The question on the minds of many in Ukraine (and I suspect around the world) today is “why?” Why did the Yanukovych regime choose to attempt to clear the demonstrators from Kyiv’s city center specifically during the early hours of 11/12/13? This is not merely a numerological question. Given the presence of Catherine Ashton (EU Commissioner for Foreign Affairs) and Victoria Nuland (US Assistant Secretary of State) in Ukraine’s capital last night, what was Yanukovych thinking when he ordered riot police onto the Euromaidan? Didn’t he realize that the timing of this police action would irreversibly and finally alienate him from the West? Couldn’t he have waited one day until the two guests departed? Doesn’t he realize that the current social mood in Ukraine is such that every action by the police will inevitably lead to even greater numbers of protesters on the streets of Kyiv? Why is Ukraine’s President being deliberately provocative?
One possible answer is that he is simply crazy; he has lost all touch with reality; his advisers are incapable or unwilling to influence his decisions which in turn are becoming increasingly irrational. If this explanation is to be accepted, then it must also be said that the irrational Yanukovych is simultaneously a fantastic actor. His television appearance together with Ukraine’s three former Presidents yesterday did little to raise doubts as to Yanukovych’s mental stability – although it certainly raised multiple questions (including among the ex-Presidents) as to his choice of policy priorities.
Another answer to the puzzle of Yanukovych’s strange decision-making that is gaining some credence in Ukraine is based on a belief in Russian infiltration of Ukraine’s corridors of power. Specifically, according to this theory, the November 30 violent attack by Berkut riot police on students who were winding up their pro-EU demonstration in Independence Square was not actually ordered by the legitimate Ukrainian government, but rather by a rogue commander following orders from Moscow. In the same vein, the savage beatings by riot-police of demonstrators and journalists on December 1 in front of the Presidential Administration was actually a Russian intelligence agency operation (this theory is apparently supported by the fact that Russian television channels broadcast images of the street violence from inside the Presidential Administration building). Accordingly, since Russia has everything to gain from Yanukovych’s complete isolation from the West, it was Putin’s agents who ordered a repeat of violence in Kyiv at the most inopportune time for Yanukovych – last night.
It should be noted that the Russian conspiracy theory is convenient to Ukraine’s government. Indeed in his opening remarks before the Cabinet of Ministers meeting this morning, Prime Minister Azarov alluded that “someone deliberately tried to discredit the government” by ordering the November 30 attacks on the Euromaidan students. By promising an investigation into the event, Azarov conveniently distanced himself and Yanukovych from responsibility. With respect to the December 1 savagery against journalists, the Prime Minister has not suggested blame, claiming that opposition-funded street fighters were responsible for provoking the riot-police, but that police also overstepped their bounds.
If the “strings from Russia” theory is to be taken seriously, and Yanukovych has in fact lost control of the decision-making process within his own government, one must ask why he simply does not publicly admit this problem? If there are “moles” in the President’s administration, would it not be better to “out” them sooner, rather than later? Conspiracy theorists would argue that this would make the President look weak, and given Yanukovych’s authoritarian nature, all mention of even the possibility of a break in the hierarchy of command is taboo.
The conspiracy theory in its pure form is probably far-fetched, but it may also contain some grains of truth. Firstly, it is quite likely that Yanukovych’s decisions are heavily influenced by Russia. Putin clearly promised the Ukrainian President significant financial support (and likely electoral support in his 2015 re-election campaign) in exchange for not signing the Association Agreement with the EU in Vilnius. According to rumors circulating throughout Kyiv, during their meeting in Sochi on Friday, Yanukovych and Putin penciled a significant economic rescue package for Ukraine, but the Russian President added a condition: all protests in Kyiv must be cleared before the December 17 official signing date. For this reason, Yanukovych, in a hurry to clear the protesters from Independence Square, ordered riot police into the streets of Kyiv last night – ignoring the presence of his western diplomatic guests. If this theory is true, another attempt to clear the demonstrations is sure to come tonight or tomorrow at the latest.
However, it seems somewhat simplistic to boil down explanations of seemingly irrational decisions taken by Ukraine’s President to an infantile desire to please Russia. Yanukovych is an authoritarian leader: even superficial analyses of his public appearances and career path make this clear. Furthermore, he is a materialist whose criteria for value judgments are based on wealth and/or power. As he stated publicly during his debate with Lithuanian President Grybauskaite at this autumn’s Yalta European Strategy conference, Yanukovych believes Ukraine to be “caught” between two very large economic behemoths – the EU and Russia – and he defines his responsibility as President as that of “broker”. In other words, internally, he needs to regularly demonstrate his own power (over oligarchs, over government employees, over citizens) while externally, he must regularly try to manoeuver his country within the minimal geopolitical space relegated to Ukraine by its neighbors. Put more simply, at the moment, Russia has promised more than the EU, so today he is leaning eastward; if the EU offers more tomorrow, tomorrow he will lean westward. This is the essence of the geoeconomic dance once practiced by Kuchma, and (badly) repeated by Yanukovych.
Viktor Yanukovych’s authoritarian materialism contrasts sharply with the “soft power” of European foreign policy, and the values-based demands of the protesters on the streets of Kyiv (to live in a rules-based society where individual dignity is respected). For a materialist authoritarian, the reality that I witnessed during 5 afternoon hours on Independence Square today are simply incomprehensible: thousands of people (most of them of working age – joined by some students, and minimal numbers of pensioners), without receiving any commands, seemingly without appointed managers, cooperated in rebuilding the barricades that had been removed last night by the regime around Independence Square, and in clearing the area of snow and ice. To even suggest that these people were paid for their work is to be deeply offensive to them. Amazingly, many worked without even looking into the faces of their compatriots – they simply did what needed to be done, and each person seemed to know exactly what needed to be done without asking. “How can this be?” would ask a bewildered Yanukovych…
Today, in the wake of last night’s police crackdown, thousands of drivers throughout Ukraine have volunteered their cars to drive compatriots to Kyiv from the regions – no one is paying for their gas, and no one is commanding them to drive. They are simply coming – many driving all night. “Why?” might query a confused Yanukovych… Because they, and their compatriots believe that their dignity has been has been violated! And that is more important than pleasing the boss, or earning an extra few hundred/thousand hryvnia during the next days/weeks. But that answer is beyond comprehension for a materialist authoritarian like Yanukovych.
The contrast between the worldviews of the protesters and the “values” of the regime is particularly salient to the negotiations that have been called for by Ukraine’s President in his a TV address tonight. A first “round table” session with opposition leaders is likely to begin tomorrow. For Yanukovych, these negotiations will amount to a haggling session with each side vying for positional power. He will therefore be prepared (possibly) to sacrifice Interior Minister Zakharchenko, or even Prime Minister Azarov, but only if his own image of a powerful “father of the nation” (valid primarily in his own mind) does not suffer as a result. Indeed, I would argue that it was for the sake of his own self-image that Yanukovych needed to demonstrate his power on Independence Square last night – to launch the negotiations that both the US and EU are insisting upon, from a position of strength.
For the Euromaidan protesters negotiations are a necessary evil: few have any real desire to protest indefinitely, particularly given the reality of an oncoming winter. But at the end of the day, many demonstrators will see any political deal as a sell-out of their values. Unfortunately, in my opinion, this will be the case even if non-political civil society leaders are invited as empowered participants of the planned round-table discussions. The very context of these negotiations is antithetical to the values of the protesters. Haggling over money, power, government posts, and resignations has little in common with the demands of the Euromaidan demonstrations, and the regime side is simply incapable of understanding the protesters’ post materialist paradigm. That may mean continued stand-off…
Perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself here. There exists one wild card factor that may have a much more immediate effect on how events transpire in Ukraine than the evident conflict of worldviews between the regime and the people. Specifically, I am referring to the role that will be played in coming days by police and Interior Ministry forces in containing and/or disbanding the protests in Kyiv. During last night’s operations it was very obvious that the Berkut riot police deployed in the city center did not originate from Kyiv. Tactically they were unprepared: they failed to block side entrances into the main streets where barricades had been set up, and they were encircled on several occasions by demonstrators simply because they were unfamiliar with the geography of the city center. Forces consisting of Kyiv-based police, conscripted Interior Ministry troops, and Berkut riot police from the regions are by no means monolithic. Eyewitnesses reported today that Kyiv-based police actually turned around to face the Berkut riot police imports during one of the stand-offs with demonstrators early this morning in Ukraine’s capital. Can other, similar, incidents of disobedience by police be expected during the next few days? One would certainly hope so
Ukrainian history is filled with examples of uprisings. A close friend of mine, observing the activity on Independence Square during the past few weeks (and particularly today) suggested that Ukrainians may have some sort of genetic ability to collectively organize into self-sufficient camps under extreme conditions – an ability firmly rooted in the history of Cossack uprisings in Ukraine. Unfortunately, this same history does not inspire optimism with respect to the outcomes of the uprisings for the rebels. In most cases, these uprisings (particularly against irrational and/or oppressive authoritarian rulers) have ended in spoils being distributed among political actors during the resolution phase of the uprising, with minimal benefit to the people. Hopefully, this modern uprising will prove an exception to the historical rule.
God help us!
Mychailo Wynnyckyj PhD