Discontent has been growing for some time with Yanukovych’s rule – the astonishing enrichment of his family and close associates has beggared belief across the impoverished country. But the trigger to recent events has been the authorities’ increasing arrogance. Yanukovych’s decision to not sign the Association Agreement with the EU back in November caused outrage in central and western Ukraine, leading to the establishment of Euromaidan by the opposition.
The unprovoked storming of the square and the vicious beating of peaceful protestors by ‘Berkut’, the detested security forces, resulted in entrenchment by the protesters – literally. In December the opposition in parliament forced a vote of no-confidence in the government (Yanukovych’s appointees) – and failed. But Yanukovych ill-judged decision to impose draconian laws on Jan. 16 to limit the freedoms of Ukrainian citizens to protest sent the country into a frenzy initially on the Euromaidan but soon – perhaps predictably – spreading to Ukraine’s Western regions.
What no one expected was the extent to which people would come out in many of Ukraine’s Eastern and Southern provinces. In effect, Russophones and Ukrainophones, the East and West of the country, young and old, ethnic Russians and Ukrainians united against – what they increasingly regard as – the illegitimate rule of the president and his party.
This development rendered Yanukovych’s primary ‘negotiating’ tool – the ‘Berkut’ security forces – ineffectual: with some 3,000-4,000 officers at his disposal – most deployed in Kiev, where they had already been stretched beyond reasonable expectations in freezing temperatures – he lacked the force to attack protestors on all fronts. The 8,000 – 9,000 interior troops the authorities can call on may be less willing to face up to demonstrators – and even if they were, they are likely to be overwhelmed by the numbers on streets. If Yanukovych were to call a state of emergency, thereby allowing the authorities to call on the military, he may have a civil war on his hands with all that that that entails.
Yanukovych’s decision to negotiate more meaningfully than hitherto – and offer the opposition positions in government – easily comes off as disingenuous given political realities and the constitutional framework. And even as Yanukovych negotiates, the authorities, while calling for respect for law by the protesters, themselves operate outside its remits. The courts act as pliable instruments for the decisions of the authorities. Shadowy state-authorised vigilantes (‘titushki’), who work hand in hand with the uniformed units, stalking the streets, in some cases, dragging injured protestors out of hospitals waiting for treatment, something the police and Berkut initiated (for more on this see ‘Bloodland’ by George Weigel). [JT: At the present moment – after this post was written – the BBC is now reporting that Yanukovych has accepted the resignation of Prime Minister Azarov and his cabinet, so negotiations may now be picking up steam.]
Yet these practices have found their 21st century nemesis – state violence is being captured on mobile phones and within minutes is finding its way onto Facebook, Twitter and Youtube. The parading by Berkut of a captured protestor, showing signs of a beating and stripped naked in temperatures of -10 degrees Celsius, was posted on Youtube triggering global outrage.
It may be that Yanukovych has grasped the scale of the unrest within the country, although there are many who doubt it. Yet as a political survivor of immense resilience, he is unlikely to relinquish power on a voluntary basis, while the protestors will not settle for anything else. At present there is simply no constitutional mechanism, such as impeachment, to depose the incumbent president. While the 1996 constitution refers to ‘impeachment’, the procedures do not exist, because the appropriate law has never been passed. Yanukovych still has a number of tools at his disposal, ranging from introducing a state of emergency to calling on Russian support. It is unclear how far he is prepared to go to ensure political – and increasingly personal – survival. But as time goes on, for the protesters this is no longer just about Yanukovych: it is about wanting to be treated as dignified citizens in their own land.