Quo Vadis Ukraine?

Quo Vadis Ukraine?

The latest crisis in Ukraine broke out in late November with protests against President Viktor Yanukovych’s refusal, under pressure from Russia, to sign a trade pact with the European Union and instead turn to Russia for a $15 billion loan and a significant discount on gas prices. It has been growing ever since with a police crackdown of the protestors, further government restrictions on demonstrations, and increasing demands from the protesters for constitutional reform and the resignation of the government.

Although demonstrations have been concentrated throughout western Ukraine, where protesters seized government buildings in Lviv and Rivne and forced the governor to resign, it has even spread into traditionally more conservative and pro-Russian eastern Ukraine.

Since the beginning of the crisis, the government’s policy choices have increased the tension rather than eased it. The legislation that aimed to curb protests with restrictions on freedom of speech and peaceful assembly was a good example of such misjudgment. Another mistake, imposing a state of emergency throughout the country, was prevented by intense pressure from the United States and the EU.

What started as peaceful protests to support the country’s EU process has been transformed into street warfare through such misguided policies of the government and is now threatening further violence.

Although Prime Minister Mykola Azarov resigned on Tuesday and Parliament voted overwhelmingly to repeal extensive anti-protest laws, more than 100,000 people gathered at the Maidan, the Independence Square in Kyiv, demanding the resignation of the president, early elections, an amnesty for people arrested since the demonstrations started, changes to the Constitution to limit presidential powers and a shake-up of the Ukrainian political system.

Azarov’s resignation came too little, too late to restore calm in the country. His position was untenable as he was expected to face a no-confidence vote in Parliament and Yanukovych had already met with opposition leader Arseniy Yatsenyuk, who heads the Fatherland Party in the absence of jailed former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, to offer him the office. Both Yatsenyuk and Vitali Klitschko, head of the Ukrainian Democratic Alliance for Reform Party, who was offered the chance to become deputy prime minister, rejected Yanukovych’s offer.

Yanukovych’s opponents are now accusing him of trying to become a constitutional dictator. Although much-loathed anti-protest legislation has now been prevented, it showed his intention for all who wish to see. It stipulated, for example, curbs to freedoms of assembly, the media, privacy and civil society. It would have criminalized “insults” by foreign-funded NGOs, which were labeled as “foreign agents,” resulted in jail terms for wearing masks and hard hats during protests and restricted the work of non-registered news agencies.

The heat of the demonstrations and the violence used during the protests has also demonstrated the deep cultural split in the country. The Ukrainian-speaking western and northern regions overwhelmingly support integration with the EU while the Russian-speaking eastern and southern regions prefer closer relations with Russia.

At this point, what is at stake is the soul of the country, not just political power. Both the government and opposition parties have responsibility now in solving the crisis. Without concessions from both sides, hopes for a negotiated end will diminish fast. The external actors such as Russia, the EU and the U.S. should not further strain the matter but should instead encourage both sides to douse the flames.

Otherwise, we might find ourselves looking into a conflict spiral toward a civil war and a possibly bloody split in Ukraine.