Revolution in Ukraine: Take Two

“In order to cut electricity consumption, it has been decided to switch off the light at the end of the tunnel.” Such was Ukrainian comedian Dmytro Chekalkin’s line upon the 2010 inauguration of President Viktor Yanukovych.

After a decade of failed reform and economic collapse under the first two post-Soviet leaders and another decade of political chaos (there are Wikipedia articles on the “2006 Ukrainian political crisis,” the “2007 Ukrainian political crisis” and the “2008 Ukrainian political crisis”) under a succession of governments that promised much and delivered little, the presidential elections had gone to the very man who had tried and failed to steal that same office six years earlier.

The events of 2004—known as the Orange Revolution—represented a hope that the power of the people could bring down Ukraine’s oligarchic and corrupt political structure and replace it with a Western-style democracy. Peaceful street protests forced the rigged elections to be rerun under close international scrutiny, and President Bush declared Ukraine a success story of his Freedom Agenda.

But the crisis had done little more than solidify the political structure Ukrainians had meant to overthrow. A country that had always been divided between an industrial eastern half with historical and linguistic ties to Russia and a largely agricultural western half that leaned more towards Europe now saw that division etched permanently into its electoral politics.

Caught between Western governments that wanted liberalization, a Russian state focused on opaque economic deal-making and the populist demands of their constituents, Ukrainian political parties lost their ideological distinctions and resorted to regional and nationalist identities that allowed them the political space for these complex maneuvers.

Each party was really three parties in one: a liberal face for the West, a personally charismatic and identity-based face for the voters and an oligarchic core modeled off of Putin’s Russia. And while Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, the leader of the Orange Revolution protests, pioneered this model with her Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc (now the Fatherland Party), nobody was better at it than Viktor Yanukovych’s Party of Regions.

So despite Western handwringing and the very real irony of it all, Yanukovych’s reappearance on the scene didn’t represent a rejection of the changes the Orange Revolution brought to Ukrainian politics as much as their consummation. And despite the looming feeling that a political system predicated on playing Europe, Russia and the Ukrainian people off each other couldn’t possibly last forever, Chekalkin was right to perceive that the possibility of autocracy looked distressingly likely.

It took a series of missteps last year to upset this equilibrium, first on Europe’s part and then on Russia’s. European leaders assumed that Yanukovych’s repeated expressions of Ukraine’s desire for closer European integration were honest and unreserved, and they decided that they could safely add more conditions to a proposed EU-Ukraine Association Agreement.

When Yanukovych announced the suspension of the Association Agreement talks in November, it was at first established opposition parties that called for protests in Kiev, especially the Fatherland Party (effectively led by Arseniy Yatsenyuk, as Yanukovych had imprisoned Tymoshenko for the same sort of corruption he regularly engaged in) and UDAR, led by former boxer Vitaly Klitschko.

But then something different happened: The protest movement in Kiev’s Maidan Nezalezhnosti square catapulted entirely new political forces to the fore. Citizen committees organized under the Maidan banner took over local and national government offices, and citizen militias carried out the functions of the police in its absence.

When Russia miscalculated, assuming that a customs agreement of their own, coupled with a Ukrainian government crackdown, would be enough to return Kiev to “normal” politics, Yanukovych was forced to accept defeat. This took the form of a peace agreement and a transition framework negotiated with the opposition parties and pressed for by both European and Russian diplomats.

This weekend the Maidan had the last laugh, as the transition agreement—already humiliating for Yanukovych—collapsed and the president was forced to flee Kiev for a safe haven in Crimea (by now the Moscow suburbs, if recent reports are correct). Parliament voted to release Tymoshenko from prison, and the vast presidential palace that had been Yanukovych’s personal fiefdom was opened to the public, revealing, among other things, a sizable personal zoo.

Any of the dozen things that have happened since last Saturday, or the dozen challenges that Ukraine now faces, would merit its own column—but I’ll merely mention a few.

Yatsenyuk is now prime minister, while Klitschko is a leading candidate in the presidential elections scheduled for May. If Klitschko wins (and Tymoshenko may also run), will their relationship be more productive than the famously ill-tempered partnership of Viktor Yushchenko as President and Tymoshenko as Prime Minister that doomed the Orange Revolution?

What will happen to Ukraine’s economy? The West will not provide as substantial of a financial assistance package as Russia offered in December, in part because of the anti-bailout and anti-foreign aid attitude that now prevails in Europe and the U.S., but also because much of the money would simply be funneled straight to Russia to pay natural gas debts. But if a pro-Western government takes power, it’s likely that Ukraine will lose significant amounts of Russian trade and subsidies. Will IMF loans and currency devaluation (ironically a tool that’s denied to struggling European countries) be enough to tide Ukraine over, and will the Association Agreement actually lead to enough European trade to put Ukraine’s economy on a permanently stronger footing? Might China become a more important economic and political partner instead?

What about Ukraine’s territorial integrity? An actual civil war or Russian military intervention looks unlikely. But will the Crimea—the semiautonomous, majority-Russophone Black Sea peninsula that hosts much of the Russian Navy—become a de facto independent Russian satellite like South Ossetia or Abkhazia?

And what about Ukraine’s political landscape? Will the radical new local politics the Maidan has built—in certain places distressingly right-wing, but everywhere impressively grassroots—survive the next decade of political maneuvering? If so, perhaps the Ukrainian people have indeed found the light switch for the post-Soviet tunnel.

Contact James Bradbury at jbradbur@stanford.edu.

About James Bradbury

James Bradbury is an international politics opinion columnist for The Stanford Daily. His goal for "Outside the Bubble" is to provide accessible, (hopefully) informative and slightly opinionated context for the week's world news headlines. James is a sophomore from McLean, Va. majoring in linguistics. To contact him, please email jbradbur 'at' stanford.edu.