Why is there another December Spring in Ukraine?on 6 December 2013
By Sarah Whitmore
To many British citizens the idea of hundreds of thousands demonstrating for the EU seems hard to fathom. However, the ongoing mass protests in Ukraine’s capital Kyiv and the west of the country are now more about resisting the consolidation of an authoritarian regime. Key government buildings are blocked by protesters demanding early elections and the regime is unwilling to compromise for fear of showing weakness. Why did the Euromaidan uprising occur, why is it still ongoing and what are the current prospects for resolution?
In comparison with its non-EU neighbours Russia and Belarus, Ukraine is conspicuously more pluralist. Ukraine has already had four electoral changes of power since declaring independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 and has, in addition to scheduled elections, held pre-term elections in response to political crises in 1994, 2004 and 2007 as the constitutional division of power remains contested. It is exactly nine years ago since the incumbent regime were forced to cancel the results of the 2004 presidential election and hold fresh ones in the wake of mass popular protests across the country against the blatantly fraudulent victory of Viktor Yanukovych. However, the results of the ‘orange revolution’ proved impermanent, not least because it ended in a compromise whereby the new configuration of power entrenched discord within ‘orange’ forces and permitted Yanukovych to return to the Prime Minister’s post within just two years.
Since being elected president in a close but reasonably fair electoral victory in January 2010, Yanukovych has focused hard on consolidating power, including using paralegal means to inter alia alter the constitution, subordinate the judiciary and strengthen the presidency. Furthermore, since 2010, electoral and media freedom have declined markedly, while selective prosecution of opponents and illegal businesses takeovers proliferated. In foreign policy, until very recently, the course seemed to be a continuation of the so-called ‘multi-vector policy’, that is, telling both the Western states and the EU on the one hand, and Russia on the other, what they wanted to hear, while keeping one’s personal interests paramount. The Western media commonly refer to Yanukovych as ‘pro-Russian’ because his electoral base is concentrated in the East and South of the country, which is predominantly Russophone and politically conservative, and because in the 2004 election he was overtly backed by Vladimir Putin. However, relations with Russia are not always straightforward due to competing economic interests and Yanukovych remains, above all, pro-Yanukovych.
Up until the summer many Ukrainians were not optimistic about the prospects for signing an Association Agreement and a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement with the EU. To its supporters such an agreement represents Ukraine’s best chance of anchoring its political system irreversibly to democratic values which increasingly seem under threat, as well as creating economic opportunities. Although polls indicate over 40% of the population supported moving closer to the EU, there was a general sense that this might not happen soon given the EU conditions included the release of former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, one of the leaders of the 2004 ‘orange revolution’, who was imprisoned primarily because Yanukovych perceives her as his main competitor in the 2015 elections. However, some rather clumsy attempts by Russia to pressurise Ukraine into joining the Eurasian Union did what no one inside Ukraine had been able to do and temporarily united elites around closer integration with the EU. State and pro-regime media was suddenly full of the Association Agreement preparations, work on the corresponding legislation and various scenarios for Tymoshenko’s release. In short, expectations were raised. And then suddenly, on 21 November, just a week before the Vilnius summit where the agreement was due to be signed, the government announced that all preparations for the Association Agreement were suspended. The government exceeded its authority in this announcement (ironically this is precisely the crime that Tymoshekno is in prison for), deflecting the responsibility from Yanukovych personally, who ultimately seems to have preferred short-term gains (easing of Russian trade sanctions, Tymoshenko remaining in prison) to the perceived longer-term gains to be had from an Association Agreement. Nevertheless, thousands of students immediately announced strikes and went to Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square) to protest. The regime was quick to field various agent provocateurs in the protests, charged with undermining the peaceful nature of the protests.
The protests would, in all likelihood, have dissipated in the days that followed the non-signing in Vilnius if not for the decision (whose - still remains unclear) to send riot police into Maidan at around 4am on Saturday morning to clear the square of the few hundred remaining protesters. The scenes that followed crossed a rubicon in Ukraine as riot police brutally beat protesters, some of whom were sleeping, none of whom resisted. As the video clips flashed around the internet, the sense of shock and then activation was palpable. Now people who had previously not thought about going on the protests (though might have been on them in 2004), felt it was their duty to go to the demonstration organised for Sunday 1st December and to volunteer their services to Euromaidan because things like that may happen in Russia, but are inadmissible in Ukraine. Largely spontaneous and leaderless protests mutated, becoming more organised and focused on the regime, on the resignation of the Interior Minister, the government and on early elections for the president and parliament.
Above: Barricades on Maidan Nezalezhnosti reinforced with Christmas tree branches.
The Sunday demonstration was possibly the largest in Ukraine’s history, with estimates ranging from 100,000 to 1.4m. Whilst overwhelmingly peaceful, Western media coverage focused on the violent clashes near the Presidential Administration, but these events were clearly choreographed by the regime who bought in paid thugs and far-right activists to discredit the protesters and encourage law-abiding citizens to stay at home. The regime also fought back by launching paid-for counter-demonstrations and a well-coordinated cyber-war against opposition politicians and media outlets. Such events forced the protesters, which remain disparate in many respects, to organise and to permit the leaders of opposition parties to play a leading role and this led to a failed attempt to dismiss the government in parliament on Tuesday.
As a result, legal exit routes from this situation are few and the authorities seem unlikely to offer any concessions unless the protesters can force Yanukovych’s hand. The authorities remains in control of most of the country, though police and local government in central and western regions have supported the protesters, and apart from a couple of MPs, Yanukovych’s support in parliament is holding up so at present there is a standoff with little give on either side. The head of Kyiv’s police warned that if public buildings are not vacated by protesters by 9th December, the police will enforce the law as necessary. The authorities also demand the unblocking of government buildings as a precondition of opening any talks. The problem is particularly intractable because Yanukovych, above all, aims to retain the presidency beyond 2015 and furthermore he is not inclined to compromise or even worry too much about the niceties of the democratic process. The protesters, meanwhile, fear that police brutality, provocations and dirty tricks in the context of an already skewed playing field mean that they dare not wait until 2015 to exercise their democratic choice because by then there may not be any democratic choices left to make. So the stakes are high for both sides. In contrast to Russia and Belarus though, Ukraine might look unstable, but in the post-Soviet context, uncertainty also means that the outcome remains open.
Sarah Whitmore is a Senior Lecturer in Politics at Oxford Brookes University and an honorary research fellow at the Centre for Russian and East European Studies at the University of Birmingham.
Title Image : Maidan Nezalezhnosti : The Christmas tree stripped of its greenery and adorned with Ukrainian flags and political slogans. The erection of the Christmas tree provided the pretext for the brutal dispersal of protesters November 30th.
All images courtesy of Dmytro Sanin.