Ukraine currently dominates the headlines, with most of the attention focused on the struggle for influence between Moscow on the one hand, and Brussels and Washington on the other. However, there is much more at stake than just localized spheres of influence. The outcome in Kiev (and in Lviv and Donetsk) could have major implications for the fate of democracy throughout the post-communist region and quite possibly on a more global scale.
Although the demonstrations in Ukraine had been slowly escalating over the past three months, the situation reached a new peak of violence the week of February 17. Scores of Ukrainians are dead, hundreds injured, and the toll is still mounting. Lurid media coverage of violent clashes between riot police and protesters in the streets of Kiev have finally compelled the Western democracies to act. But policy responses in Washington and Brussels need to become still firmer – and they must be based not only on a proper understanding of the protest movement and of the power struggle between Russia and the West, but also of the broader stakes in the global fight for democratic freedoms.
Ukraine reached a critical crossroads on November 21st 2013 at the European Union summitmeeting in Lithuania. At the Vilnius Summit, Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych unexpectedly balked at signing an Association Agreement that would have led to greatly increased investment and trade with the 28 EU countries and their 500 million citizens. His public rationale for not signing was that the agreement would jeopardize trade and political relations with Russia – a much less affluent country of 140 million people. In actuality, he was driven primarily by his reluctance to release opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko as demanded by Brussels and by his fear of taking other liberalizing steps required for a closer association with the EU.
The very next day thousands of protesters took to Independence Square (Maidan) in Kiev, demanding the resignation of the President and his government. The protest was based partly on Yanukovych’s campaign platform three years earlier in which he had promised to work towards closer relations with the EU. Within weeks, the number of protesters in Independence Square reached hundreds of thousands – the largest since Ukraine’s Orange Revolution in 2004.
In defiance of the protests, Ukraine and Russia in mid-December 2013, announced a new economic agreement between the two countries that would move Ukraine solidly into Moscow’s orbit. Due to government economic mismanagement and widespread corruption under Yanukovych, Ukraine is nearly bankrupt. Russia agreed to purchase $15 billion in Ukrainian debt and to cut gas prices to Ukraine by about one-third. The first $3 billion of Russia’s loan was in Ukraine’s accounts by Christmas. But Moscow has since made it clear that the remaining $12 billion will be doled out in stages only if and as Yanukovych is able to suppress the pro-democracy protests and to steer his country away from the West. As part of Moscow’s quid pro quo, Ukraine is now an “observing candidate” for membership in the Russia-led Eurasian Union, a project that has become an important symbol of Moscow’s efforts to counteract EU expansion and to rebuild its leverage in Russia’s “Near Abroad.”
On January 28th, however, Prime Minister Azarov and the rest of his pro-Yanukovich government resigned – thus giving the Ukrainian opposition movement its most visible success to date. This followed closely upon the repeal of recently instituted laws against demonstration and public assembly. That legislation, passed only twelve days earlier on January 16th, had triggered an escalation of the protests and violence that attracted major attention from worldwide media.
In the weeks leading up to these major concessions, Yanukovych had seemed receptive to the idea of forgoing some, though not all, of his power and reaching a negotiated solution with the opposition. He offered the Prime Ministership to a major Fatherland Party leader, Arseny Yatsenyuk, as well as the Deputy Prime Minister role to Vitaly Klitschko of the UDAR party. These two leaders and their parties currently represent the two largest entities representing the aspirations of the 2004 Orange Revolution. Both opposition leaders wisely declined the offer, demanding further negotiations. They refused to be part of a government that would have in effect, legitimized Yanukovych and left him in control of many of the levers of power. Instead, they demanded constitutional changes and new elections.
The demonstrations reached a new peak the week of February 17, when parliament failed to pass constitutional changes to satisfy the opposition’s demands for a return towards greater democracy and a roll-back of Yanukovych’s increasing authoritarianism and corruption. Scores of demonstrators were killed and hundreds injured in multiple clashes between the protesters and an increasingly aggressive riot police. Ominously, police violence was also starting to beget violent tactics on the anti-Yanukovych side.
Recent reports of EU-mediated negotiations between Yanukovych and the opposition, along with new developments in Parliament, could conceivably lay the groundwork for resolving the crisis. However, Yanukovich has in the past repeatedly made verbal offers of compromise, only to back away from them in a matter of days or even hours. Ukrainians demanding a democratic future in Kiev (and increasingly in Lviv and numerous other provincial cities), are unfortunately confronting forces larger than Yanukovych’s greed and his desperation to maintain power and the impunity that comes with it.
Vladimir Putin correctly sees the stakes in Ukraine as critical for the survival of his own brand of authoritarianism in Russia and in like-minded states. If Ukraine becomes a consolidated democracy and begins to reap the economic benefits of closer association with the EU, its example could well spill over to other post-Soviet republics. The potential for impact starts with Ukraine’s fellow “hybrid states” of Georgia and Moldova, which already enjoy much greater political freedoms and ties with the West than do the Central Asian republics or Belarus. Moscow had tried to intimidate even these two countries into foregoing Association Agreements with the EU. Instead, they held firm at the Vilnius Summit despite Russian pressures.
If Ukraine does succeed, subsequent rings of democratic “contagion” could then also plausibly spread outward to Armenia and Azerbaijan, and possibly in the longer term to Russia itself. Conversely, if Ukraine can be maneuvered back to its strong prior linkage to Moscow, and if Yanukovych consolidates his Putin-style crony authoritarianism, the status quo will be more easily preserved in Russia and in its “Near Abroad.”
Furthermore, the outcome in Ukraine could have impact well beyond the boundaries of the former Soviet Union. If Putin and Yanukovich were to succeed in suppressing such a strong pro-democracy movement in Ukraine through the violence and blatant outside intervention, this would have a chilling effect on democratic forces beyond the region.
For example, there are worrisome analogies to Syria. One sees a similar pattern of a legitimate democratic opposition initially pursuing peaceful demonstrations, but then being goaded into violence by an authoritarian regime’s violent provocations and systematic distortion of reality through its propaganda. And the analogies continue with Assad’s resort to Russian economic assistance and political support, and his government’s labeling of all opposition forces as “terrorists” – a theme already being echoed by the Yanukovych government.
Both Brussels and Washington will need to act firmly, promptly, and in close concert. The United States, and the European Union and its member states, have a strong long-term strategic interest in avoiding the scenario that Moscow is attempting to create. If the West wishes to restore momentum towards democratization in the post-communist region, it should implement a far more robust approach to supporting democratic forces in Ukraine.
This is a highly crucial time in the history of Ukraine and of the post-communist region in general. Despite the initial promise of the 2004 Orange Revolution, Ukraine’s political culture and institutions failed to prevent the country from authoritarian backsliding. Now, ten years after the Revolution, a vibrant Ukrainian civil society has re-launched the democratic momentum in the same Independence Square. The will of the Ukrainian people is clear, but their demands for a democratic and European-oriented future will not be satisfied without immediate and efficacious support from the EU and the US.
We must support Ukraine with firmness and with a commitment to address the longstanding problems that engendered the protests in the first place. This should involve continuing to escalate the direct pressure on Yanukovych and those members of his inner circle responsible for the corruption, deception, and brutality. However, the West will need to go much further than visa denials and freezing of assets. To ensure the success of Ukraine’s second democratic uprising, the U.S. and its European allies must be prepared to go “all in” by putting together a strong package of economic support to help enable the deep structural reforms needed to put Ukraine on the path to prosperity. Such a support package was already hinted at by President Obama in his Mexico City statement of February 20. It should be spelled out and confirmed as soon as possible.
A Western failure to efficaciously assist Ukraine’s democrats would lead to devastating levels of disillusionment of the Ukrainian people, and a severe tarnishing of the West’s credibility. Conversely, success in Ukraine would mean a major win both for democracy and for the standing of the West – not just in Russia’s back yard, but also with regard to the global credibility of the U.S. and of its trans-Atlantic allies.