This is the end of Viktor Yanukovych’s political career. The reason is still the same that I pointed out a month ago: he is a petty tyrant, but more importantly, a bad politician. Following the clashes of the past two days and the sanctions that EU member states have agreed to impose, there is absolutely no end game in Ukraine that would see Yanukovych continue as president. In fact, his resignation seems to be the question of days. Meanwhile, it is almost sure that the Kremlin has already started “casting” the successor of Yanukovych, but even so, there is no guarantee that Russia will be able to keep Ukraine, the jewel of Vladimir Putin’s imperial politics in the long term, without which Putin’s third-term plan, the Eurasian Union makes little sense.
Anatomy of a protest
To many it seemed unbelievable how Ukraine went from compromise to quasi civil war in a couple of hours. The truth is, the players of the conflict have navigated themselves into a situation of which there was hardly any other way out. Yanukovych, as I blogged, committed a serious political error in January, by not letting the protest movement fade out after failing to nip it in the bud in November. He applied brutal pressure at a point when this was enough to give new impetus to protests and, even more importantly, destroyed a taboo by allowing special security forces to kill. It was this violence that ultimately tipped the scales in favour of the more radical elements of the protests, such as Pravy Sector or Spilna Sprava. That is, a silent majority of protesters deemed their ways (and some, their ideology) ultimately acceptable.
Opposition parties, having already lost a great deal of credit due to their equally clumsy handling of the protests, on 18 February chose to act along the lines of the political bonmot: ‘if you cannot prevent it, start leading it’ by calling protesters in front of the Parliament after the failed vote on the draft constitutional reform. Here Yanukovych – under pressure from Russia that withheld the second tranche of its credit line – again committed a grave error by giving green light to a crackdown that the authorities seemed to have planned for days. And then, all hell broke loose.
After two days of violence and more than 70 casualties, Yanukovych practically lost the administrative control over the Western half of Ukraine, and protests are spreading over to the East, as protesters in Poltava occupied the building of the county administration. His political and business associates, now targeted by EU sanctions, flee the country: just yesterday around 70 private airplanes reportedly took off from the airports of Kiev – Rinat Akhmetov, the oligarch that repeatedly condemned the violence against protesters and Volodymir Rybak, the Speaker of the Ukrainian Parliament are reportedly among those who have already left the country. He appears to have lost his parliamentary majority, as deputies yesterday decided to withdraw the Berkut special security forces from the streets. He reportedly requested asylum from Putin, and according to rumours, his two sons have already left Ukraine. World leaders prefer talking to each other about the future of Ukraine, rather than Yanukovych. This is checkmate for the Ukrainian president. No questions there.
Pushing too hard
In fact, Yanukovych made the fatal mistake in January. The crackdown on 18 February was the necessary consequence of that. When he had the opportunity to crack down on protesters, he hesitated. When he should have to let the protests wane, he chose to crack down. This, however, is not only the failure of the Ukrainian president. It is equally due to the impatience and paranoia of his “supervisor”, Vladimir Putin. Ukraine showed the limits of Putin’s foreign policy offensive: a country with strong cultural, political, but more importantly economic and business ties to Russia, yet one that could not be tamed ‘the Russian way’. Putin, just like in Belarus or Kazakhstan, wanted a strong pro-Russian government in Ukraine, but a weak state at the mercy of Russia. Yanukovych delivered on neither.
Together with Yanukovych, Russia’s heavy-handed approach also failed in Ukraine. It was, at least partly, the pressure the Russian government applied on the Ukrainian president that resulted in bad political decisions and the present bloodbath. Russia’s choice now is either to up the ante or to settle for a temporary compromise. Neither is particularly appealing. As Mark Galeotti noted, direct Russian military involvement in Ukraine would probably induce the Ukrainian military – neutral so far – to side with the opposition. A compromise, however, would run counter to the zero-sum-game logic of Russian foreign policy, showcase the miscalculations of the Russian president and deliver a serious blow to Putin’s image among the Russian elite. It’s a choice between possibly tragic and fatally embarrassing.
The uneasy game of the EU
One of the most important tasks of the European Union is to remind Ukrainians why they took to the streets at the first place. Yanukovych’s expected resignation will create the emotional background for this by getting the protest movement through a very important checkpoint. In short, the EU needs to tip the scale back in favour of democratic movements, to reconstruct and strengthen the silent majority in favour of EU integration. If it does not happen, Russia will have a pretext to weigh in and potentially discourage even moderates to support the opposition movement.
This “realignment” cannot be done overnight, but the EU should know that it was exactly this silent majority that turned tables in Serbia and made the former spokesman of Slobodan Milosevic and the former secretary general of the extremist Radical Party sign an agreement with the Prime Minister of Kosovo and open accession negotiations with the EU. True, it took 12 years, which Ukraine does not have. Association with the EU must be quicker and more appealing.
Another, equally important but more urgent task is to find a person to replace Yanukovych. Presently the EU, due to the ongoing protests, may seem to have a wider margin than Russia on this issue. Protesters will not accept anyone that can be accused of being an accomplice to the Russian government. On the other hand, Russia is still better at playing elite politics in Ukraine and has all the means to make the economic and political survival of a new government impossible, from halting gas deliveries and economic aid to stirring up separatism in Crimea or in Eastern Ukraine, the country’s industrial powerhouse (even though the identity matrix of Eastern Ukrainians is much more complex than many assume). Compromise candidates, such as the powerful oligarch Petro Poroshenko, a former minister for foreign affairs, can get the country through the present impasse, but they’re far from being the solution. At some point, as a consequence of the logic inherent in Russia’s foreign policy, Ukraine will have to decide which way to go.
Authoritarian leaders are never more dangerous than with their political survival supposedly at stake. Anyone wants to bet how far Vladimir Putin will go to keep Ukraine?