January 26 was a pivotal moment in the development of Ukraine’s current political situation. On that day, the Ukrainian national parliament met for an extraordinary session and cancelled a package of anti-democratic laws it had adopted with massive procedural irregularities on January 16 to ease tensions in the country. Prime Minister Mykola Azrov, despised by protesters, stepped down the same day and President Yanukovych accepted his resignation. The following day, the parliament passed an amnesty bill for detained protestors. All of these events seem to spell good news for Ukraine’s political future, but the government’s willingness to embrace reform remains questionable at best.
The following weekend also saw increased efforts from the European Union to reach out to Ukraine. Following a security conference in Munich over the weekend, Catherine Ashton, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, confirmed that the United States and the European Union are putting together a short-term financial aid plan for Ukraine should its new government pursue economic and political reforms. Such aid is critical, as Ukraine’s economy is on the brink of default, especially after Russia decided to suspend the $2 billion installment of its $15 billion aid package last week. Finally, EU commissioner Stefan Fuele spoke of giving Ukraine the promise of EU accession, which has never been offered to Ukraine before.
These developments seem optimistic, but much still hangs in the balance. Many hoped that as the Ukrainian parliament reconvened on Tuesday, the pro-presidential Party of Regions would split, and a new parliamentary majority would form that would vote to return to the 2004 parliamentary-presidential constitution and limit presidential powers, form a new, broadly representative government, and pave the way for new legislative elections. However, despite several reports that a number of Party of Regions MPs are ready to support quick constitutional reform, the parliament so far has not moved in this direction. Instead, the Party of Regions officially advocates forming a commission to study possible constitutional changes—a strategy that the opposition paints as nothing more than a maneuver to buy time and avoid reforms. Clearly, there is an insufficient number of defectors ready to leave the Party of Regions and openly side with the opposition.
Therefore, the respite in street tensions may be short-lived, and increased tensions and violence may follow. Although President Yanukovych is in a weakened position, there are many signs that he does not intend to relinquish power, and hawks in his inner circle may be preparing to hold on by force.
One obstacle to further progress is the terms of the amnesty law for detained protesters. Since it was always clear that the opposition would reject this law, President Yanukovych’s sincerity in passing it is questionable. Indeed, he forced the parliament (by making personal appeals and by some accounts threatening his party) to vote for a revised version the bill. The law—which Ukrainian rights groups have already dubbed “law on hostages”—is worded so that the government can easily find a pretext not to apply it. The amnesty offer has a shelf life of fifteen days and expires if protesters do not fulfill its conditions by then. Amnesty would only be given if the protesters first evacuated all government and municipal buildings they had occupied in the capital and the provinces and clear the streets they had blocked. Under this version of the law, a blockade of even one side street anywhere in Ukraine can be considered failure to fulfill conditions. The Prosecutor General must confirm on its website that all conditions of the law have been fulfilled, but the authorities could easily claim that a street is not vacated and/or arrange for thugs-for-hire under their control to blockade something, even if protesters vacated every single street.
The regime continues to rely on violence and intimidation, and there is evidence that the government may be planning further escalation. The Dzerkalo Tyzhnia, an influential weekly news source, reported that sources had confirmed that at a closed cabinet meeting on 27 January that the government decided to increase six-fold the size of the feared special forces police (Berkut and Grifon, currently numbering around four thousand and one thousand, respectively) and legalize the formation of “people’s brigades” to guard public order. This could be a way to legitimize thugs-for-hire, known in Ukraine as “titushki,” who have been beating and harassing protesters and opposition activists—often in tandem with police. The same periodical also published a copy of what it says is a draft government decree by the Ministry of Interior that proposes adding flamethrowers to the authorized arsenal of police engaged in “guarding public order.” The government denied that such plans were in the works, but suspicions persist.
The neutrality of the army has also been called into question; on 30 January, the Defense Ministry issued a statement calling the takeover of government buildings “unacceptable” and appealing to the president to “take urgent measures to stabilize the situation in the country.” Two days earlier, the online news site “Left Bank” reported that the officers of the general staff of the armed forces of Ukraine were on several occasions pressured to sign an appeal to Yanukovych. The website also published a copy of an urgent telegram with the same proposal allegedly sent by the deputy chief of the general staff to military units across Ukraine.
Another indicator of the regime’s preference for intimidation over compromise is the reign of terror unleashed on anti-government activists by unidentified thugs widely believed to be working for the government, often under the guidance and protection of police. On 30 January, Automaidan activist Dmytro Bulatov was found after going missing eight days earlier. He said his abductors cut off a part of his ear, cut his face, and drove nails through his hands in an attempt to crucify him before dumping him in the woods on the outskirts of the capital. Earlier, two other activists were kidnapped by plain clothes men–one of the kidnapped men, Ihor Lutsenko, was a leader of the protest movement who was found two days later beaten and dumped in the woods in the same area. The second protester who was kidnapped with Lutsenko, Yurii Verbytsky, was found beaten and frozen to death. Activists have been beaten and their property vandalized in other regions of Ukraine, especially in the east where several thousands came out to protest in recent weeks, despite traditionally being Yanukovych’s stronghold. Even as a number of activists detained in January have been released from pre-trial detention and placed under house arrest, dozens remain in detention and some have seen their charged re-classified to more serious offences. Additional activists have also have been changed last week.
There is also substantial evidence that the government has directly committed violence. At least thirty cars of protestors in Kyiv have been torched by unidentified persons in the last week; protesters claim that the police are directing the assailants, since the cars are from the police-compiled list of cars whose owners partook in a protest rally at President Yanukovych’s suburban estate in late December. Police have also been snatching wounded protesters from hospitals (this is how Lutsenko and Verbytsky were taken). Euromaidan SOS, a group that acts as a clearinghouse of rights violations against protest participants, reported that as of 2 February thirty-six activists were missing with no information on their whereabouts.
If Ukraine does not stop forcefully suppressing protesters, it could come to the brink of disintegration. Yanukovych has lost legitimacy in western regions and much of central Ukraine, including Kyiv. The country was brought a step closer to disintegration this weekend when a congress held in the eastern city of Kharkiv was attended by local elites and some members of the Party of Regions. The congress created a movement named “Ukrainian Front”—a reference to one of the Soviet Army fronts during WWII—and vowed to stand up against west Ukrainians who are trying to politically control all of Ukraine. For its part, Samooborona, the Euromaidan’s self-defense force which claims 12,000 members, announced that self-defense units will be created in regions of Ukraine to protect activists from thugs and repressions.
Whether Yanukovych pursues the path of compromise or confrontation depends at least in part on position of Russia, but what Russia ultimately prefers is an open question. Would Russia prefer a compromise and a peaceful solution that would reduce the influence of pro-Russian circles in the Ukrainian government, thus likely setting Ukraine on the path towards an association and free trade agreement with the EU and away from the Russia-dominated Customs Union? Or would it prefer to keep a weakened and Russia-dependent Yanukovych in power and increase its control over eastern and southern Ukraine, even at the cost of political instability or even open conflict in Ukraine?
President Yanukovych departed for Sochi where he plans to meet with Putin, and his actions upon returning home – in particular if he will propose a hard-liner as next prime minister – may reveal Russia’s intentions. Many in Ukraine believe that Russia has been pushing Yanukovych towards a forceful solution to the crisis, and even Russia’s $15 billion loan to Ukraine was conditional on Yanukovych reasserting control and dispersing the Maidan. Dispersal of the Maidan seems only possible by force followed by a heavy death toll. According to a survey of the protesters in Kyiv by the Democratic Initiatives Foundation released this week, their resolve has hardened by the past month with over 80 percent of the protesters demanding Yanukovych’s ouster and 50 percent ready to take up arms. Putin and Yanukovych have both expressed beliefs that protests are Western-backed and that the protesters are radicals paid by the west.
Underestimating the extent of popular discontent in Yanukovych’s corrupt and autocratic rule and the grass-root nature of the protests may push the government to either forcefully disperse the Maidan or to ignore protesters demands while engaging in targeted repression against activists. Neither strategy will solve the crisis or prevent further escalation. Instead, workable solutions include good faith negotiation and a complex set of reforms to reduce presidential powers, increased judicial independence and accountability of the law enforcement organs, and guaranteed fair elections. Western and Russian leaders should be urging their Ukrainian interlocutors to engage in such negotiations immediately before tensions on the street raise again and the economy slips past the point of no return.