Marko Djurica / Courtesy Reuters A pro-EU rally at Independence Square in Kiev, December 17, 2013.

Ukraine's Big Three

Meet the Opposition Leaders at the Helm of Euromaidan

Over the last few days, Ukraine has seen the worst clashes since antigovernment protests began in November after Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych refused to sign an association agreement with the European Union. In the last two months, Yanukovych and his supporters have declined to make any concessions to the opposition, responding instead with riot police and, last week, a set of laws intended to severely curtail the protests. Talks between Yanukovych and the opposition, when they have taken place, have come to nothing. Now, with violence rising in Kiev’s Independence Square, known as the Maidan, Ukraine’s opposition leaders must decide what to do next.

Ukraine’s Euromaidan, as the demonstration is known, has three leaders but no hero. That is somewhat surprising for a country with such a long tradition of protest, including, most recently, the Orange Revolution. In 2004, Viktor Yushchenko, who had previously been prime minister and whose face was permanently scarred from a dioxin poisoning, and Yulia Tymoshenko, who had previously been deputy prime minister, came to embody the hopes of millions of Ukrainians and successfully challenged the results of a massively fraudulent election. This time around, three opposition leaders have attempted to guide the protests: Vitali Klitschko, Oleh Tyahnybok, and Arseniy Yatsenyuk, an unlikely trio of politicians who banded together after parliamentary elections in October 2012 to create what they called a united opposition.

Vitali Klitschko, January 2014.

Klitschko is likely the most familiar of the three to readers in the West. This 42-year-old world-boxing champion has been widely profiled in the international press; I interviewed him in Kiev shortly before the protests began. In 2012, his party, UDAR (the Ukrainian Democratic Alliance for Reform, literally “punch”), made it into parliament with 14 percent of the vote on an anticorruption platform. Klitschko spent years in Germany for his boxing career and speaks English and excellent German. He wants Ukrainians to enjoy European living standards and has emerged as a leading proponent of closer relations with the European Union, which he believes will make Ukraine a wealthier and better-run place. He has already been tipped as a future president for Ukraine, although many Ukrainians worry about his lack of experience and weak oratory skills. 

Oleh Tyahnybok, January 2014.

Tyahnybok, who hails from Lviv, is the leader of the nationalist Svoboda (“Freedom”) party, whose stronghold is western Ukraine. The party finished recent parliamentary elections with ten percent of the overall vote. Svoboda has been particularly visible at the protests, although that reflects its own opportunism more than the views of most of the protesters. For example, Svoboda holds itself up as a champion of Ukrainian language and culture. All too often, though, that is accompanied by aggressively nationalist and xenophobic rhetoric. (In the past, Tyahnybok has referred to the “Jewish-Russian mafia, which rules in Ukraine.”) Like the other opposition parties, Svoboda wants Ukraine to sign the Association Agreement with the European Union. But its more radical views fit uneasily with its supposedly pro-European stance and are a source of concern for many observers in Ukraine and abroad.

Arseniy Yatsenyuk, January 2014.

The third leader, Yatsenyuk, has been all but overlooked in the international media, although he is by far the most politically experienced of the three. At 39, he has already served as foreign minister, finance minister, and speaker of Ukraine's parliament. Yatsenyuk leads Tymoshenko's Fatherland coalition in her absence; in the 2012 elections, the party came in second, after Yanukovych’s Party of Regions, with 26 percent of the vote. Fatherland won the support of the west and center of Ukraine, the areas that traditionally back the Orange Revolution and are most hostile to Yanukovych. Yatsenyuk lacks charisma and has failed to capture Ukrainians’ attention like Tymoshenko once did. But a number of Ukrainians have told me that he is the safest and most realistic candidate the opposition has on offer, as he is neither an inexperienced sports celebrity nor a fiery nationalist. 

So far, there has been enough room for all three men at the protests. Klitschko has been seen patrolling the barricades and tough-talking anyone who seems keen to provoke violence, sometimes accompanied by his younger brother, Wladimir (also a boxing champion). Tyahnybok has appeared on the stage in the Maidan with the other two leaders and has toned down his rhetoric. Meanwhile, Yatsenyuk has been calling for unity in the face of mounting pressure. The clashes of the last few days have highlighted the need for them to take a stand to curb the violence. A video of Klitschko published on Monday, in which he calls on all Ukrainians to come to Kiev to protect their future, is an attempt at leadership. But the protesters are expecting more.

To that end, the opposition has called for an early presidential election, but Yanukovych has ignored them. They will have to wait until the next one, in March 2015. Very early polls suggest that Klitschko has the best chance of winning against Yanukovych in a runoff (roughly 43 percent of respondents would vote for him, compared with Yanukovych’s 25 percent). But the all-important question of who will run remains unanswered. Klitschko wants the opposition to put forward a single candidate (presumably himself), whereas Yatsenyuk maintains that it should run multiple politicians. Running more than one candidate would split the opposition vote in the first round. But there is also an increasingly valid objection to Klitschko’s vision: One registered opposition candidate makes it easier for the authorities to target and eliminate him. 

In Yanukovych’s Ukraine, elimination is a real possibility. His biggest rival, Tymoshenko, is conveniently behind bars. In October 2013, the Ukrainian parliament passed a law that prevents Klitschko, who has permanent resident status in Germany, from running for president. (He says he still will.) Yatsenyuk could be next: On December 8, the media reported that Ukraine's security service, the SBU, has launched investigations against the opposition for “activities aimed at overthrowing the government” -- in other words, a coup. The stories named no names, but the next day, police raided the Kiev headquarters of Yatsenyuk’s Fatherland. Fearing it would be next, Klitschko's UDAR evacuated its own offices that night. A set of laws that was pushed through parliament by Yanukovych’s supporters only adds to the sense of siege. One of the laws strips members of parliament of their parliamentary immunity, which could open the door to further arrests.

If Klitschko and Yatsenyuk are pushed out of the game, Tyahnybok, the nationalist, would be the only realistic opposition candidate left. And that could be exactly what Yanukovych has in mind. Recent polls suggest that even Tyahnybok could win against Yanukovych in a standoff. However, his candidacy would further polarize the country between east and west, and put liberal Ukrainians in a sticky situation. Besides, the margin between Yanukovych and Tyahnybok is so small (less than two percentage points) that Yanukovych could be tempted to try to steal the vote -- and get away with it. 

All the same, it seems like the opposition leaders increasingly see the 2015 election, not the protests, as the real opportunity for change. They will need to stay ahead of Yanukovych, who desperately wants to be re-elected. They should draw on (but not take advantage of, as some activists claim) the civic initiatives that have blossomed since the Euromaidan protests began -- of which Hromadske.tv, a civic news channel set up by some of Ukraine’s top journalists, is just one example.

They will also need to contend with the gulf between themselves and the protesters. And this rift goes back to the first days of the pro-European demonstrations, when nonpartisan protesters gathered on the Maidan while the opposition parties stood on the nearby European Square. Many civic activists accused the opposition leaders of trying to usurp the protests for their own political gain and of having no strategy. “I wonder where the opposition leaders were when police attacked peaceful demonstrators?” one young woman said to me when riot police first cleared Independence Square in November. This resentment was more evident than ever at the height of the clashes on January 19. “We no longer need a single candidate for president,” shouted an activist from the stage on the Maidan, a reference to the opposition’s lack of agreement on who will run in 2015. “We need a leader!”

“Lenin fell because he was jealous: he triggered one revolution, and Yanukovych has triggered two,” Yatsenyuk said after the statue of Lenin in Kiev was toppled in early December. The next months will show who, if anyone, is capable of toppling Yanukovych -- in a presidential election or otherwise. What happens after will determine whether Ukraine will go on to be a democracy. The hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians who have protested on Independence Square do not want another Yanukovych. Nor do they want another Yushchenko -- that would be the biggest betrayal of all. 

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