By Connor Phillips.
For much of the past two months, legions of Ukrainians have been braving bitter cold and the depredations of riot police to stand in Kiev’s Independence Square (Maidan Nezalezhnosti in Ukrainian) and protest the regime of President Viktor Yanukovych. The protests were triggered when Yanukovych refused to sign Ukraine’s Association Agreement with the European Union, but they soon expanded to a broader condemnation of Yanukovych’s tenure in power: his inability to rescue Ukraine’s stagnant economy, the corruption and cronyism that run rampant in his inner circle, and the politically-motivated imprisonment of his rival Yulia Tymoshenko (above, poster).
These protests can be said to reflect the latest act in an ongoing geopolitical struggle between the EU and Russia for the largest country in Europe. While the EU has been negotiating the Association Agreement, which would align Ukraine with Europe and potentially open the door for accession to the EU, Russia’s president Vladimir Putin has been assiduously lobbying Yanukovych to join his Customs Union of former Soviet states, which many see as an attempt to reconstitute the USSR. Putin even reportedly told former President George W. Bush, “You don’t understand, George, that Ukraine is not even a state…Part of its territories is Eastern Europe, but the greater part is a gift from us.”
It would be easy to read this East-West, authoritarian-democrat dichotomy into the ongoing struggle in Kiev, and indeed Yanukovych fits the image of the repressive, corrupt autocrat. Yet the two dueling factions cannot be completely understood in these terms. Yanukovych is no Russian stooge, instead playing Putin and the EU off each other in order to obtain economic assistance from both. And his opponent Tymoshenko is no saint, but rather a polarizing populist who amassed millions in the energy industry through shady means and, while prime minister, failed to substantially reform Ukrainian politics. Indeed, it was Yanukovych who transformed her from a flawed politician into a martyr for the rule of law by foolishly imprisoning her.
Tymoshenko first rose to prominence in 2004 as the firebrand leader of the Orange Revolution. Similarly to the current protests, this movement emerged in the Maidan after it became clear that Yanukovych had fraudulently won that year’s presidential election. After unrelenting public pressure forced a revote, Viktor Yushchenko, a technocrat who was the choice of the protesters, beat Yanukovych handily. Tymoshenko became Prime Minister, but despite the high hopes of the Orange Revolution, her and Yushchenko’s personal animosities gridlocked the government, preventing the economic reform and anti-corruption measures that Ukraine so desperately needed. It was this failure that allowed Yanukovych to beat both handily in 2010, this time in an election the international community deemed free and fair.
Moreover, the current opposition coalition is a motley bunch, composed of Tymoshenko’s Batkivshchyna (“Fatherland”) alliance, the Ukrainian Democratic Alliance for Reform (UDAR, or “Punch”) headed by world heavyweight boxing champion Vitaly Klitschko, and Svoboda (“Freedom”), a far-right party. It is indicative of the state of Ukrainian politics that the coalition does not share a common platform save support of European integration; indeed, the ultra-nationalist Svoboda is perhaps the only party that possesses a coherent ideology at all. Instead, the issues that define the parties consist of the corruption and cronyism typified by the Yanukovych administration and the crusading reformist impulse of the opposition. This division also has a regional and linguistic cast: the Ukrainian-speaking west and center of the country support the reformists, whereas Yanukovych’s base is in the east and south, where Russian language and culture are more prevalent.
For many in the West, Svoboda’s presence in the opposition coalition, and the outsized role that its supporters have played in the protests, is cause for concern. Should the EU really support an alliance that includes extremists, especially given that most mainstream European parties have shunned their far-right competitors? Svoboda’s behavior does not inspire much confidence: although it has striven to moderate its image in recent years by expelling overt neo-Nazis, it bears many of the historical hallmarks of the far right, from its leader’s past anti-Semitic rhetoric to its controversial support for anti-Communist “freedom fighters” who allied themselves with Hitler during World War II. (Independent for less than twenty-five years, Ukraine expresses its nationalism in terms of opposition to the USSR and Russian dominance, explaining why Svoboda supports integration with the EU, unlike most other far-right parties in Europe).
At the same time, it is easy to exaggerate the pull that Svoboda exerts in the opposition. The party still has a comparatively limited base: only 18% of Ukrainians express confidence in its leader Oleh Tiahnybok, and his presidential polling numbers are in the low single digits. And the fact that far-right elements in the Maidan are becoming increasingly prominent probably reflects the winding down of the protest movement more than anything else. Yanukovych announced a deal with Putin on December 17th that would give him $15 billion in funding and a cut in gas prices, enough to get him through the last year of his term. After that point, as the winter chill deepened and the holiday season began, the protests began to die down, with more and more in the opposition looking ahead to the 2015 presidential election rather than holding out the hope of unseating Yanukovych immediately. Under those circumstances, the hardline extremists of Svoboda would naturally be the last to give up.
Nevertheless, the decision to ally with Svoboda does illustrate one critical phenomenon: the weakness of Ukraine’s political opposition. Ukrainians are increasingly disillusioned with all parties, despising Yanukovych’s Party of Regions for its authoritarianism and venality but also viewing his opponents as weak and ineffective. A national icon thanks to his boxing days, Klitschko is probably the only opposition leader who stands a chance of beating Yanukovych in 2015, and he faces an uphill battle. Yanukovych has already signed an election law that appears to bar him from running, and the actual election is likely to be rigged.
Thus, the political opposition does not equate with the popular opposition. Hundreds of thousands of ordinary citizens did not leave their homes and endure the freezing weather in order to secure the release of Yulia Tymoshenko, the victory of Vitaly Klitschko, or the establishment of an ethnically pure Ukraine. Instead, the true driving force of the protests was the vision of an open society, with transparent politics, a free economy, and true democracy—the vision that Europe represents. The protests have presented this vision clearly and forcefully, and now the true work begins: to keep Yanukovych honest as he maneuvers to maintain power, and, if the opposition manages to take over, to hold them to the spirit of the Maidan. As the people of Ukraine learned after the Orange Revolution, they cannot rely on political leaders to translate their dreams into reality; instead, they must actively engage in the process, whether on the streets or through the avenues of civil society. If Ukraine does end up choosing a European future, it will be the people, and not the politicians, who will ultimately bring that shift about.