Writing the first draft of history is always difficult, especially when the opening act curtain has not officially fallen. Yet developments in Ukraine have now reached a critical turning point, with certain consequences likely to follow.
Historians will long debate the chain of events that provoked the February 18, 2014 confrontation. What we know is that the simmering demands of the opposition — over Ukraine’s thwarted path to Europe, the failure to re-instate the 2004 Constitution and President Victor Yanukovich’s insincere negotiations – all boiled over in a violent clash with the Ukrainian security services. The fight for Ukraine’s future was being resolved in the streets of Kiev – in live pictures transmitting around the globe.
Two symbols undoubtedly will emerge from the events of the last few days: a heroic Maidan and a bloody Yanukovich. Half the population will not accept the results, but it is also unlikely that Ukrainian opposition can impose its will on the country. So even if the Maidan were somehow to hold its ground and gain the upper hand — and it was still resisting at the time of this writing — a political consensus would still have to be found.
Unlike past attempts to clear the Maidan (also known as Independence Square), Yanukovich did not back down. Perhaps his meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Sochi this month provided him with extra backbone. In any case, from Yanukovich’s perspective, his political survival could depend on ending the open revolt in the center of the nation’s capital.
Yanukovich in unlikely to be magnanimous in victory. The amnesty for protesters negotiated just before the violence ignited may go unobserved. Political compromise with the opposition is also likely off the table, since trust was destroyed on the bloody streets of Kiev. So Yanukovich most likely would have to go it alone. He can rely on his political base in Donetsk, the support of Ukraine’s oligarchs and Russia’s previously promised $15-billion financial assistance package to keep his divided country afloat.
But will this alliance stop the violence, or at least push the opposition underground? This is a key question — since western Ukraine remains adamant in its opposition to Yanukovich and his decision not to pursue the European option. Pacifying western Ukraine would be Yanukovich’s next task. It remains formidable.
Yanukovich must also address the nation’s collapsing currency and economic downturn. That can only worsen in the short-term, as Ukraine’s fragile political stability is tested.
Even if Yanukovich is triumphant in Kiev, he is only playing for time. Presidential elections are scheduled for 2015, and though few expect them to be free and fair as long as the incumbent remains in office, Ukraine also has a nasty habit of throwing politicians out.
Ukraine will remain in turmoil even if the protestors from the Maidan are removed from the square. One can also expect sanctions from the European Union and the United States, as well as vociferous complaints from Russia about Western interference in Ukraine’s internal affairs.
Yet neither sanctions nor condemnation will fix what divides Ukraine. In addition, a crackdown in Ukraine will have major ramifications for Russia. Putin deeply fears the spread of such protests. He no doubt will tighten his grip on power to make sure that similar demonstrations do not cross the border.
It is now a decade since Ukraine’s Orange Revolution and its peaceful resolution of a national crisis. Several institutions — the parliament, the courts, the church — cooperated in 2004 to prevent a catastrophic collapse of the country.
The chances of these players working together today and diffusing the situation are far lower. They all bring more public baggage to the table. Yanukovich must also remember how the Orange Revolution’s political compromise deprived him of his disputed victory in the 2004 presidential election.
The next few days will influence Ukraine’s development for years, if not decades. The crisis calls out for a Ukrainian solution — yet the answer remains as elusive as ever.