Sacrificing His Core Supporters in a Race Against Defeat
With reports of more than 100 deaths, this week has been the deadliest since Ukraine’s protests began in November after Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych refused to sign an association agreement with the European Union. On Friday, following talks mediated by the foreign ministers of France, Germany, and Poland, Yanukovych announced that a deal to end the violence had been reached. In a statement, he said that he had agreed to an early presidential election, a return to the 2004 Ukrainian constitution (which had limited the president’s powers in favor of parliament’s), and the formation of a national unity government.
Following initial uncertainty about whether the parties had, indeed, struck a deal and whether the opposition would accept it, by four in the afternoon local time, all three opposition leaders had signed the agreement in the presence of the European ministers. “We are about to sign,” Radek Sikorski, the foreign minister of Poland, tweeted just before the event. “Good compromise for Ukraine. Gives peace a chance. Opens the way to reform and to Europe. Poland and EU support it.”
On paper, the deal looks like a breakthrough; these are the very concessions that Ukraine’s opposition leaders have been demanding. Yet with uncertainty about when many of the deal's provisions could implemented -- and with little indication of whether the agreement will be acceptable to protesters on the Maidan, Kiev’s Independence Square -- it is still too soon to celebrate.
After all, this week’s shocking violence started on Tuesday as the Ukrainian parliament prepared to discuss a return to the 2004 constitution, a demand to which Yanukovych had already seemingly acceded in late January. Clashes nevertheless broke out between police and protesters trying to march on parliament. Following emergency talks with opposition leaders, Yanukovych announced a truce late Wednesday. Yet hopes that the violence had been curbed soon faded as the unrest continued in Kiev and the fatalities rose. In Lviv and other cities located in Ukraine’s west, meanwhile, demonstrators occupied state buildings, further revealing the central authorities’ limited reach.
With the opposition still calling for a return to the 2004 constitution, late Thursday night, Ukraine’s parliament took matters into its own hands. Lawmakers passed a resolution demanding that the security forces immediately stop using force against citizens. “From now on, every policeman who uses a weapon is a criminal,” Arseniy Yatsenyuk, one of the main opposition leaders, commented. The resolution also declared that a state of emergency could not be introduced without parliamentary approval (rumors that Yanukovych would initiate a state of emergency had been hanging over the protests for weeks). The resolution was backed by 236 members of parliament, including 34 from Yanukovych’s own Party of Regions. The parliament said that it would work continuously -- including on days off -- until the crisis was resolved. Yet on Friday morning, just before Yanukovych announced the deal, the speaker tried to adjourn the debate on the constitution, which prompted scuffles in parliament.
Since the protests began, Ukraine has seen this pattern play out again and again as violence has given way to negotiations, late-night resolutions, and more violence -- all interspersed with tense lulls in the fighting.
Part of the problem is how Yanukovych negotiates: He has delayed or avoided talks, playing for time. He kept Yatsenyuk and Vitali Klitschko, another opposition leader, waiting outside his office for over an hour before he met with them toward midnight on Tuesday. Meanwhile, both German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Polish President Bronisław Komorowski were unable to reach him by phone. When he met with the foreign ministers of France, Germany, and Poland on Thursday afternoon, he interrupted the meeting to phone Russian President Vladimir Putin, according to media reports. Meanwhile, in a statement published early Wednesday, Yanukovych accused the opposition leaders of undermining democracy. “Power is gained not on the streets or squares, but at the polls,” he stated, adding that the next election would come soon enough.
If Yanukovych’s deal materializes, it will open the door to early elections, for which the opposition has called repeatedly. The vote would give the hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians who have protested on the Maidan the chance to finally oust Yanukovych, all while meeting the president’s own apparently rigorous definitions of democracy. Early polls published in January suggest that any of the three opposition leaders -- Klitschko, Yatsenyuk, or Oleh Tyahanybok, the leader of the far-right Svoboda ("Freedom") party -- would stand a chance of beating Yanukovych in a face-off.
But there is the question of timing. The text of the deal calls for the election to take place in December 2014 at the latest. (Yanukovych’s statement did not mention any dates for the vote.) Even if the elections do happen by December, that is still a long time for the protesters to wait. The people in the Maidan are driven by their desire to see Yanukovych go rather than by hunger to vote for the opposition leaders. Many of them will find it hard to endure months more of a president who has blood on his hands. Indeed, they are still demanding that he step down immediately, and they may not leave Independence Square until he does.
Still, one small part of the deal has already been implemented. With surprising speed, on Friday afternoon, Ukraine’s parliament voted to reinstate the constitution of 2004. The decision was backed by 386 lawmakers. After the vote, they stood up and sang the Ukrainian national anthem. Although that is a promising start, there is still concern that the deal’s other provisions could be delayed indefinitely. The next step, at least, is for parliament to begin work on a new constitution, which is to be completed in September.
For now, all Ukraine can do is wait and see what happens on the street and in the region. According to a statement by Pravyy Sektor, a loose alliance of radical far-right organizations that rose to prominence during the clashes last month, the deal has major shortcomings. The group has vowed to continue fighting the authorities. In addition, no Russian representatives were present at the signing of the agreement, and there were reports that the country’s envoy to the negotiations had refused to sign. In other words, it remains to be seen how one of the dispute’s major players -- Moscow -- will react to any settlement reached in Kiev.
The events of the last few days suggest that it may take more than a declared truce or deal to end the unrest in Ukraine.