Battle for Ukraine

On January 28, the Ukrainian parliament revoked in an extraordinary session nine of the twelve repressive laws adopted on January 16. These severely restricted human rights and freedoms, including the right to free assembly. A new law invalidating the earlier adopted laws was supported by 361 deputies. Only the Communist Party was against.

The same day, Mykola Azarov, Ukraine’s Prime Minister since 2010 and a close ally of the President Yanukovych, resigned. His resignation letter was signed by the President, thus leading to the dismissal of the whole government.

These are the clear signs that the ruling regime in Ukraine is fragmenting. Growing protests across Ukraine since January 23, which led to the seizure of ten out of twenty-four regional state administrations and the proclamation of people’s administrations there, are one reason. Protests have sparkled even in Presidential strongholds, such as Zaporizka and Dnipropetrovska regions. Another reason is the growing split within the regime itself. This phenomenon accompanies virtually all successful revolutions. The “hawks” within Ukraine’s regime – newly appointed head of the Presidential Administration Andriy Kluyev, Justice Minister Elena Lukash and former Kuchma-era head of Presidential Administration and ardent opponent of the European integration Viktor Medvedchuk – strongly advocated imposing a state of emergency. According to MP Inna Bogoslovskaya (in an interview on Channel 5), this was reportedly under consideration until early morning of January 28, when MPs close to the oligarch Rinat Akhmetov and former Central Bank Governor and presidential candidate Sergiv Tygypko resisted imposition of a state of emergency and the violent crackdown. This division drove President Yanukovych yield to the people’s demands.

Geopolitical factors may have also influenced the moves of Ukraine’s authorities. The European Union, composed of 28 member states, is slow to react to even the most outrageous world events. The adoption of targeted sanctions against Ukrainian officials may take months due to complicated bureaucratic procedures. But events that brought Ukraine to the brink of civil war generated alarm in Europe, posing a threat to its security and safety. Europe has no interest in a “failed state” of 46 million directly on its borders, driving flows of refugees and illegal workers. Former Polish President of Poland Aleksander Kwasniewski alluded to this in a statement last week. A full-fledged dictatorship in Ukraine or civil war would torpedo have the EU’s Eastern Partnership, leaving only Moldova and Georgia still moving towards the EU. Last but not least, the complete defeat of democracy of Ukraine would also spell Europe’s defeat in the face of an increasingly authoritarian Russia which is trying to rebuild its empire through a so-called Customs Union.

Therefore, the European Union has applied considerable diplomatic pressure on Ukrainian officials. Last week EU Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso called President Yanukovych, reporting that he had received assurances that the Ukrainian leader did not foresee the need to impose a state of emergency. German Chancellor Angela Merkel said it was not yet the time to consider sanctions against the Ukrainian government, but added that it must comply “with its obligations to secure fundamental democratic rights.”

Personal visits of EU officials to Ukraine – and to the Maidan, in particular – demonstrated solidarity. On January 28, the Maidan and the surrounding area, including Grushevskogo Street, the scene of violent clashes, were visited by a large delegation of the thirteen European Parliament deputies chaired by Catherine Ashton and including Elmar Brok, Marek Sivets, and Rebecca Harms. The MEPs also had talks with the authorities and the opposition.

On January 24, EU Enlargement Commissioner Štefan Füle visited Kyiv for talks with the opposition and President Yanukovych. In a press statement, he said “I stressed to my Ukrainian partners that the EU would remain engaged in this process assisting them in de-escalating the situation and finding a way out of the crisis, as demonstrated by the scheduled visit of High Representative/Vice-President Cathy Ashton to Kiev next week.” Commissioner Füle also visited the Maidan.

There has also been significant American diplomatic support for the Ukrainian revolution in the form of demands that President Yanukovych and Ukrainian authorities abstain from violence. On Thursday, January 23, just after the Unity Day attack on protesters, which left two dead from shootings, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden called President Yanukovych and urged him to immediately de-escalate the standoff in Kiev and end the bloodshed. The White House said Biden also called on the Ukrainian leader to address the protesters’ legitimate concerns and protect democratic freedoms. Vice President Biden also reportedly asked that the special police forces unit “Berkut” be withdrawn from the streets of Kyiv. The U.S. Embassy in Kyiv has also revoked the U.S. visas of several Ukrainian officials allegedly responsible for violence against peaceful demonstrators.

Ukrainian officials implicated in instigating violence against protesters are vulnerable to visa and financial sanctions; many have bank accounts in Europe. As former U.S. Ambassadors to Ukraine John Herbst and Steven Pifer, among others, wrote in their op-ed published in New York Times, entitled “What the West Must Do for Ukraine”:

“American and European officials should directly engage Mr. Yanukovych’s inner circle and underscore that they need to act now to promote a settlement or face Western visa and financial sanctions. Washington took a good first step on Jan. 22 when it announced the revocation of visas for officials linked to the use of force. It should add financial sanctions and threaten also to target those close to Mr. Yanukovych, as well as their families, if they do not use their influence to end the crisis. The European Union should join in; it is in Europe that Ukrainian oligarchs close to the president park their money, buy luxury residences, travel on holiday, and send their children to school.”.

Meanwhile, Russia calls this diplomatic pressure from the EU and the USA “meddling in the internal affairs of Ukraine.” Russian political pressure is now less prominent, probably due to the approaching Olympic Games in Sochi. However, there have been repeated, though unproven, allegations that Andriy Kluyev and Viktor Medvedchuk have acted in accordance with Russian wishes, including in promulgating the repressive January 16 laws, pressing for a state of emergency, and the abduction of civil activists.

The current battle for Ukraine is an important geopolitical battle which may shape the future of the Eastern Partnership region for years ahead: will the region progress toward democracy or slide back into authoritatrianism? As former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili put it in his article for the Wall Street Journal on January 27, Ukraine’s revolution is the first geopolitical revolution of the 21st century:

“What we have been witnessing in Ukraine, with protests that began in November and have gained a volatile intensity in recent days, is the first geopolitical revolution of the 21st century. The burning dividing line between the hundreds of thousands of protesters in cities across the country and the Yanukovych regime’s police lies between two ideologies, two visions of the world and two choices of life: independent, Western democracy or Vladimir Putin’s Russia.”