Ukraine: Dream of Change
By Roman Sohn
Saturday’s (22 February) dethronement of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych by parliament does not mean that EuroMaidan protesters have achieved their goals.
For many, the fight for genuine democracy, especially in view of the potential return of former PM Yulia Tymoshenko to power, is far from over.
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For others, the smoke of uncertainty over the future of eastern and southern Ukraine is equally worrying.
How did we get here?
The tragic escalation in Ukraine after riot police tried to clear the EuroMaidan last Tuesday was a point of no return.
The death toll - the worst bloodshed in the modern history of the country - extinguished any illusion that anything but ousting the dictator, Yanukovych, would be acceptable to protesters.
You cannot negotiate with someone who has declared and waged war on his own people, whom he calls “terrorists.”
It was a dirty war: riot police tortured detained activists; hired criminals burned cars, beat, and killed protesters and journalists; rooftop snipers used live ammunition against medical volunteers.
Yanukovych utterly delegitimised himself.
But to understand the current situation, you must go back to September 2010, when the Constitutional Court was coerced into giving the presidential office vast new powers.
The parliamentary opposition, then led by Tymoshenko, did nothing to stop it. Perhaps she thought Yanukovych would soon be gone and she would take his place.
Even the Council of Europe played ball: In resolution 1755 in 2010 its Parliamentary Assembly welcomed “the consolidation of power” as being “desirable.”
At the same time, Yanukovych entrenched himself by appointing loyalists - more than half of whom came from Donbas, his native territory - to all key positions in the state machinery. In the regions, his “supervisors,” a network of criminal barons, used their influence in local administrations, courts, police, and tax offices to raid people’s businesses.
The scale of corruption, even by former Soviet standards, was breathtaking.
Public procurement contracts alone saw €1 billion diverted from state funds to Yanukovych relatives and allies over the past four years.
Ukrainians even coined a new word - “familia” - to describe the group, which seized ownership of billions of euros worth of banks, oil refineries, coal mines, factories, railway carriers, telecoms, and media firms.
The President had created a mafia state. The last thing he did not control was parliament.
But in 2012, the parliamentary opposition, led now by Tymoshenko and by Arseniy Yatsenyuk, made a deal with him to change the electoral laws to share power in a two-party system.
The election was a sham. But five parties made into it into parliament despite the new restrictions: the Party of Regions (Yanukovych); Batkivshchyna (Tymoshenko/Yatsenyuk); Udar (led by ex-boxer Vitali Klitschko); the Communists (pro-Russian), and Svoboda (nationalists led by Oleh Tyahnybok).
Who are they?
Klitschko has positioned himself as a third force next to the Party of Regions and Batkivshchyna. Svoboda has exploited a wave of popular discontent linked to Yanukovych’s assault on the use of the Ukrainian language.
But few believe that any of them are a genuine opposition.
Opposition MPs lack support
They have failed to deliver a single electoral promise. In many cases, investigative journalists have exposed their own links to the oligarchs. The Verkhovna Rada is not a parliament. It is a club of business lobbyists, which is utterly unsuited to solving the crisis.
Meanwhile, the EuroMaidan started out as a rally in support of EU integration after Yanukovych refused to sign an EU association and free trade treaty at the Vilnius summit last November.
In the beginning, it kept its distance from Klitschko, Yatsenyuk, and Tyahnybok, and the MPs showed little interest in taking charge.
They formed an uneasy alliance in December, when Yanukovych first used lethal force, and when the EuroMaidan became a mass-scale anti-regime movement. But the opposition MPs do not control or represent the people on the streets of Kiev or beyond.
In the past three months, the EuroMaidan’s original motive, of EU integration, has given way to pure revulsion against Yanukovych and the Yanukovych-era system of governance. People are no longer willing to put up with the everyday degradations of police violence, perverse court decisions, corrupt bureaucrats, and money-grubbing MPs.
This is why one popular name for the EuroMaidan is the “Revolution of Dignity.”
As Olha Bohomolets, a civil activist who oversees the medical unit of the movement, said: “The EuroMaidan hasn't come together to support certain politicians against other politicians.”
The EuroMaidan has now become a national political philosophy. It is reminiscent of the old traditions of the Ukrainian Kossack Republic of the 17th centrury. The Orange Revolution in 2004, the EuroMaidan, have proved that democracy and freedom are imprinted on the Ukrainian mentality.
What we saw this week is that the mafia system is hated so much that people are not afraid to die to bring it down.
At the same time, we keep hearing from Russian media and Russian officials that the EuroMaidan activists are “fascists” and that Ukraine is on the brink of civil war.
It is not true.
The EuroMaidan is unlikely to end in civil conflict because there is no real split in Ukraine.
If people in the east loved Yanukovych, he would not have to pay them to get on busses to make half-hearted and short-lived pro-regime demonstrations. He would not need to pay local criminals to terrorise EuroMaidan supporters in eastern cities.
Ukrainians everywhere are not blind to the fact that Moscow is the only beneficiary of instability.
They see Kremlin rhetoric for what it is: a failed attempt to divide the country using the black magic of self-fulfilling prophecy. They smell the Russian money behind the groups, for instance, in The Crimea, calling for the “federalisation” of Ukraine.
Moscow’s attempt to drag Ukraine into its neo-imperialist Eurasian Union has only served to mix anti-Russian feeling with anti-Yanukovych feeling: The logic of events since he refused to sign the EU accords in Vilnius shows that our ex-president is a Kremlin pawn.
EU still relevant
None of this means that EU integration and EU diplomacy is no longer relevant.
But it does show why EU envoys could not sell the deal they made last Friday with Yanukoych and the opposition MPs.
Ukraine’s pro-democratic intelligentsia, and, I firmly and honestly believe, the majority of my fellow Ukrainian people, still see EU association as the answer to the country’s problems in the long term.
They still dream of change.
The euro-dream has been harmed by EU indeciseveness: Visa bans two months ago might have made the regime think twice and saved lives. It is too late for them now. The familia has a plan B for dealing with EU isolation and a plan C to flee to Belarus or Russia if need be.
But it might not be too late to sway the oligarchs.
EU anti-money-laundering investigations - the threat of chopping off the European branches of their business empires - could still push them in the right direction.
It is also not too late to show support for ordinary Ukrainians by opening a door in the EU visa wall.
It is not too late to unilaterally implement those parts of the association and free trade treaties that will bring Ukrainian businesses closer to Europe, or to put aside money to help save Ukraine from state bankruptcy.
These steps would reduce Russia’s room for maneuver.
They would reduce the risk of the pro-Russian scenario: a bloody Balkanisation of Ukraine and the EU reduced to being an aid donor in a humanitarian catastrophe. Not even a contributor to a UN peace mission, because Russia has shown, on Syria, how it treats the UN Security Counil.
Do not underestimate the determination of the people behind the failure of Vilnius.
Russia must be contained
Russia must be contained not just for the sake of Ukraine: Its behaviour poses bigger questions for European stability.
Its attempt to bully and destabilise Ukraine amounts to an undoing of Europe’s post-Cold war peace architecture. It is a clear violation of its commitments under the Helsinki Final Act of 1975 and the Budapest Memoradum on Security Assurances in 1994.
Beyond Europe, Ukraine shows that the paradigm which governs international relations - sovereign states that have a monopoly on the rights of their people - does not work.
International charters are ink on paper. The international institutions that embody them, the Council of Europe, the OSCE, the UN, are hollow, unless individual nation states take the responsibility to protect into their own hands.
The EU and the US need to consider a new legal framework for internatioanl intervention.
This is speculative stuff.
What is certain at this point is that the days of one more bloody tyrant are numbered, but also that it is too early to celebrate the end of the conflict in Ukraine.
The Ukrainians have proved their determination to carry on their fight for freedom and dignity no matter the sacrifice.
Now, they need to prove to themselves their devotion to build democracy. The EU needs to help them not to walk this path alone.
The writer is an activist and columnist, who frequently contributes to Ukrainska Pravda, a leading independent publication in Ukraine