operation and support to all political forces and international partners – including Russia – who are willing to help facilitate internal dialogue and consensus-building.