Matthew Day: Ukraine’s battle for democracy

Ukraine is braced for an increasingly bitter winter of discontent. Picture: AFP/Getty Images
Ukraine is braced for an increasingly bitter winter of discontent. Picture: AFP/Getty Images
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Thousands of Ukrainians have taken to the streets to vent anger over failure to secure EU deal, but lack of a cohesive opposition is hampering their calls for change, writes Matthew Day

A few weeks ago, I met Mykola Azarov, Ukraine’s embattled prime minister and asked him if he thought Ukrainians would hold his government and president responsible if a historic deal with the European Union was not signed. “Believe him,” he replied. “Ukrainians will not blame the government.” The EU and the West, he explained, would feel the heat from a furious Ukraine instead, and would “never be forgiven”.

A few days later, Azarov announced that Kiev would not be signing the Association Agreement that would have brought the former Soviet state much closer to the West, and so triggered a firestorm of rage that brought hundreds of thousands of protestors on to the capital’s streets to demand the resignation of Azarov, his government and Viktor Yanukovich, the president. Nobody appeared to blame the EU.

Far from waning, those protests have continued, gathering momentum and piling a vast amount of pressure on a government and a president, which clearly underestimated by a considerable margin the anger and resentment its decision to walk away from the agreement would cause.

To the jaded and cynical people of western Europe, it is perhaps surprising that an agreement with Brussels, embroidered in the mind-numbing language of a free-trade agreement, could be such a source of passion that people are prepared – quite literally –to fight for it, or possibly even to die for it.

But for many Ukrainians, the Association Agreement has become a symbol of something far greater in value than its clauses relating to free trade and economics. It is about aspiration and destiny. It has become a symbol of European values. Too often taken for granted and abused in the West, these values include a true adherence to democracy, a political structure free from corruption and the desire to lead a life unfettered by petty bureaucracy and the interference of a state that still regards its citizens with disdain.

Ukrainians are growing increasingly weary of living in a post-Soviet space, with all the unfortunate trappings that come with it. Always bad, corruption under Yanukovich has got worse as he has cemented his grip on power – and there is the common perception that the political elite, no matter what block they are hewn from, are in the politics game to line their own pockets and to abuse parliamentary immunity from prosecution in order to protect them from eyes prying into their shady business practices.

Walk down Kiev’s Lipska Street, just around the corner from the Ukrainian parliament, you come across a stretch of the road sealed off by the police so MPs can park their cars. Almost all of the vehicles lining the street are huge and resplendent Mercedes Benzes, BMWs or other luxury marques; all with tinted windows. The price of one of these cars is far beyond anything an average Ukrainian can buy and fosters suspicions of corruption, while the opaque windows symbolise an elite happily aloof from the people they nominally represent.

So Ukrainians want change and the vast crowds that have packed into Kiev are giving voice to this desire. Such are their numbers and determination, there is now even talk of revolution.

Ukraine already experienced a revolution of sorts back in the winter of 2004-5, when huge protests forced a recount in the presidential election at the expense of Viktor Yanukovich in what became known as the Orange Revolution.

But in those days, the opposition had clear leaders: Viktor Yushchenko, who won the recount, and the flaxen-haired Yulia Timoshenko, who later became prime minister. This time around there is nobody really in control. Yushchenko is a discredited political force and Timoshenko languishes in jail after being found guilty in controversial circumstances of abuse of office.

This means there is nobody in control of the masses other than the masses, and there is nobody who could dispel them if the need arose. It also means there are few people, if any, who have the credibility to take the demands of the crowds (the resignation of both prime minister and president, freedom of speech, and the signing of the Association Agreement) and sit down with the ruling elite and negotiate.

And even if a clear opposition leadership arose, the chances of it surviving long are slim. Ukrainian politics are notoriously fractious and divided, so even if the diverse parties and blocs now representing the anti-Yanukovich forces manage to form a coherent strategy, it could soon be pulled apart by in-fighting.

It is worth remembering that, despite the anger and demonstrations, the government still survived a vote of no confidence in parliament on 3 December.

Without political leadership, the demonstrators are vulnerable to the forces controlled by Yanukovich and the government. There are rumours of interior ministry troops being massed near Kiev and the possibility of a declaration of a state of emergency.

Whether Yanukovich takes this drastic step is moot. He will, no doubt, have been alarmed by the scale of the protests and the sobering fact that at times the forces of law and order were no longer in control of the streets.

He will also have heard calls for the implementation of a state of emergency. As an indication of the east-west divide in Ukraine, councils from the Russian-speaking east of the country have called for the protests to be halted, with the Crimea even demanding a state of emergency be declared.

The president is also a man born of the Soviet era, when leaders expected absolute power, never expected to share it and were always loath to relinquish it.

Despite this, Yanukovich knows the use of force could well result in western countries placing some form of sanctions on the country, and would shatter ties with the EU, which, despite all appearances, he still covets and requires. Force would also fuel regional divisions in the country to a dangerous level, as most of it would come down on the pro-western west of Ukraine.

So he might just try and weather the storm and hope the demonstrations lose their fizz, or offer some form of compromise. He could try to bring opposition parties into the government in the spirit of national unity, but so far the opposition has refused to countenance this.

With both sides sticking to their guns, the room for compromise is diminishing and Ukraine is in for a turbulent end to the year. In October, Azarov said “one cannot play with the destiny of Ukraine”. But it appears his president is doing just that.

• Matthew Day writes for The Scotsman on eastern Europe affairs