For a nation so finely balanced between Moscow and Europe, both socially and politically, a significant move in either direction will always threaten to tip the scales. For many Ukrainians, particularly in the west of the country, President Viktor Yanukovych’s reticence to bring the country further into Europe’s sphere of influence does not represent a protection of that delicate balance. Rather, it is seen as a desperately self-serving measure designed to placate the man arguably keeping him in his lucrative, elite position of power, President Putin.
Tellingly, it was not simply Yanukovych’s last minute refusal to sign an EU association deal which sparked what now appears to be the stirrings of a new Ukrainian revolution. Although, naturally, there were large scale protests at this apparent kowtow to Russia, it was the attempted violent dispersion by police that gave the demonstration renewed vigour and the complexion that it has developed today. It was this attempted act of repression which backfired and caused hundreds of thousands of souls to once more occupy Independence Square – exactly 9 years since the Orange Revolution.
Interestingly, Motyl, despite describing Ukraine’s “proneness to periodic nervous breakdowns”, did not believe that significant unrest lay in the country’s near future. He did, however, provide the following caveat which now appears increasingly ominous:
“The main threat to Ukraine’s continued democratic development – if it comes at all – would come from Russia. Its turn to a fascist-like authoritarianism and aggressive foreign policy under Putin, and the inherent instability of one-man rule of a corrupt energy-rich state, brings to mind interwar Europe, with Russia as Germany and Ukraine as Czechoslovakia.”1
For those western-facing Ukrainians who this week have been crippling their government through effective protest and occupation of state buildings, the EU snub was a stark reminder of Russia’s continued influence over their politics. The violent crushing of dissent, however, was a clear message directed at society itself – at the Ukrainian people. In their eyes it was pure Putin. In many ways there is much more at stake than in 2004; Ukrainians now know the full extent of Yanukovych’s tenacity and willingness to sell off his people’s future to his patron in Moscow.
Now, not for the first time it has to be said, the President’s position looks untenable. The recent failure to secure a parliamentary vote of no confidence against the current government will further agitate the protests rather than diminish them. Prime Minister Myzola Azarov, an ally of Yanukovych, continues to warn of ‘plotters’ and a ‘coup d’etat‘ and, inevitably, Putin himself has publicly condemned the uprising, calling it ‘pogrom’.
Meanwhile, the government’s political opposition (including former world heavyweight boxing champion Vitali Klitschko, leader of the Udar Party) are seizing the chance to apply some pressure, calling for Yanukovych’s removal. Worryingly, these opportunists also include ultra-nationalists such as Oleh Tyahnybok of the Svoboda (Freedom) Party.
If this is to become the revolution which succeeds where the Orange Revolution failed, Ukrainians will be aware that the removal of Yanukovych is essential. They will be susceptible to propaganda and provocation from all sides and must stay true to their original democratic aims throughout. An incoming government would face a mammoth task in uniting East and West Ukraine and coping with the inevitable onslaught of economic pressure from an angry Moscow.
Despite all this, a post-revolutionary regime would owe its position of power to ordinary, rave people who are currently making clear their intolerance of the greed, corruption and, ultimately, self-serving cowardice displayed by Yanukovych. As the last nine years have proved, anything less than his removal would be considered a failed revolution.
In many senses Ukraine represents the front line between two diametrically opposed ideologies of elitist control; the re-emerging autocratic powers of Russia and China in the east and the liberal democracies of the west. The unfolding of a successful, ground level revolution in Ukraine will doubtless have far-reaching global implications. However – in spite of the wider geopolitical drama, in spite of the overtones of possessive or covetous supranational powers and in spite of potential economic and social instability to come – the simple, immediate fact remains: Ukrainian people are once again on their feet and demanding a meaningful stake in their society’s future. It is a right which must not be denied them.