Ukraine’s Perfect Storm: How Far Will It Go?

02 Dec 2013

Over the first winter weekend, youth-led rallies across Ukraine, protesting the government’s decision to suspend the signing of an Association Agreement (AA) with the EU, have turned into a genuine revolutionary movement aimed at ousting the country’s president, Viktor Yanukovych.

The immediate trigger for the current large-scale popular mobilization in the Ukrainian capital was the violent dispersal of several hundred mostly young protesters remaining on Kyiv’s Independence Square (Maidan) for an overnight rally. The videos of brutal beatings of peaceful protesters went viral on social media sites and were widely broadcast on Ukrainian television.

In response, hundreds of thousands of protesters took over Maidan and adjacent streets pushing the law enforcement units out of the way. The opposition leaders called for the resignation of the government and the president and pledged to block access to government buildings until the authorities agreed to their demands. While this new popular mobilization produced immediate comparisons with the Orange Revolution, several crucial and potentially consequential differences are already clear.

First, the Orange Revolution followed a long-term mobilization campaign planned and organized by the campaign managers of Viktor Yushchenko. It also had a clear aim – the recognition of Yushchenko’s election victory. In contrast, Ukraine’s “European Revolution” started as a more spontaneous reaction to a series of government actions with little preliminary planning and quickly changing goals. Once their preliminary demands to sign the AA during the Vilnius Summit were not fulfilled, the opposition leaders were ready to acquiesce and prepare for long-term low-level protest activity until the 2015 presidential election. However, the use of force by the riot police revolutionized the demands on the streets, pushing the opposition to take a more radical stance. Early presidential and parliamentary elections organized by a temporary coalition government have now become the opposition’s key goal.

Secondly, political leaders played a central role throughout the Orange Revolution, while Yushchenko’s personal authority helped to ensure that all protest actions remained non-violent. By contrast, today’s grass-roots revolutionary movement in Kyiv has been openly suspect of political parties and often treats them as potential collaborators of the ruling elite. As a result, mass rallies yesterday, on Sunday, December 1, culminated in violent clashes with riot police near the Presidential Administration compound as numerous protesters ignored the calls of opposition MPs to stop their attacks.

Similar to the “negative coalition” during the Orange Revolution, the current movement is diverse politically with both extreme nationalists and leftists protesting side by side. However, due to the lack of authoritative unifying figures leading the movement, it remains highly fractured and decentralized with small groups often acting on their own. The festive Orange Revolution-like atmosphere of the first days of protests was replaced with genuine anger and animosity towards law-enforcement and the country’s leadership. This opens up the potential for further escalation of violence in the coming days.

Thirdly, the success of the Orange Revolution was partially due to a clear legal mechanism that opposition leaders used in order to achieve their goals. The Supreme Court’s decision opened the way for the third election round and allowed a peaceful and legitimate resolution of the standoff on the streets. This time, the opposition expects realignment in the parliament with a dozen of pro-Yanukovych MPs potentially defecting. However, even if the opposition manages to form a new majority, it can only issue a vote of no-confidence in the current government - the president will ultimately decide whether to accept any resignations and who to appoint to the new government. The opposition-led parliamentary majority can only exercise veto power over some of the president’s decisions, like blocking the president’s nomination for prime minister.

There are few legal mechanisms to oust the president or form a compliant government unless Yanukovych suddenly decides to cooperate with the opposition. Given the opposition’s revolutionized demands, such cooperation remains unlikely and the legal way out of the crisis is still unclear. This may further intensify pressure on opposition leaders to resort to extra-judicial actions in the near future.

Fourthly, high-level elite negotiations were a crucial component allowing for a peaceful end to the Orange Revolution. These talks were possible due to international mediation and former-president Leonid Kuchma’s interest in ensuring his safe exit and maintaining his family’s business fortunes. With Yanukovych’s son accumulating over half a billion dollars in assets over the last three years, the president has a lot to lose from a revolutionary outcome. As does his key backer and the richest Ukrainian, Rinat Akhmetov, whose fortune tripled during Yanukovych’s presidency to over fifteen billion dollars.

However, Yanukovych still has sixteen months of his tenure left and he can draw on the support in his core electoral regions in eastern and southern Ukraine to claim his continued legitimacy as president. Protests also do not represent a personal threat to Yanukovych at the moment given the continued loyalty of the law enforcement.

So, if the talks do take place in the near future, Yanukovych is unlikely to accept any demands related to his immediate resignation. Anything short of this outcome, however, could now discredit opposition leaders among their own supporters. The least politically damaging compromise for the opposition could be the reinstatement of the parliamentary-presidential system with the government appointed by the opposition-led parliament determined to quickly sign the AA with the EU. Yanukovych would then remain a figurehead president committed to stepping down in 2015. However, this scenario would require a dramatic shift of power balance in favor of the opposition in the coming days in order to be seriously considered by the authorities.

Finally, the events of the last week demonstrated the risks that autocrats face when resorting to the public use of force, something that Kuchma shrewdly avoided in 2004. Sudden repressive actions are even more likely to generate major popular backlashes in the current media environment, which is saturated with live video feeds and instant news coverage.

In the 1989 revolutions in Central and Eastern Europe, the inability of leaders to instill fear and deter participation by raising the costs of protests meant a quick demise of their regimes. In Ukraine, much will depend on the consistency of opposition leaders, people’s commitment to remain on the streets, and acceptance of their demands by the so far silent majority in the eastern and southern regions. The coming week may prove decisive with Yanukovych’s scheduled visit to China creating a sense of power vacuum in the capital and raising uncertainty among the ruling elites. However, even if the authorities attempt and succeed with coercive demobilization now it will put Yanukovych’s political survival beyond 2015 in even greater doubt and make another electoral revolution against him almost inevitable.