Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych doesn’t concede the right of the protestors on Maidan to demonstrate. The protestors on Maidan don’t concede that Yanukovych is their democratically elected leader, voted in by the people in 2010. This clash has led directly to the escalating violence in Kyiv.
The opposition leaders have failed to come up with a plan. The crowds are calling for Yanukovych’s ouster, but a people can’t remove a president when some of them – and the latest polls say only 50% of the population want Yanukovych to leave – just because you don’t like him anymore.
But you can protest. And the government should acknowledge those complaints and compromise. That is how a democracy, at the extremes of the system, works. In the meantime Yanukovych doesn’t see why he should leave until his term expires.
The problem is both sides are right. Yanukovych is running a kleptocracy for no one’s benefit other than his own. He is a bad president. He should step down and he is failing in his fundamental mission: to lead the country for the benefit of the people.
However, Yanukovych is also right. Violence cannot be tolerated by any government. Violence must be repressed by the civil authorities, which have the right to use all available means, including force.
From this point on we get into the subtleties. Are the anti-protest laws, rammed through the Rada last week, constitutional? I think the answer is a resounding “no”. Are they actually laws given that proper parliamentary procedure was clearly violated? Again, no. Should the protestors respect them after they were published this morning and so go into force? Probably the answer is yes to this one, as the proper course of action is to challenge them in the constitutional court – something no one has yet proposed. In the meantime they are de facto laws insomuch as the police are going to enforce them.
To be fair, the opposition leaders, and especially boxing champion Vitali Klitschko, leader of the UDAR party, have done the right thing. As the fighting broke out on January 19, Klitschko was into the middle of the fray calling for calm. But the opposition has lost control of the situation. It is being delegitimised because it has failed to deliver on the implicit promise of ousting the government and forcing early elections.
In fact, while the opposition has called for early elections, it has no plan on how to deliver on this promise – because it can’t. Understandably the 100,000-odd Ukrainians that have been standing in the freezing cold of Maidan for two months now are growing impatient. And on January 19 they took matters into their own hands.
But this is wrong. Yanukovych cannot be ousted by force, partly because there is no justification for it – especially when the fighters stand on dubious moral ground as they can’t claim to represent the will of all the people – but more importantly because Yanukovych controls all the instruments of power: the police and the army. Yanukovych still has the option of shooting people and if pushed he will order it. Ominously, last night the Interior Ministry reminded people that it has the authority to use guns. On January 21 the Kyiv Post reported that an executive order has been signed authorising the use of live ammunition against the protestors.
Things may have already gone too far for either side – and here I am referring to the government versus the fighters, rather than the organised opposition – to back down.
Once the violence starts, it escalates. Protestors throw a Molotov cocktail and scar a policeman for life. His friends in the force take their revenge and beat a bystander to a pulp. Eventually people start dying.
More importantly, both sides become increasingly invested in totally defeating the other. The protestors have started taking pictures of the police and journalists said people on Maidan have begun receiving SMS saying, “you have been registered as participating in a riot.” Under the new laws this carries a 15-year jail sentence. The stakes have gone up and if the protest fails, people fear they will be locked up. They have to win now. Likewise officers of the elite Berkut riot police need the authorities to hang onto power or they too will face prosecution.
So how do we get out of this spiral towards disaster? It is time for the international community to step in and force negotiations. The failure of January 20’s proposed meeting between Yanukovych and the opposition (Yanukovych downgraded it and proposed to send not just an underling but the man in charge of the Berkut) shows all trust has broken down and a negotiated solution is impossible as things stand.
However, the EU is failing in its responsibilities. In the 2004 Orange Revolution, a solution was found partly thanks to the intermediation of the then president of Poland. This time round all that is coming out of Brussels is statements of “concern.” The crowd on Maidan are deeply disappointed, as they need the EU’s help.
The irony of the EU’s failure is that the Maidan protests are fighting for exactly those values that the EU said were at the heart of its offer, embodied by the Association Agreement that Yanukovych refused to sign. Yet when those values are tested the EU is nowhere to be seen. No wonder Yanukovych decided to opt for the cold hard Russian cash instead of meaningless, lofty rhetoric.
Finally someone needs to explain why Yanukovych’s government needs to be ousted now, instead of waiting another 12 months and doing it legally and without pain.
For the last 20 years the West has been explaining to Eastern Europe that governments need to respect democracy. Yet when a fight breaks out – and clearly the West should and must support the principles that the demonstrators are fighting for – the message has become “forget everything we said before and go for it.” Cementing the democratic process – abiding by the rules set out in the constitution that are meant to govern the country – is the important principle here.
From this perspective the really scary laws are not the so-called “dictatorship laws” passed last week, but the new tax rules that effectively excludes Klitschko from running in the presidential race and Yanukovych’s proposal to introduce a first-past-the-post rule that would nix the 50% threshold needed to win an election in the first round. The anti-demonstration laws are pretty tough, but these two election laws will permanently break the democratic system and turn Ukraine into an autocracy run by a despot.