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Ukraine: A battle for the future of Europe

Yuriy Gorodnichenko, professor of economics | January 31, 2014

Squeezed between European super powers, Ukraine is no stranger to tensions, but it has been a remarkably peaceful country in the modern history. The recent waves of protests and government-sponsored violence moved Ukraine to the brink of a civil war with far-reaching consequences for Europe as well as Russia and other post-communist countries in the region.

The Yanukovich Era and the uprising

How could Ukraine get into such a terrible state? What can happen next and what can be done to save peace in this country with a population of 45 million people?

aerial photo of protest

When Ukraine separated from the former Soviet Union in 1991, it marked its first real era of independence since World War I. While other former Soviet states immediately found themselves controlled by corrupt and dictatorial regimes, Ukraine stood out in the strength of its political institutions and civil liberties.

The attachment of the population to the democratic process was illustrated most vividly in 2004 when Viktor Yanukovich –- at the time Ukraine’s prime minister –- first tried to be elected president through electoral shenanigans. That effort was met with widespread popular protests , dubbed the “Orange Revolution, ” which forced new (and fair) elections and the defeat of Yanukovich in favor of Victor Yushchenko, then a leader of the opposition and the freedom movement in Ukraine.

Unfortunately, political divisions among the Orange Revolution’s reformers generated a popular backlash, through which Yanukovich was legally elected president in 2010. Since then, he has systematically undermined the constitutional process and the rights of individuals in Ukraine. For example, political power has become increasingly concentrated in the hands of Yanukovich and his inner circle, virtually replacing the constitutionally-enshrined parliamentary nature of government with a presidential regime.

This concentration of power has been matched by rising levels of corruption, enriching Yanukovich’s family and inner circle while the Ukrainian economy has become progressively more impoverished. Television and radio stations are under the almost-exclusive control of the ruling party. Political opponents, such as the former Prime Minister Yulia Timoshenko, have been jailed and beaten. The rights of individuals have been increasingly curtailed, with new laws passed limiting freedom of speech, freedom of association and freedom of movement.

The recent protests began rather innocuously, as a result of Yanukovich turning away from accession to the European Union in response to an offer of financial aid and gas subsidies from Russia. But the heavy-handed response of authorities, including violent attacks on protesters, transformed a small-scale protest into a general popular uprising with hundreds of thousands of people descending daily on the main squares of Kiev and other Ukrainian cities in the middle of the bitter cold Ukrainian winter and the persistent risk of being beaten, imprisoned, and tortured.

A rising number of protesters have met with an increasingly violent response by authorities, including widespread arrests, torture and death. But as the protests have continued to grow, Yanukovich has begun to appear to cede some ground, with his prime minister resigning and some of the more heinous laws restricting personal freedoms being abridged. However, even now it’s not clear how sincere his moves are and if he is not just trying to buy himself some time to consolidate his powers for another crackdown on peaceful protesters.

Why lies ahead?

Given the size and intensity of recent protests, combined with the visible desperation of authorities, one can foresee at least four scenarios for the future of Ukraine.

1.  A peaceful, political resolution: The most positive outcome is one in which Yanukovich accedes to immediate and free elections which put in place a new administration committed to rebuilding the institutions and civil liberties for which Ukrainians have fought so hard. But as discussed below, achieving such an outcome will not be easy, and failure could lead to other, less desirable outcomes.

2.  A bloody victory for the protesters: If the authorities continue to respond to protesters with  violence and torture what has so far remained a remarkably peaceful protest movement could rapidly become much more violent. There are certainly among the protesters some who would prefer to fight more aggressively against the authorities, and further provocations by the police or armed gangs hired by the government could give them cause to lash out. Violent uprisings have in the past often meant unsavory endings for authorities (e.g. Ceaucescu, Qadaffi), and the consequences of such an outcome would likely cast a long shadow over the future of the Ukrainian political process.

3.  A victory for the regime: Yanukovich has already tried to buy out and divide the leadership of the protest movement by offering them prominent political roles, but this wooing has had little success. Given that protests have not faded despite the cold and the brutal response of the regime, a scenario in which protests peter out quietly is unlikely. But, if backed into a corner, the regime’s armed forces could overwhelm protesters and ensure the continuation of the regime. This would almost ensure that Yanukovich would reinforce his hold on power and become a dictator. The consequences for the Ukrainian people would be dire.

4. A civil war: The most dire outcome is one in which Yanukovich tries to put down the protests violently but unsuccessfully, thereby generating a civil war between the Ukraine’s Western and Eastern regions. A violent and persistent struggle between these factions would induce large-scale refugee movements into neighboring countries, instability on the border of Europe and Russia, and possible proliferation of the arms and nuclear materials currently held in Ukraine. This outcome could be catastrophic not just for Ukraine, but for the entire region (just imagine Syria in Europe with European energy supplies from Russia being cut).

What will success look like?

Achieving a successful and peaceful outcome appears to require that Yanukovich deliberately and willingly agree to surrender political power. Because this political power ensures both his wealth and personal protection, as well as that of his family and associates, achieving this outcome is fraught with difficulties. But the strength and endurance of the protest movement has made this unlikely outcome a possibility. Achieving it, however, will likely require several additional steps.

First, the international community can help by reducing the benefit Yanukovich receives from holding power. For example, countries can freeze foreign assets held by Yanukovich and his family. The international community can also help make a peaceful transition more likely by undermining the sources of support to the Yanukovich regime. For example, some of the oligarchs that have supported Yanukovich so far have been reticent to oppose the protests. Many could likely be induced to support a transition if access to foreign markets was facilitated for Ukrainian companies, or if economic assistance is provided to the Ukrainian government during the transition period.

Because Russia is unlikely to continue its aid to Ukraine during a transition (and may likely try to hamper the transition itself), it will be essential for the international community to make up for this negative shock. The U.S. and Europe could threaten to freeze assets of oligarchs abroad, and restrict their travel to foreign countries if support for a transition process is not forthcoming. Finally, the international community must stand up to Putin directly to ensure that Russia does not unduly pressure or influence the situation in Ukraine.

The Ukrainian people are, of course, the primary agent through which change can happen. And their behavior during this difficult time, particularly in the face of appalling behavior by authorities, has been exemplary. Continuing to ensure that protests remain peaceful is central to enabling a peaceful exit by Yanukovich. Street violence and the threat of retribution would likely induce Yanukovich to instead cling to power.

So facilitating the protest movement –by providing financial aid, doctors, supplies, etc.–is a key contribution by the international community to a successful transition in Ukraine. Public backing, such as U.S. Sen. John McCain’s (R-Ariz.) recent visit to Maidan Square in Kiev, also provides direct support to protesters who are engaged in a long and brutal struggle and for whom sustaining their morale cannot be underestimated.

A successful outcome in Ukraine will be a victory for the forces of peace and democracy. The international community can help both through official policies of the U.S. and European governments and through the support of individuals. World War II and the Cold War were ultimately victories for freedom, but the struggle actually continues today in many countries. The international community should support those who continue this battle. Today’s front line is Maidan Square in Kiev, Ukraine.  Success of protesters in Ukraine could be as important as the fall of the Berlin Wall was for the modern Europe.