Can the Government and Opposition Step Back from the Brink?

December 11, 2013
James George Jatras
Deputy Director, AIU

As of this writing, hundreds of thousands of protesters remain in central Kiev. The government has offered talks, including asking opposition figures to assist in further negotiations with the European Union (EU) on Association Agreement (AA) terms that would address Ukraine’s immediate fiscal and economic needs.

So far, that offer has been rejected. Instead, protest leaders continue to insist that theirs is not a protest but a revolution. They demand that President Viktor Yanukovych and the Azarov government resign, and new elections be held.

But the current situation is a very different from that during the Orange revolution of 2004, where the electoral legitimacy of the government was itself at issue. Now, protesters are demanding that the results of the 2010 presidential election and the 2012 parliamentary elections be overturned because the authorities have made a decision with which they disagree. It is hard to see how that demand can be justified according to the very “European future for Ukraine” the protesters claim to advocate.

Ukraine is approaching a critical juncture, in which both the government and the opposition are walking a tightrope over an abyss.

On the opposition side, a decision will soon have to be made on whether to “go for broke” on overthrowing what is universally acknowledged as a legitimately elected government. Doing so would require even more radical tactics than the occupation of public buildings that have taken place so far. This could risk not only a sharp response from the authorities but a loss of support from western governments. (Even the West is beginning to notice the plethora of Svoboda and red-and-black nationalist flags, and even flags with the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) symbol – hardly exemplars of “European values,” given OUN’s role in massacres of Poles during World War II. Ukraine suffered significant international embarrassment earlier this year by displays of the red-and-black flag – reportedly by Svoboda members – at soccer games. Ironies abound. Poland has made a point of insisting on Ukraine’s geopolitical orientation “toward Europe,” reminiscent of Józef Piłsudski’s strategy of “Prometheism” (Прометеизм, Прометеїзм), and has vocally supported the protesters. Former Prime Minister Jarosław Kaczyński has marched side-by-side with Svoboda’s Oleh Tyahnybok under a Svoboda flag. Flanking Kaczyński on the other side was Vitali Klitschko, whose UDAR earlier this year distributed an English-language press release condemning Svoboda for “not only justifying the Volyn executioners [of Poles] – but also setting their actions as examples to the new generations of Ukrainians.” Politics do indeed make strange bedfellows.)

The government side has its own dilemmas. Certainly, offering the opposition participation in “roundtable talks,” including how best to deal with the EU, was the right move. Likewise Yanukovych was wise to offer to assist in release of demonstrators arrested to date. Excessive police force against protesters, particularly on December 1, should be prosecuted. Consideration also should be given to redressing the balance of authority between the president and the Rada. But demands for new elections have already been ruled out, and Yanukovych and Azarov clearly have no intention of stepping down.

But the big question, which may become unavoidable if the protesters insist that “regime change” is the only acceptable outcome, is whether, when, and how the government launches a major crackdown to end occupation of government buildings. Police have already dismantled barricades and forced protesters back from the presidential office and taken steps to block resupply of provisions to remaining protesters.

A major escalation of violence is a prospect no one wants to contemplate, including western governments. While European and American officials have backed the protestors in their demand that Kiev resume talks with the EU on the AA, they have not called for a change in government. Tellingly, even western government officials are now directing their calls for restraint to both sides (and not just to the government) and are calling for talks to resolve the standoff. The protesters may gamble that that may change if and when a major violent clash occurs, but the outcome – and winner – is not predictable.

With the extension, yet again, of the Cox-Kwasniewski mission, the opportunity exists for both sides to take a step back from the brink. Top priority should be given both to Ukraine’s imminent debt payment needs as well as to finding a formula that would allow Ukraine to get beyond an “either/or” choice between European and Russian trade relations through the initiation of three-way Europe-Ukraine-Russia negotiations. Yanukovych has been categorical in his determination both to give priority to trade ties with Russia and to signing a revised AA with the EU in 2014.

The contours of a truly national accord may be emerging into view. The question remains whether the government and the opposition can set aside their differences long enough to make it happen.