Last night Ukraine changed forever. This is no longer a post-Soviet state that is trying to “muddle through” economic and political difficulty. This is no longer a country of peaceful demonstrations that periodically supplies the world media with striking images of hundreds of thousands of smiling protestors with Orange or Euromaidan symbolism. This is now a war zone. And the war is between the Ukrainian government and its people. Soon it could degenerate into outright civil war (God knows I hope it doesn't, but ignoring the realities will not make them go away...).
At approximately 4am Kyiv time, riot police savagely attacked and dispersed the remaining protestors on Kyiv’s Independence Square. Approximately 50 people were arrested; many more were brutally beaten. Images of the wounded are currently all over the internet. Videos clearly show that the police were not acting with the intent to disperse; their orders were to clear and occupy the monument in the middle of Independence Square where the protesters had set up their stage, and the center of their operations. The several hundred people who had remained in the square overnight did not resist (many were actually sleeping on makeshift mattresses when the attack began). They were savagely beaten anyway.
During the past 24 hours I have realized how stupid (inept? idiotic?) the current leadership of Ukraine is in fact. Previously (like some EU leaders – I suspect) I had given Yanukovych the benefit of some doubt. Assuming some ability to think strategically, I had believed that Ukraine’s current President was trying to repeat the electoral story of Kuchma in the 1990’s: elected initially thanks to popularity in Ukraine’s Russian speaking east, then re-elected five years later by a respectable margin with support from all regions (the fact that Kuchma’s second term was a disaster is not relevant to his very real electoral victories). Had Yanukovych signed the EU Association Agreement in Vilnius yesterday, his chances of re-election in 2015 would have been quite good: he would have maintained some support in the east while gaining significant support in the west. After last night’s violence, his chances of legitimately winning an election are now nil.
But at this point it is clear that Yanukovych has no intention of even trying to win a fair vote in 2015. Ukraine is today ruled by a would-be dictator who is attempting to consolidate control over his stream of booty by using force against social groups that he considers marginal. He is wrong. The students who gathered on EuroMaidan in Kyiv do not represent a marginal group. The young people on Independence Square that I spoke with yesterday, and the people currently gathering in front of Mykhailivsky church are intelligent, erudite, and deeply patriotic. They represent the epitome of middle class European values: they want to live “normal” lives; they want careers (not wealth); they want to work in stable environments; they want to travel freely; they want to raise their children (or future children) in relative safety; they want to be proud of their country. Put simply, they want the personal dignity that life in a European country should offer. And the further west one travels from Kyiv, the more widespread these wants are.
That’s the social fact that Yanukovych does not understand. Putin could disperse crowds on Manezhnaya square in Moscow because the opposition demonstrators did not represent mainstream views in Russia. Force can be used to stifle dissent only if a significant group of citizens believes that the state’s monopoly on the use of force is legitimate. In countries such as Lybia, Egypt, Tunisia, and others where popular revolutions have toppled entrenched governments, the people simply rejected the legitimacy of their rulers. In Kyiv at least, it is difficult to find someone who recognizes the legitimacy of Yanukovych.
On the other hand, it should be said that few among the core of Euromaidan protesters support the opposition party leaders (another parallel with the Arab Spring countries). Although the threesome of Klitshko-Yatseniuk-Tiahnybok represents an organized alternative to Yanukovych, the protesters on Kyiv’s streets are just as skeptical of them as they are of organized politics generally. In neighboring Belarus, the lack of a popular alternative to Lukashenko is often cited as the reason that country has sunk into long-term isolation and authoritarian rule. The current protests in Ukraine show that (as in Arab countries) a single leader is not an absolute necessity for a social movement to gain widespread appeal.
I suspect that there is a basic fact that Ukraine’s president does not understand: Ukraine is not Belarus, and he is not Lukashenko. Unlike the Belarusian leader, Yanukovych is deeply unpopular in the country’s capital, and hated in the west of the country; his image in the industrialized east of the country as a “local boy who made it” has been seriously undermined by the lack of expected improvement in the material wellbeing of his electorate during the past 3 years of his presidency. To become a dictator, one needs a concentrated base of support. Yanukovych simply doesn’t have one. Incidentally, although wealthy, Lukashenko has not been as blatent as his Ukrainian counterpart in amassing wealth, and he seems more restrained when it comes to ordering the use of force.
The riot police who cleared Independence Square last night were bussed into the capital from the eastern and southern regions of the country (unconfirmed reports claim they came from Crimea). According to sources within Kyiv’s police force, these imports had spent the previous 4 days living in the very buses that had brought them in – a fact that may have added fuel to their lust for violence during the raid on EuroMaidan. Local Kyiv-based police officers have spent the past week under orders to guard the perimeter around the protesters during 12-hour shifts in freezing temperatures; often without food; sometimes enduring verbal abuse from demonstrators. The salary of a Kyiv-based police officer does not exceed 2200 hryvnia (approx. 200 euro) per month. Not surprisingly, many are asking whose interests they are in fact protecting… Given that both the imports and the locals have guns, and that their interests do not coincide, life in Kyiv is beginning to get a little scary.
Incidentally, reports have just surfaced that the local police in Lviv have refused to provide logistical support to "Berkut" riot police that were bussed in from other regions to disperse demonstrators in the western Ukrainian Euromaidan.
Last night before the riot police attacks in Kyiv, Deputy PM Vilkul and Foreign Minister Kozhara, speaking on the ShusterLive political talk show, were both hopeful that a deal could still be signed in 2014, and alluded that this would be in candidate Yanukovych’s interests in the run-up to the 2015 Presidential race. That same TV program was abruptly interrupted and taken off the air for over an hour (apparently due to a “technical fault”) when Ukraine’s three opposition party leaders attempted to enter the studio. When the broadcast was resumed, the host was clearly shaken. Savik Shuster left Ukraine today for Italy, and it is unclear whether his regular Friday evening live broadcast will be aired next week.
Today, Serhiy Lyovochkin, the head of Yanukovych’s administration, resigned in protest against the use of force on EuroMaidan. I would not be surprised if other government officials followed his lead. Any illusions as to the real essence of Yanukovych’s politics were dashed last night – forever.
Naively, during the past 3 years, there have been several occasions when I questioned the simplistic portrayal of Yanukovych as a thug (pirate?). Several people who work in his administration are acquaintances and (former?) friends. In 2012 I personally took part in a working group organized by Prime Minister Azarov called upon to draft a new Law on Higher Education for Ukraine – how silly I was to believe that this government could actually be attempting EU-oriented reforms! Clearly I am not alone in feeling duped.
Former Interior Minister Yuriy Lutsenko (one of the leaders of both the Orange Revolution protests in 2004, and organizer of the “Ukraine without Kuchma” demonstrations in 2001, who was jailed in 2011 and amnestied by Yanukovych last year) has not tired of repeating: “the use of force by the state must be countered only by peaceful protest”. This is excellent advice, and I sincerely hope that it will be followed. But we need to realize that a thug understands only a thug’s language. International sanctions may help to isolate Yanukovych, but in the end, it will probably take more radical (ugly?) action to displace him. A general strike may be an answer.
More street protests are sure to come – and more blood…God help us!