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The Ticking Time Bomb in Kyiv

Over the past week authorities have used bombs as excuses to close metro stations and airports, fearing the arrival of protesters. But while those alarms were false, the threat to Ukraine is very real.

December 16, 2013 - Jakub Parusinski - Articles and Commentary

Kyiv_EuroMaidan_2013-12-15 (1).jpg

Kyiv_EuroMaidan_2013-12-15 (1).jpg

Nobody knows how and when it will explode, and it may turn out to be a dud. Though a peaceful outcome to the situation is still possible, there are very few positive scenarios.

Every revolution is a party, and the Euromaidan has its share of festivities. Food, hot beverages and music lighten the mood; those needing to keep busy build barricades, volunteer in kitchens or manage donations. There are even tourist attractions: the occupied city hall, renamed Revolutionary Headquarters, is “free Kyiv’s” Louvre, with visitors queuing late into the night; others line up to bring a sledgehammer down on the toppled Lenin statue and grab a small Crimean marble souvenir.

Yet the joyous atmosphere turned sombre this week when protesters were reminded of just how much they had to lose and how vulnerable they are. As the government’s deadline to clear the square approached, visions of demonstrators crossing themselves – anticipating both truncheons and a broader crackdown – during a mass on the Maidan sent chills through the spine. The sentiment was captured by political analyst Oleksandr Sushko, who told the Kyiv Post: “As some people say, if we surrender, there will be Belarus, if not – Yugoslavia.”

Despite the droves of police being bussed in to overwhelm the protests, the activists held their ground. Peripheral barricades were lost, and even central ones dismantled, but the occupied government buildings remained in the opposition’s hands. What authorities took apart the protesters quickly rebuilt, and their resolve seems harder than ever. The upshot is that Kyiv is once again at a stalemate, and a roundtable called together by President Viktor Yanukovych has achieved nothing.

The president’s promises to provide amnesty for all except provocateurs, to revive AA/DCFTA negotiations with the European Union, and to fire some officials are just not good enough. But the blunt truth is that nobody can trust him anymore. Member of European Parliament Jacek Saryusz-Wolski earlier called the president’s overtures to Europe “a smokescreen” meant to buy time, and any promises to reach out to the opposition should be seen as more of the same.

Crisis of leadership

Ukraine’s current protests and their potentially disastrous consequences are largely the result of a crisis of leadership. The opposition has largely been leading the movement from behind, limiting itself to appearing at the scene of the protests and trying to capitalise on them with populist statements. On the other side Yanukovych seems to lack the resources or will to anything substantial and empty words keep eroding his credibility.

It now appears clear that the will of the protesters was underestimated. Despite days and weeks of camping out in the tough Ukrainian winter the EuroMaidan keeps growing in numbers and resolve. The attempt to clear the square failed and barricades were rebuilt. It is worth noting the presence of Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) symbolism – for many young men, whose grandfathers or uncles fought in the UPA, this is simply their turn to fight the occupant for the freedom of their country.

In the absence of clear direction, radical groups will, and indeed have, taken a leading role. Already on Saturday, November 30th, young men were being recruited to join self-defence organisations to “protect the revolution.” They can now be seen wearing hard hats, arm bands and moving in columns of 50 or 100. These foot soldiers are being organised by Afghan war veterans and younger military vets. Although their discipline and numbers may still be lacking, a growing number seem determined to fight it out, until the end. This raises the question of what their demands are and how they would react to a compromise deal between Yanukovych and the opposition.

In turn, Yanukovych’s failure to bring the situation under control has significantly limited his options. It seems unlikely Russia (or China, for that matter) will step in to rescue a weak wannabe despot. Any deals signed would hold little value: firstly, because they would almost certainly be unconstitutional; secondly, because a change in leadership could abolish them. Yanukovych has de facto lost control of parts of his capital, hardly making him the reliable partner that Moscow or Beijing would want.

This past week has only made the situation worse. The failed dispersal looks bad both from Brussels (undemocratic behaviour) and the Kremlin (ineffective crackdown). It now appears the president is unable to bring the officers responsible for the November 30th violence to justice, for fear of losing their loyalty, while anything less will almost certainly be rejected by the protesters. This leaves the option of introducing a state of emergency or bringing in the army, either of which would undoubtedly further fuel the demonstrators’ rage and cause public outcry.

Breaking the nation

Though there have been some bright examples of East-West cooperation and friendship since the protest started, the rift between these two parts of the country should not be underestimated. Reconciliation will be difficult to say the least, after parts of the country have called for pacification of the protests, while others have sealed their fates to it.

Many local authorities, particularly in the country’s west, have come dangerously close to secession. City councils have declared they will not obey government orders they do not agree with, while the mayor of Lviv warned the whole town would rise against special forces if they try anything. A small town on the Polish border even proposed to defect. If forced to pick sides, much of the military and law enforcement would almost certainly defy the president. In a region where institutional and human memory of insurgency persists, this is a very dangerous situation.

With the end-of-year deadline for a new budget fast approaching, so pressure on recalcitrant local authorities is growing. Ukraine’s centralised fiscal system means that, without the green light from the presidential administration, they will simply have no money. Some government workers in the regions have not been paid for months, and empty pockets will put a strain on principles. Oligarchs have assets in the West, and the ill-fated gas transit system also depends on the region, meaning any attempts to take over could lead to calamity.

Meanwhile, a landmine has been set in Sevastopol, which appealed not only for the pacification of the Maidan protests, as did other regional authorities in Eastern and Southern Ukraine, but asked that it be done by Russian troops. Should a compromise be struck involving early elections or an interim coalition government of sorts, it is only too easy to imagine Sevastopol authorities declaring the move a coup and asking for Russian protection.

No way out?

There is no easy way out of this conflict and all sides involved are now playing va banque. The arrests of activists, lists of student demonstrators made and veiled threats from the administration suggest a Belarusian-style crackdown could follow the dispersal of the Maidan. Meanwhile, losing for Yanukovych could mean the loss of money and freedom, and perhaps worse. His new nickname Yanuchescu, after the Romanian dictator Ceausescu shot by firing squad, reveals the popular sentiment.

Any mediated solution would require considerable compromises on both sides. Yanukovych is not likely to resign, and would demand guarantees his position and amassed wealth not be touched. Meanwhile, the opposition would need real evidence it will not be prosecuted. This could mean firing the perpetrators of the violence, handing the “power institutions” (Ministry of Interior, Prosecutor’s Office, Justice Ministry etc.) over to the opposition, or setting a date for snap elections. None of the above, however, seems likely or acceptable.

Nor would a snap vote, be it for president or parliament, prove a panacea. Despite the president’s dismal ratings, the opposition is by no means guaranteed victory. Vitali Klitschko can be dismissed on technical grounds for insufficient residency in Ukraine, while Arseniy Yatseniuk could be tried for calling for a revolution (the raiding of his party’s headquarters by secret service agents should be seen as a warning). Other potential candidates, like Roshen owner Petro Poroshenko, have yet to do the ground work, while Svoboda leader Oleh Tyahnybok is unpalatable in the country’s east.

Hanging over everyone’s heads is the imminent collapse of Ukraine’s economy. So far politics dominated people’s minds but the nation’s coffers continue to bleed hard currency at an alarming rate and a currency panic is only too likely in coming weeks. This would in turn topple the fragile banking system, and bring the country to its knees. The government is already $10 billion behind in pensions, wages and other current expenditures and fixing the problem will involve a lot of unpopular measures – something the opposition will not be keen on, especially within a coalition government.

Jakub Parusinski is Chief Editor at the English-language weekly Kyiv Post and a contributor to New Eastern Europe‘s Unravelling Ukraine column.

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