There’s apparently a limit on what Ukraine’s president can get away with.
He could preside over massive amounts of corruption, he could jail his chief political opponent on ridiculously politicized charges, he could swerve disastrously between a pro-Russian worldview and a pro-European worldview, and he could even brazenly change Ukraine’s election law to win more seats.
But when the government of Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych became responsible for the deaths of 88 protesters last week, even members within his own Party of Regions (Партія регіонів) were defecting from Yanukovych. Arguably, until his police force unleashed lethal fire on hundreds of civilians, Yanukovych could point to a relatively legitimate electoral mandate in the previous 2010 presidential election (and, though it was flawed, the 2012 parliamentary elections).
Since Friday, when the European Union seemed to broker a deal between Yanukovych and Ukraine’s opposition leaders, events galloped at a dramatically rapid rate (though apparently not too fast for Ukraine’s leading oligarchs, Rinat Akhmetov and Dmitry Firtash), leaving Yanukovych in hiding in eastern Ukraine, under charges of mass murder. The country’s parliament, the Verkhovna Rada, voted in quick succession to elect speaker Oleksander Turchinov (pictured above), an opposition, pro-European politician, as interim president.
It also elected to restore the 2004 constitution, which restores more power to Ukraine’s parliament and away from its president, and set a tentative May 25 date for new presidential elections. The parliament also cleared the path to free Yulia Tymoshenko, a former prime minister and a leader of the center-right ‘All Ukrainian Union — Fatherland’ party (Всеукраїнське об’єднання “Батьківщина), who narrowly lost the 2010 presidential vote to Yanukovych. Tymoshenko (pictured below) was jailed in late 2011 by Yanukovych’s government on charges related to her handling of the natural gas crisis in 2009 during her premiership. That precedent, ironically, may be one of the reasons that Yanukovych remained so keen on holding onto power in Kiev — having established that he was willing to throw Tymoshenko in prison on politically motivated grounds, it’s Yanukovych who now faces imprisonment on the basis of far more serious charges. Tymoshenko, who has ruled out leading Ukraine’s soon-to-be-announced interim government, will nonetheless be a leading candidate in the upcoming presidential ballot. Though she’s been imprisoned throughout the current crisis, she’s also unsullied by having negotiated with Yanukovych, a group that includes another opposition favorite, heavyweight boxing champion Vitaliy Klychko.
Russia, who had delivered $3 billion of a promised $15 billion bailout, is obviously dismayed. Though Yanukovych was never quite the Russian puppet that some Western leaders believed him to be, it’s clear that his sympathies lied to the east more than to the west.
So what comes next for Ukraine? Past experience demonstrates that the story won’t end with ‘happily ever after’ upon the appointment of this week’s new interim government. As I wrote last December, the Maidan protests — even if they succeed — won’t by themselves end Ukraine’s political crisis. Just a year after the ‘Orange Revolution’ of December 2004 and January 2005 that brought Viktor Yushchenko power, the pro-European government crumbled into infighting that lasted until Yushchenko left power, massively unpopular, in 2010. Yanukovych took advantage of the ongoing disunity of the Ukrainian opposition in October 2012’s parliamentary elections, winning largely by dividing the supporters of Tymoshenko’s Fatherland and Klychko’s newly formed Ukrainian Democratic Alliance for Reform (Український демократичний альянс за реформи).
Almost on schedule, this morning brings news of serious counter-protests in Crimea, the peninsula that lies in the Black Sea on the southeastern coast, one of the 24 oblasts that comprise Ukraine.
As Russian troops gather along the western border, it’s no longer inconceivable that Russian president Vladimir Putin could launch an invasion of Crimea — not unlike the Russian invasions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, two breakaway Georgian republics, in 2008. In 2008, Georgia’s president Mikheil Saakashvili launched a hasty military force into both regions, mistakenly hoping that NATO allies would reinforce him. Instead, Saakashvili’s aggressiveness caused South Ossetian and Abkhazian leaders to plea for Russian help, giving Putin the fig leaf necessary to invade. Ukraine’s interim leaders, accordingly, should tread lightly — with Crimean leaders already agitating for Russian help, including the mayor of the heavily Russian port city of Sebastopol, 2014’s Kiev has even less room for provocation than 2008’s Tbilisi. What’s more, Putin’s pet project, the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, are now over. While Ukraine’s political crisis continues to attract international attention, the international community no longer has the leverage of staining Putin’s Olympics. As recently as February 24, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov ruled out military intervention in Ukraine. But events are moving so rapidly that a statement 48 hours ago can now be considered outdated. (While the linguistic, cultural and other differences between the ‘pro-European, Ukrainian-speaking west’ and the ‘Russian-speaking east’ are complex, the divisions in Ukraine are real.)
If Russia actually moves on Crimea, it could launch an even wider separation of Russian-speaking eastern regions in Ukraine by emboldening other areas, including Yanukovych’s Donetsk oblast, to seek Russian cover, thereby effecting Ukraine’s de facto separation. That’s less than a week into the ‘victory’ for the Maidan protesters.
Part of the problem, which transcends east-west differences, is the truly horrific shape of Ukraine’s economy. As Jason Karaian writes in Quartz, Ukraine’s economic post-Cold War economic performance ranks last among not only Russia and the former Soviet republics, but the Soviet bloc of Eastern and Central European countries, averaging just 1.7%GDP growth between 1992 and 2013 — its GDP per capita is now less than 50% that of neighboring Belarus, a Soviet-style dictatorship under the iron fist of Alexander Lukashenko. As the International Monetary Fund and other ‘Western’ institutions rush to offer aid packages in lieu of the Russian bailout, they would be wise to prioritize strong pro-growth policies over the typical ‘austerity’ packages that the IMF and European institutions required as part of bailout programs for Greece and other European countries in economic crisis. It’s not too late for the European Union to make a game-changing impact in Ukraine. Though it’s becoming increasingly difficult to imagine the European Union and Russia working together to stabilize Ukraine politically and economically, it’s not impossible. Though there’s little love lost between Putin and German chancellor Angela Merkel, this would be a perfect mission for her predecessor Gerhard Schröder — warm relations with Putin landed Schröder a post-political role advising on a joint venture with the Russian energy giant Gazprom to supply natural gas to Germany. With Russian banks precariously exposed to Ukrainian debt, European officials have at least some leverage to convince Putin and the Russian government that stability is in Russia’s interest as well. Likewise, the natural gas pipeline that supplies much of central and eastern Europe runs through Ukraine, giving the European Union (and, in particular, Germany) a reason to listen closely to Russia as well. It’s in neither the interest of the European Union or Russia to wage a costly economic Cold War, given the fragility of economies in both Europe, which is only starting to shrug off the effects of the eurozone sovereign debt crisis, and Russia, where the petroruble-fueled boom days of the mid-2000s are now a long-ago memory.
For all the bluster of both liberal hawks like US secretary of state John Kerry and neoconservative hawks like US senator John McCain, the United States has virtually no national interest in Ukraine — while Russia remains a difficult geopolitical adversary, the Cold War is over and Ukraine is part of Russia’s near-abroad. With all due respect to certain advisers within the US Department of State, this is the European Union’s fight.
Top photo credit to Onur Coban / Anadolu Agency / Getty Images.