The sudden change of mind on the European Association by Ukrainian President Victor Yanukovych in late November had unexpected and devastating impacts on his administration. Instead of the usual rallies in the thousands, which the government expected, the protests against his decision grew to hundreds of thousands of people—in some cases, over a million people attended. The government took an arrogant stand of ignoring and trying to suppress the protests, but this made things even worse for Yanukovych. The festive celebration of the European future of the country turned into politically charged movement after police brutality against the small pro-European student’s camp at the center of Kyiv 4 AM on November 30th. Similarly brutal suppression of the fairly meaningless protest in Belarus in December 2010 made the country freeze in fear, and the following Western sanctions forced Lukashenko into a close alliance with Russia. It was different in Ukraine.
“Ukraine is Europe”
The slogan “Ukraine is Europe” stays, but Ukrainians responded to police brutality with a rally of over 100,000 people on December 1st. The historic Maidan in the center of Kiev (the location of the Orange Revolution in 2004) was re-occupied by protesters, surrounded by barricades. Special police forces attacked the barricades at night on December 11th, while U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland and High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs Baroness Ashton were still in town. The attack failed, and the next day’s rally in support of regime change and of the European Association reached over a million people. Astoundingly, the massive rallies were completely peaceful; on December 10th U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt praised the restraint of the opposition as ‘Gandhian’.
The crisis has been building for a long time. The number of street protests in 2012 exceeded 3600, up 60 percent from 2011. The approval rating of the president is below 25 percent and falling, and people are taking their issues to the streets. There are numerous cases of drunk policemen or state prosecutors committing fatal traffic accidents, and going unpunished. In June, Vradievka—a small town in southern Ukraine—saw upheavale against the regime’s lawlessness after a young girl was raped and burned alive by the activists of the ruling party and the police attempted a cover-up. Business owners are forced to pay mandatory kickbacks, or watch their business be handed over to someone related to Yanukovych. Meanwhile the wealth of the Yanukovych’s son Alexander surpassed $500 million, and the “family oligarch” Sergei Kurchenko spent more than a billion dollars buying assets in 2013 alone.
For some time, the carefully planted poison pill idea of holding protests without political parties and slogans kept the protest movement divided and manageable for the government, but this December, the levee broke. Ukrainians said loud and clear that they have enough, and no longer will tolerate the arrogant disrespect and mockery by the ruling Party of Regions.
The officially provided reasons for Yanukovych’s u-turn challenges common sense; the only message which these reasons really carry is that Yanukovych ranks the intellectual capacity of the partners at the European Association talks much lower than his own. Sudden requests for the extra €160 billion aid package as a supplement to the Free Trade Agreement is a deceiving and embarrassing for all sides way to say “no” to the planned signing. The false speculations about a mandatory imposition of gay marriage on Ukraine by the European Union is a tasteless PR move after the “no” was already communicated.
The real reason behind the change of course was never officially revealed, but through November, Yanukovych kept lamenting Russian pressure in the negotiations. It is not clear how Russia pressured Yanukovych, but it is known that on October 15th, the Secretaries of the National Security Councils of Russia and Ukraine, Nikolai Patrushev, and Andriy Klujev respectively, held a semi-secret meeting in Odessa, followed by equally concealed meetings between Victor Yanukocych and Vladimir Putin on October 25th in Minsk, October 27th in Sochi, November 9th in Moscow, and December 9th again in Sochi. Following Ukraine’s failure to sign the Association Agreement in Vilnius, Russian Vice Prime Minister Dmitry Rorozin went on a “buyer’s tour” of Ukraine on December 2nd, and visited Ukrainian military shipyards, jet and sea vessel turbine manufacturers, and Dnepropetrovsk missile company Youzhnoeye. All these developments can be related; after all, the aging trunk pipelines is not the only Ukrainian asset Russia needs.
Since the protests in Kiev erupted, Russian media has gone on a berserk attack on everything Ukrainian and Western, surpassing by far the worst examples of Soviet propaganda. The reaction in Ukraine was disgust and (worst of all for Russia) laughter. Russian propaganda finds itself in a Catch-22 situation now. It invested a great deal in planting the idea that Ukrainians and Russians are one nation; now Ukrainians rebel against the mistreatment and disrespect by their leader, and it is natural for Russians to consider following suit. Kiev has become the most popular destination for Russians, and Putin now faces a risk of the spread of the Ukrainne’s Revolution of Dignity to Russia.
The results of Yanukovych’s u-turn on the European Association, and of the efforts to suppress the protests in Kiev are unexpected for their masterminds.
For President Yanukovych, the fall of fortune has been especially steep. Yanukovych’s December 6th to 9th trip to China was a failure. He expected to secure a large investment package and a $12 billion loan, but returned with only few relatively small real projects approved and no money. It could be different if the agreement had been signed—China may be interested in investing in the country when European markets are open. It can hardly be interested in putting money in a corrupt economy that has no such advantage.
Yanukovych no longer has a chance for the 2015 Presidential Elections. He planned to emerge as the nation’s savior on December 1st, and to build his 2015 campaign on hope and economic improvement.. Instead he came out as a weak leader who bowed to Russian pressure and whose only support is the police forces. He also failed to listen to the warnings by U.S. Vice President Biden and embarrassed European leaders, isolating himself on the world stage. The chances of Victor Yanukovych to be re-elected in 2015 are now next to zero; he will probably not even try to run. At the time of writing his resignation before 2015 is up in the air, but the government threw new fuel in the protests’ fire by forging the Parliament by-elections in some districts on December 15th. The day before, the ruling Party of Regions had gathered an anti-Maidan rally, promising to pay the participants. The rally had fewer than 50,000 attendants, but at the end participants were not paid. As a result, many of them joined the protest, demanding the resignation of Yanukovych. He is not trusted even by his nuclear electorate now.
Key Ukrainian oligarchs Rinat Akhmetov, Dmitry Firtash, and Victor Pinchuk pulled their support of Yanukovych; their media channels are destroying him, and praising the protests. The threat of U.S. sanctions contributed to this change, but Yanukovych’s actions had disappointed them a big way even before that threat was communicated to them. The Party of Regions itself, under the leadership of Prime Minister of Nikolai Azarov, is hated and ineffectual, and Azarov has become a laughing stock of Ukrainians. The structure of the Parliament of Ukraine will change as the result of a change in priorities of the sponsors of the Party of Regions.
Victor Yanukovych had to name the people who were responsible for the police brutality on November 30th. This is a very right move for the country, and prevents the administration from using the police unlawfully as a political instrument. After this, every policeman or judge will think twice before obeying the illegal orders. The people, whom State Prosecutor Pshonka (a close friend of Victor Yanukovych) named as the culprits, only followed orders, and are pointing at Andriy Klujev and Minister of Interior Vitaly Zakharchenko as the masterminds and coordinators of the November 30th assault.
For its part, Russia continues on its path of self-destruction in Ukraine. Russian propaganda missed the boat when support for the European Association turned into fight for human dignity, but continues to bash the protesters. The result is growing resentment of Russia. Yanukovych had to pacify the situation in order to win a good deal with Russia during his December 17th visit to Moscow. He failed to do so; now, no matter what he signs in Moscow, Ukraine will clearly move away from Russia.
The West has found itself on the right side of history in Ukraine. The request of Vice President Biden to de-escalate the situation, Secretary of State Kerry’s strong statement, and the involvement of Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland and High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs Baroness Ashton won the hearts of many Ukrainians for the West. The support of a Western turn for Ukraine has now climbed to 80 percent.
The most important outcome of the Revolution of Dignity in Ukraine is that Ukrainians are not afraid of the oppressing regime any more, and are taking responsibility for their country into their own hands. The adolescent expectation that a new leader will come and produce a miracle is replaced by the sober knowledge that no one but Ukrainians can build Ukraine as they want it to be. The Ukrainian nation will never be the same after a month of non-violent revolution.