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An Exit from Maidan

Following the violent assault of peaceful protestors in Kyiv on November 30th, the Ukrainian protest movement morphed into a revolution. Since that point, the significance of the news coming out of Maidan, the central square in Kyiv and the epicentre of the protests, is difficult to be captured in a single article.

December 12, 2013 - Ian Hansen - Articles and Commentary

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Outsiders’ shock has progressed into predicting and contemplating the conclusion. Finding an exit means addressing stakeholders in government, the opposition, the protestors and more. No Ukrainian issue can be understood without taking into account the inherent complexity of the country.

First, there remains the obdurate President Viktor Yanukovych. A believer in authoritarian measures and retaining a powerful position, it was his decision to suspend EU accession agreement negotiations that led to the initial protests. Yet, Yanukovych did not do this because he is pro-Russian. If he is anything, he is pro-family. That “family”, which includes his own son, is the inner circle whose power and wealth has dramatically increased since Yanukovych took office in 2010. While cleverly and selfishly advancing his own interests at the expense of common Ukrainians and even Ukrainian oligarchs, he must now believe he is in a position to lose the most having taken the most.

Second, looking at the opposition, one sees a trio of rightly cautious opposition leaders: Vitali Klitschko (leader of his own party-UDAR), Arseniy Yatsenyuk (leader of imprisoned Yulia Tymonshenko’s Batkivshchyna party) and Oleh Tyahnybok (leader of the nationalist Svoboda party). Unlike Augustus, Mark Anthony and Marcus Lepidus, this triumvirate has limited legitimate power over the protests. While their stature may be increasing over time (in particular for Klitschko), and while their current goals are the same, this is not their revolution. Instead, they are the spokesmen by default. Wisely, they have admitted as much.

Their recent decision to reject talks with Yanukovych shows great political savvy. For one, Yanukovych would likely delay any implementation of any agreement. Second, even if the opposition leaders forced the resignation of Prime Minister Mykola Azarov’s government (as some speculation suggested they desired), they must remain cognisant of a popular backlash from the street. After all, Ukrainians are disenchanted by all politicians – the failure of factional infighting following the Orange Revolution is not a distant memory.

That leads to the non-political Ukrainian stakeholders. Most noticeable are the hundreds of thousands of protestors who have been on Maidan at different times. It was estimated that still 25,000 braved the cold all night from Tuesday until Wednesday morning despite the aborted attempt by police to remove them. Adding to their resolve is support and stakeholders like representatives of the Ukrainian Church who have provided sanctuary by opening the doors to the cold and injured. Journalists like Mustafa Nayem, a strong proponent of the demonstrations, demonstrate the diversity of thought, writing on his blog that “fighting statues (i.e. bringing down Lenin’s statue), having covered faces with masks, is a lot easier than coming to power and dismantling statues by legal decisions of local council.” Perhaps most crucially, Yanukovych is losing the fear of the oligarchs. The ones which control Ukraine’s private media have given surprisingly objective coverage of the events and one, Petro Poroshenko, has unabashedly supported the protestors.

Internationally, there has been noticeable support for the rights of the protestors from the European Union and the United States. Statements from American Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State John Kerry conveyed messages of concern and disgust. Perhaps more noticeable was the presence at Maidan of US Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland (along with US Ambassador Geoffrey Pyatt) and the Foreign Affairs chief for the EU, Catherine Ashton. Baroness Ashton also sat down with Yanukovych for two hours to demand that he release protestors in custody, start a dialog with the opposition and civil society, restart EU accession agreement talks and start a conversation about why the protestors are in the streets.

Yanukovych did respond by releasing some protestors and offering to negotiate. His sincerity is, at best, questionable. Yet, even if he wishes to do these things, there remains one more issue.

Timothy Snyder recently wrote on nybooks.com that there is a great danger that Vladimir Putin sees Ukraine’s transformation and reaction as a precursor to his own future and fall. The Russian president’s fixation with stability and the transformation of a country so cherished to his sphere of influence policy would be additional reasons he finds this threatening. Yet, while Snyder quickly dismisses the idea of a Russian invasion into Ukraine due to connected cultural values, language, etc. (queue the Republic of Georgia rolling its eyes), it does not mean that lesser but still harmful tactics could be employed. Tools such as cyber-attacks (Estonia 2007 and Georgia 2008), economic and energy threats and prohibitions (which have already been employed against Ukraine and other neighbours), or even the instigation of secessionist insurrections in Russian-heavy places like Crimea are not beyond the imagination. Therefore, the collective West’s stance is measured in public as it avoids too great of commitments to Ukraine: strong words and possibly sanctions that will not affect overlapping and unforeseen issues.

How does this all translate into an exit from Maidan?

Viktor Yanukovych needs to be removed fairly from office, and in a way that ensures he will not watch his country burn having lost everything. He likely needs to be assured of his future freedom and his likely wealth, but the price for this will be implementing the changes his country requires.

Specifically, to avoid sanctions, he ought to remove his government, bring in a national unity government led by the opposition, and slowly implement reforms including to a parliamentary system. Another key reform should be on energy which as different carrot, should rapidly release tranches of IMF funding and prevent Ukraine from going bankrupt (and running into Putin’s arms). By early 2014, Yanukovych should also sign the association agreement with the EU.

Russia will remain a wildcard. Yet, with Yanukovych in power there can be no claims of a Western coup. Moreover, while trying to use a thief to give out the gifts that Ukrainians seems contradictory, such is the nature of Ukraine.

Ian Hansen is a recent International Affairs graduate of the George Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University. He has lived and worked in Poland, the Republic of Georgia and Ukraine.

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