As the mass pro-democracy protests in the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, continued into a fourth week, President Viktor Yanukovych’s rapprochment with his Russian counterpart seemed to signal that he had burned his bridges with the West and many believe he wants to turn Ukraine into a Belarus-type autocracy.
The demonstrations erupted after Yanukovych’s last-minute decision to renege on an agreement that would have brought Ukraine into a closer partnership with the European Union than any country not actually in it. After promising his country for more than two years that he was committed to the EU accord, he backed out a few days before the summit in Vilnius, Lithuania, where it was supposed to be signed. Instead he opted to work for closer ties with Ukraine’s former colonial master, Russia.
Russian President Vladimir Putin had used intense economic pressure and threats to torpedo the Ukraine-EU agreement. Putin wants Ukraine to join the Moscow-led Customs Union which so far comprises Russia, belarus and Kazakhstan. The organisation is seen by many as a stepping stone to Putin’s attempts to restore Russian power and rebuild some form of Kremlin-led political bloc to replace the Soviet Union whose disintegration he so laments.
Many opinion polls had shown that the pro-EU policy had been popular amongst the majority of Ukrainians. For them the agreement’s free trade aspect offered a way to rebuild their shattered economy. But the agreement had also become a powerful symbol of Ukrainians’ desire to deepen their country’s democracy because it waas to bind Kyiv into a raft of reforms to attack the corruption pervading politics, business, the bureaucracy, law-enforcement and the judiciary. The agreement also addressed human rights standards, Press freedom and electoral crookery.
Ukrainians refer to the European Union or Western Europe as simply “Europe” and when they talk about “going to Europe” it is an intensely loaded shorthand for civilised political conduct, the rule of law and guarantees about personal security, and economic well-being. In sum – the chance for a decent life.
Yanukovych’s about turn angered millions in the country. Mostly young protesters poured into Kyiv’s central Independence Square or Maidan Nezalzhesnosty, affectionately dubbed the Maidan, when it became clear Yanukovych was ditching his proclaimed EU direction. Yanukovych’s response was to send in a special forces unit with a particularly nasty reputation, called Berkut, against the peaceful protesters clubbing many senseless and injuring more than 150 seriously – some 25 of those Ukrainian and foreign journalists.
Yanukovych’s viscious reaction and continuing refusal to talk with demonstrators is rooted in his failed attempt to win the presidency in 2004. Then mass demonstrations, which became known as the Orange Revolution, protesting against widespread electoral rigging, forced fresh elections in which a pro-democracy candidate, Viktor Yushchenko, won. But following Yuschenko’s disastrously feeble leadership, Yanukovych narrowly won the presidency in 2010, and jailed his chief political rival in those, former Orange Revolution heroine and premier, Yulia Tymoshenko. He has poured huge sums of money since then into equipment, new weapons, and training to expand and beef up the security units, including Berkut, whose main role is to suppress protests.
Yanukovych was probably certain that the brutal Berkut attack against demonstrators would cow them into submission and dispersal. Instead hundreds of thousands of Kyiv residents and people from other areas flooded the capital’s streets in massive demonstrations – sometimes topping by independent estimates a million people.
The protesters then pitched tents in the and near the Maidan and began a non-stop protest. A second violent attempt by thousands of security forces to break up the demonstration and camp was also repulsed and further hardened attitudes. Initally it was plain outrage at their president’s reneging on the EU deal which brought people out onto the streets without any call from the three main parliamentary oppostion parties. However, these piggy-backed onto the demonstrations and formulated the protesters’ demands for yanukovych and his government to resign, for a resumption of talks on the EU agreement, for the release of arrested protesters, and the punishment of those who ordered the brutal attacks.
Until December 17, when Yanukovych flew to Moscow and signed a number of agreements with Putin, the possibility of a resumption of the EU course was in theory still alive although Brussels was increasingly open in displaying its disgust at the Ukrainian leader’s repeated lies and lack of faith.
The demonstrators’ determination has probably postponed a full singYanukovych from fully signing up for the Kremlin’s Customs Union. However, agrements he did sign in Moscow have made him utterly dependent on a $15 billion bailout package from Russia for Kyiv to avoid bankruptcy and the promise to cut crippling Russian gas prices – the main reason for Ukraine’s ruinously high debt.
The three opposition leaders are Arseniy Yatseniuk , 39, an economist and lawyer and acting leader of Tymoshenko’s Batkivschyna (Fatherland) party; Oleh Tyahnebok, 45, a doctor who heads the Svoboda (Freedom) nationalist party, and world heavyweight boxing champion Vitali Klitschko, 42, who formed the Udar (Punch) party, the only political movement which has widespread traction in both the pro-Russian East and the largely pro-European West of the country. They immediately condemned the deal as selling the country to Russia – and a hundred thousand voices from the Maidan loudly endorsed that accusation.
Klitschko challe ring after calling him his “personal enemy”. He said: “He has given up Ukraine’s national interests, given up independence and prospects for a better life for every Ukrainian.”
Yatseniuk said: “I know of only one place where you can find free cheese – and that’s in a mouse-trap.”
Yatsenyuk said opposition would attempt to block the Moscow agreement in parliament saying “Not a single document which contradicts European integration will pass”.
But experience has shown that Yanukovych has little respect for parliamentary procedures and will steamroller any necessary measures through and the oppsition will be thinking hard about what to do next.
One of the leaders of the protesters, a former Kyiv deputy mayor and Svoboda party leader, Serhiy Rudyk, told this reporter hours after the moscow agreement, “We are preparing to sstay on, if necessary, for a second month. This cannot end without the opposition securing some of their key demands. If we don’t win, we will go to jail. They will try to pick off opposition members at all levels.”
All the oppositon leaders have called on the EU, the US and other states to target Yanukovych and his cronies with economic sanctions and travel bans.
Halyna Senyk from the Kyiv-based Anticorruption Action centre, said: “Western leaders must be in no doubt that Yanukovych’s behaviour is not driven by some ideological ideas or an inspiring vison for Ukraine’s future, it is simply about greed and stealing as much of Ukraine’s assets as possible. The way to affect his behaviour and stem his brutality is to threaten his assets and refuse to give visas to travel to the West.”
She says that the necessary laws already exist in most western countries to target Yanukovych and his key backers such as Ukraine’s richest oligarch Rinat Akhmetov.
In the three years since he became president, Yanukovych and his family have amassed huge wealth. For instance, his younger son, Oleksandr, who was on a dentist’s salary in 2010 was a billionaire by 2012. A fellow anti-corruption campaigner, Daria Kaleniuk said: “These laws demand that banks and financial institutions carry out checks on who the real beneficial owner of the money they are dealing with, transferring say from one bank to another, is. If that cannot be established they are supposed to sever relations with that client.” She said that the Yanukovych family moves its huge assets out of Ukraine and around the workd using opaque entities and thus are the very type of target the laws were designed to crack down on.
Kaleniuk said: “Many banks and businesspeople know the massive extent of ccorruption surrounding Yanukovych but they pretend that they do not have information about them. However, there is a lot of information that has been gathered by Ukrainian journalists but as it’s in Ukrainian, the people who should be acting against the Yanukovych family can use the excuse that they cannot understand Ukrainian.”
To close down that excuse for turning a blind eye Kalniuk, Senyk and others have set up a web site called Yanukovich.info which has translated into English the mass of data about the Yanukovych family’s corrupt wealth.They told this reporter that they will add data about Ukrainian oligarchs who have been key in promoting Yanukovych to power and politicians and businessmen helping to secue his rule. The two also want to set up a system, under United Nations supervision to manage corrupt assets confiscated by courts and to use some of that money to fund pro-democracy agendas in their country.
Many in the opposition think that now that Yanukovych has turned his back on the EU he will drop any pretence about governing democratically and, under Putin’s political cover., will govern increasingly autocratically and will cling onto power by using intimidation and cheating to win pesidential elections in 2015.
That expectation was boosted last weekend when the government used election-rigging that they barely bothered to conceal to win four of five parliamentary by-elections. Another sinister sign is that Yanukovych has not made any concessions to demonstrators’ demands or even voiced serious proposals for talks.
Andrey Kurkov, a Ukrainian whose novels like “Death and the Penguin” have become bestsellers all over the world,said: “I think Yanukovych’s inclinations are towards creating the sort of despotic regime that Putin encouragees and exists in Belarus. I believe that if he could re-introduce serfdom into Ukraine, he’d do it.”
The opposition believes leverage can be exerted upon Yanukovych by targeting those such as Akhmetov with sanctions and pointing the spotlight at them. Earlier this month supporters of the mass pro-democracy demonstrations in Ukraine protested outside Akhmetov’s London officesand his 136 mjillion pound flat – London’s most expensive apartment. Akhmetov’s immense wealth created his country’s ruling political party and propelled Ukraine’s current president, Viktor Yanukovych, a long-time political puppet of Akhmetov’s, to power.
Many regard Akhmetov as the real power behind Yanukovych’s throne and say the billionaire oligarch shares responsibility for the paramilitary violence.
A source very close to Akhmetov admitted the oligarch controls up to 60 M.P.s from the ruling Regions party in the Ukrainian parliament. The demosntrators say that by throwing his weight behind oppositon demands, Akhmetov could not only have kept the EU project on course but halted the violence.
The source close to Akhmetov suggested that the oligarch supported the idea of a coalition government of “technocrats”. But despite Akhmetov’s lame murmurs of support for democracy, he has done nothing visible toresolve the dangerous situation in his country. He is desperate to integrate his businesses into the western world and is anxious that will be targeted by any sanctions such as America making it clear it does not want him traveling to the US.
Yanukovch is a twice-convicted robber who rose to power with the backing of people tied to a murky nexus of corrupt politics and organised crime. He has reepatedly displayed his instinct for using violence. After his return from Moscow an uneasy standoff remained between protesters and the yanukovych regime.
But in contrast to past mass demosntrations by Ukrainians to tilt their country towards democracy and the West, protesters have never before been so militant, spurred by the two assaults against them and the confidence gained of successful resistance and recovery to those attacks.
The Maidan now has a disciplined force of people guarding it and among them are many former soldiers and police and they know the tactics that could be used against them. They wear bits of army camouflage uniform, Soviet military helmets and have shields. They also have sticks, water “bombs”, and other means of fighting stashed near by. There are even containers of oil ready to spread on the stairs of the buildings they control, including Kyiv’s town hall, in case security forces try to enter.
The members of this disciplined -looking force say they are ready to confront security forces. Others do not disguise that they want to take them on. Another attempt to disperse the camp by violence will likely result in serious casualties. If just one person is killed matters will escalate to a dangerous new level where some sort of civil conflict will only be a small error of judgement away. So far Yanukovych has shown very little good judgement or intentions.
Kyiv, 18 December