How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
For the second time in nine years, anti-regime protesters have filled the streets of Ukraine. But now, the stakes for the European Union and the United States have risen. Ukraine’s latest political upheaval, which pro-European protesters have dubbed the Euro-Revolution, began in late November when President Viktor Yanukovych rejected a long-awaited agreement to boost political and trade ties with the EU. Demonstrations exploded after riot police brutally attacked protesters camped out in Independence Square, the site of the 2004 Orange Revolution, on November 30. Within a week, mass protests demanding Yanukovych’s resignation spread across the country. Several hundred thousand marched in Kiev, while mostly young activists set up barricades around government buildings and knocked down a statue of Lenin.
Mykola Azarov, Ukraine’s prime minister, called the peaceful demonstrators in Kiev “Nazis” and compared the statue’s toppling to the Taliban’s destruction of the giant Buddhas of Bamiyan in Afghanistan in 2001. European Commission President José Manuel Barroso, meanwhile, praised the “young people in Ukraine’s streets” for “writing a new history of Europe.” The demonstrators’ slogan (“Ukraine is Europe!”) signifies much more than a desire to join the EU. For them, as for most Ukrainians, Europe is a symbol of democracy, national dignity, human rights, and freedom -- everything they believe, correctly, the Yanukovych regime opposes.
Although much of the world has focused on the demonstrations in Kiev, anti-regime discontent is hardly limited to the capital. Opposition channels, Web sites, and social media have broadcast continuously from Independence Square or the Euromaidan (“Eurosquare” in Ukrainian), providing accurate information and countering the slanted reporting of regime-controlled and Russian sources. Several journalists have even resigned from Ukraine’s First National TV station in protest. Up to 50,000 Ukrainians have marched repeatedly in Lviv, where the elite Berkut police units pointedly refused to intervene. In the west, the Europe-leaning officials who run the Ivano-Frankivsk, Lviv, Ternopil, and Volyn provinces have effectively escaped the regime’s control.
Demonstrations have even erupted in the country’s south and east, long the home of Yanukovych’s traditional support base. Sensing danger, his ruling Party of Regions has called emergency sessions in two formerly quiescent eastern cities, Kharkiv and Luhansk, in order to nip homegrown anti-regime sentiments in the bud. In Donetsk, Yanukovych’s stronghold, the authorities had to cancel a pro-regime demonstration when it became clear that the turnout would be embarrassingly small. In Yenakievo, Yanukovych’s hometown, the mayor assured nervous regime supporters that “Big Daddy” -- Yanukovych -- “will never betray his children.”
Since it lost the battle for hearts and minds very early, a desperate regime bared its teeth. In the early hours of December 11, Berkut units assaulted the Euromaidan, but protestors held their positions and the police retreated after daybreak. As opposition leaders called on Ukrainians to march on Independence Square, Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland handed out food to protesters, after Catherine Ashton, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, visited the square. In a statement, Secretary of State John Kerry expressed “disgust” with the Ukrainian authorities’ use of “riot police, bulldozers, and batons” against peaceful protesters. “This response is neither acceptable nor does it befit a democracy.” Yanukovych proved, yet again, that he only speaks the language of force and cannot be trusted.
Even if the regime eventually disperses the Euromaidan protesters, the crisis is far from over. Mass demonstrations will likely continue; protesters can encamp in another square in Kiev. The Yanukovych regime will remain weak and popular opposition will remain strong. Lacking legitimacy and economic resources, the regime will rest on force and be viewed as an occupying power. And occupation always provokes resistance. The pro-European protesters know something that Yanukovych and his cronies still cannot comprehend: that Ukraine’s only path to stability and prosperity is democracy.
THE MESSAGE FROM THE MAIDAN
Although Yanukovych’s decision to spurn the Association Agreement with the EU sparked the Euro-Revolution, its underlying causes run much deeper. In his three years in office, Yanukovych has created a dysfunctional system of sultanistic rule, concentrating power in his less-than-able hands and turning the government and parliament into rubber-stamp institutions. He has eviscerated the courts, joined forces with Ukraine’s richest oligarch, Rinat Akhmetov, and used his Party of Regions as a vehicle for self-enrichment. The result is an ineffective, incompetent, and corrupt government apparatus that systematically ignores popular needs and violates human and civil rights.
Beyond that, the protests have also exposed three truths about Ukraine. First, the emperor, Yanukovych, has no clothes and everybody inside and outside Ukraine now knows it. It is no longer possible to claim, as many observers have for years, that his regime is benign and that he has a democratic mandate. Quite the contrary, he has lost all legitimacy. Second, Ukrainians are not, as was frequently asserted in the last few years, apathetic and indifferent to their fate, to democracy, and to freedom. They want to run their lives without Yanukovych’s paternalistic interference in a way that accords with what Europe represents. Third, Ukrainians will not submit to the predations of an authoritarian regime. They rebelled in the late 1980s against Soviet rule. They rebelled in 2000–2001 against the authoritarianism of President Leonid Kuchma. They rebelled in the 2004 Orange Revolution against Yanukovych’s falsification of presidential elections. And they rebelled in the 2013 Euro-Revolution against Yanukovych’s sultanism. They will continue to rebel as long as sultanism exists.
If the Yanukovych regime survives the current crisis intact but refuses to change its ways, Ukraine will be ungovernable: the regime will continue to stagnate, the already slumping economy will go into freefall, Ukrainian civil society and the democratic opposition will grow stronger, and pro- and anti-regime radicals will mobilize. Another rebellion will be all but inevitable. And that will bring violence, especially if a desperate regime miscalculates and cracks down on civilians, provoking a counter-response.
Yanukovych has no future in such a Ukraine, with nothing positive to offer a population that knows that its poverty and degradation are the direct result of his malfeasance. Nor does he have the coercive resources to reestablish stability in a country the size of France by force. The army is decrepit, the internal troops untested, and the elite riot police number only several thousand. Even Russia cannot save him. Billions of dollars of credits and lower gas prices may reduce the budget deficit and keep gas prices down, but they will do nothing to address the sources of the current crisis. Yanukovych’s chances of winning the 2015 presidential elections fairly and freely are nil, and electoral falsification will produce another popular uprising. Yanukovych is in no less of a crisis than the system he built.
The only stable solution to Ukraine’s state of permanent revolution is a democratic government. Only it would have the legitimacy and popular support to dismantle an authoritarian, crony system, take on corruption, embark on painful reforms, and turn Ukraine toward Europe and the world. Yanukovych still had a chance to become a reformer before he rejected the EU agreement; he may not get it again. At some point it will be up to the democratic opposition to try its hand. When that time comes, it will have to avoid the post-revolutionary Orange government’s mistakes -- the failure to develop a clear reform agenda and lines of authority within the new government -- and follow, instead, the path of post-Communist reformers in Estonia, Lithuania, and Poland who quickly adopted painful economic reforms, streamlined their government bureaucracies, and willingly borrowed ideas and personnel from the West. When Ukrainian democrats extend a hand to the West, the European Union and the United States would do well to reciprocate.
AS UKRAINE GOES
Ukraine’s descent into instability might not matter if it were a tiny country tucked away in some corner of Eurasia. But today, as much as at independence in 1991, Ukraine matters precisely because it is a pivotal state, populated by 45 million people, that borders both Europe and Russia. Ukraine’s independence is, as former National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski has repeatedly argued, a guarantee of Russia’s non-imperial future and Europe’s security. An unstable Ukraine could produce instability next door, in Hungary, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, and the Baltic states. In contrast, a stable, democratic, and prosperous Ukraine will reinforce stability in both Europe and Russia, two key U.S. interests.
None of this is new. Ukrainian and Western analysts have well understood Ukraine’s potential role in the region since 1991, but few policymakers listened. After the Orange Revolution in 2004, President Viktor Yushchenko’s government hoped for a quick rapprochement with the EU, but Brussels stayed silent. Germany, the EU’s power holder, was loath to disturb relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin (Chancellor Gerhard Schröder even called Putin a “true democrat” at the height of the Orange Revolution). But with the Orange government’s descent into perpetual squabbling, the EU finally appreciated its strategic interest in the countries of the former Soviet Union and developed the Eastern Partnership, which was supposed to culminate in the Association Agreement. This time Kiev, responding to Putin’s sticks and carrots, turned its back on Europe and ignited the Euro-Revolution.
Although a weak, unstable, stagnant, and authoritarian Ukraine cannot be in the interest of a democratic Russian state, it suits Putin just fine. Having amassed vast powers, Putin needs to bring former Soviet territories under Moscow’s umbrella to bolster his legitimacy at home and project newfound Russian strength abroad. The strategy has been heavy-handed. Putin’s adviser Sergei Glazyev warned that borders could be revised in case Moldova and Ukraine signed the Association Agreement, spurning Russia. Equally aggressive are Putin’s pursuit of a Customs Union with Belarus and Kazakhstan (and, if it joins, Armenia) and his promotion of a plan to create a Eurasian Union to supersede the mostly defunct Commonwealth of Independent States. Neither scheme makes much economic or political sense in a globalized world. But, in transforming their non-Russian member states into Russian appendages, both would serve Putin’s ideological interests. The very last thing Putin wants is a successful revolution in Ukraine that would energize and inspire Russia’s democratic opposition.
Massive human rights violations and the collapse of Ukraine’s democratic potential should trouble all Europeans and Americans. An economic basket case on the EU’s eastern border will produce huge numbers of labor migrants and refugees. An ungovernable Ukraine will not be a reliable transit country for the large amounts of natural gas that flow from Russia to Europe. A stagnant authoritarian regime that generates periodic mass uprisings could at some point provoke a civil war or, not inconceivably, result in state failure. Permanent instability may even tempt Putin to consider military intervention along the lines of Georgia, unleashing a wider conflagration.
Asked how they think the West can support their democratic aspirations right now, most Ukrainians say that Europe and the United States should squarely tell Yanukovych that a violent crackdown and a refusal to negotiate would have two immediate consequences. First, the West will take advantage of the Magnitsky Act, the 2012 U.S. law that bars Russian officials from traveling to the United States and accessing their U.S. bank accounts, and impose travel bans on top Ukrainian officials and their families. At the same time, visa restrictions could be loosened on ordinary Ukrainians. Second, Europe and the United States will freeze the billions of dollars of illegally acquired assets held by Yanukovych’s inner circle and their cronies in the West.
Ukrainians understand that these measures will not dismantle Yanukovych’s broken system: that is their job. But such measures would send a powerful signal to Ukraine’s democratic forces and provide the regime with incentives to lessen its exploitation of the population and its repression of the opposition, take round-table negotiations seriously, and perhaps even agree to new elections or a coalition government. Should the regime come to its senses, Ukrainians hope that Europe will leave the door open to an Association Agreement. Should the regime collapse, Ukrainians know that continued Western support of Ukrainian democracy will be critical to its survival. Above all, the United States and Europe will have to appreciate that their own interests require denying Putin his neo-imperial hopes for a weak Ukraine.
But even with their vital interests at stake in Ukraine, it remains to be seen whether Washington and Brussels understand that if they do too little to support Ukrainians in the streets now they will have to deal with far more instability later. U.S. and European officials have told Yanukovych to refrain from violence. Most Ukrainians would argue that, however positive, such vague admonitions without a clearly stated “or else” will have no impact on a brutal regime concerned only with power and self-enrichment.