In the past week, Ukraine’s president, Viktor Yanukovych has exposed himself as a petty tyrant by cracking down on opposition protesters in a brutal and dictatorial manner, after having passed undemocratic legislation. Even more importantly, he showed that he was a bad politician, something that may as well lead to his fall – something that would reverse, but at the very least, halt the foreign policy bulldozer of Vladimir Putin too.
Yanukovych has almost weathered the storm. Opposition protests reached their peak in early December and then receded, especially after Orthodox Christmas had ended. Yes, there were still a couple of tens of thousands present at the Maidan, but numbers were nowhere close to the estimated 500 to 800 thousand seen at the apex of the demonstration. Foreign political commentators, together with opposition leaders seemed to focus on the 2015 presidential election, which, importantly for the president, seemed to cause some kind of division in their ranks, with Vitaly Klitschko, Arseniy Yatseniuk and Oleh Tyahnybok all keen on competing for the title. Moreover, Yanukovych had the price of his obedience in his hands: 15 billion dollars and a reduced gas price that would allow him to avoid raising domestic gas prices before the election.
But then, he panicked.
It is difficult to guess to what extend Yanukovych’s hand was forced – from outside, especially – to crack down hard on protesters. In the past two months, however, it became obvious, that the Ukrainian president was playing exclusively for his two most important constituencies: the Ukrainian political and business elite on the one hand and the Russian government on the other, with a total ignorance of, or even scorn to popular opinion. Parallel to this, he also showed, with brutal crudity, that he is exactly what he was: the antithesis of the 2004 Orange Revolution.
Certainly, there was considerable pressure on Yanukovych to do away with the protests once and for all. As I have mentioned before on this blog, the present situation carried much higher risks for Russia and personally for Vladimir Putin than the 2004 protests. Putin faces an increasing number of dark clouds this year; issues that are able to rock the fragile trust of the Russian elite that he seemed to have regained in 2013, ranging from a looming recession through to the dubious security of the Sochi Olympics. Understandably enough, he must have felt that Yanukovych should at least be able to solve this one problem.
However, this alone would not have been enough to convince the Ukrainian president to start such a precipitous and disastrous crackdown. I am sure that the Yanukovych had a feeling of déjà vu. Vitaly Klitschko had made considerable gains in opinion polls, after all, with some pollsters even hinting that he would defeat the President in a second round. And then, the electoral campaign was going to coincide with the tenth anniversary of the Orange Revolution. Yanukovych must have had the nightmare that he was going to lose – again.
This is how the Ukrainian president, in total denial of the 2004 revolution (which ultimately helped him back to power in 2010) was transformed from a democratically elected president with some degree of independence and manoeuvring space to the quintessential obedient post-Soviet leader that Russia desired.
And this is where Yanukovych erred. Ukraine is neither Russia, nor Kazakhstan, nor even Armenia. He cannot, as he did, just take a page out of Russia’s manual of handling the opposition and copy it without having to face realities.
Nothing rhymes with orange
It is commonplace to state that the Orange Revolution was not the roaring success that many expected it to be in 2004. Viktor Yushchenko, as president, fell quite short of the political talent and the statesmanlike vision of Mikheil Saakashvili (who also made a lot of mistakes), while he would have had to reform a much more complicated country than Georgia. Instead of reforms aimed at a quick economic take-off, Yushchenko, unrestrained by his Western allies, concentrated on a repulsive Kulturkampf and political wars that ultimately caused disappointment and polarisation. He deserved to be swept off the political stage in 2010.
Nevertheless, the last three years, and especially the past two months have reminded Ukrainians what the Orange Revolution did bring about: a desire for fair rules, for honest politics, for a model of economic and social prosperity embodied by the European Union and a contempt for the very ways of policymaking that Yanukovich and his regime has shown. This desire is not only present in the Western, “culturally European” half of the country but to growing extent, everywhere (with the notable exception of the ethnically Russian Crimea). Besides the two main hubs, Kiev and Lviv, thousands were protesting in the Eastern cities of Dnipropetrovsk and Kharkiv as well as in the Western Ivano-Frankivsk. Opinion polls show that supporters of the demonstrations significantly outnumber their opponents.
Even more importantly, however, the Orange Revolution taught Ukrainians that with the necessary amount of will and persistence, authoritarian leaders could be sent packing. This is what makes Ukraine substantially different from Russia, where Putin has never had to face such a situation. As I have argued before, the Ukrainian opposition substantially differs from the Russian both in terms of collective conscience and ideology. Proof of this is the awkward silence that Russian opposition leaders like Alexei Navalny have kept so far about Euromaidan.
Yanukovych is right in thinking that the Ukrainian business elite and the Russian government are his essential supporters. Nevertheless, being the negative of the Orange Revolution as he is, he failed to understand that people have also become essential supporters to any Ukrainian government; and his narrow-mindedness does not only seem to backfire on him, for the second time in the past two months, but also seems to have opened ground for meaningless violence.
Equally important is that Yanukovych seems to have miscalculated the support of the Ukrainian political elite as well – the elite that has so far helped him perform such stunts as winning a parliamentary election despite a sharp fall in his and his party’s ratings. The past couple of days revealed the first signs of possibly important cracks. The president’s chief of staff, Serhiy Lyovochkin, resigned last week to protest the unconstitutional adoption of anti-protest laws. His gesture was followed by a similar resignation of Daria Chepak, Yanukovych’s spokeswoman and Andriy Yermolayev, director of a state think-tank. This week, in a much-discussed move, patriarch Filaret of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church refused a state decoration from Yanukovych. Petro Poroshenko, a former minister of foreign affairs and economy, and one of the most influential figures of Ukrainian politics, reportedly urged the US and the EU to impose coordinated sanctions on Yanukovych’s associates, including an assets freeze. Yesterday, the Ukrainian Prime Minister, Mikola Azarov was said to have been practically banned from the World Economic Forum in Davos, while his deputy, Yuri Boiko, faced widespread indignation from the part of speakers.
The time is nearing when it will be too embarrassing to side with Viktor Yanukovych, as well as when Yanukovych will necessarily be forced to put one of his core constituencies – Russia – before the other one – the elite. Nonetheless, for this to materialise, the split in the elite, shown by last week’s resignations, has to widen. Indeed the United States and especially the European Union has to adopt tougher and unprecedented sanctions against Yanukovych and his associates to help make this happen. Even if it does not explicitly states that it will not negotiate further with Yanukovych, its actions should suggest a clear commitment towards the pro-European opposition (with a clear distinction from football hooligans), and, I’m afraid, it should also learn how to play “elite politics” – something that Russia has so far been a master of.
In the past week, Viktor Yanukovych has shown that he belongs to an obsolete sort of post-Soviet politicians and, again, that he has become a petty tyrant. Whether he can get away with the events of the past week will show exactly how successful the Orange Revolution was.
Worryingly enough, while no one wants the escalation of the conflict, stakes on all sides – Yanukovych’s, Putin’s, the EU’s and the protesters’ – seem to be too high to give up and interests are too contradictory to get to a solution that would be acceptable to all. To mention just one thing again, 2014 is much more important for Russia than 2004 was.
And there is yet another terrifying difference. The 2004 revolution was peaceful and while the danger of violence hovered above Kiev all along, the only casualty was a man who suffered a heart attack. This time, there are five casualties – and counting. Ukrainian authorities have crossed a line.