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Reacting to Ukraine’s protests

By Blog Admin, on 5 December 2013

The return of sustained protest to the streets of Ukraine has hugely raised the political stakes comments Andrew Wilson

The protests in Kiev are now two weeks old. They began after the Ukrainian government first decided to suspend negotiations with the EU on 21 November, but have gained new intensity after President Yanukovych left the Vilnius Summit on 28-29 November empty-handed, without signing the key AgreementsBut the attempt at violent dispersal of the crowds on his return, on Saturday 30 November, only led to bigger demonstrations on the Sunday.

At the time of writing (Monday the 2nd), the protestors were looking more embedded – literally so, as several buildings have been occupied and barriers set up in the centre of Kiev. The stakes are especially high because the OSCE Ministerial Council is due to be held in Kiev on 5-6 December – the opposition want to keep the protest going until then, the authorities want to stamp them out. The ruling party is losing key members and morale.

What happens next?

One of the most depressing features of Ukraine’s many failures after the Orange Revolution in 2004 was that people lost the will to protest. Political demonstration even became an entirely artificial affair, with being-paid-to-protest becoming big business in Ukraine. So the return of real protests changes things dramatically. Participants at the first big demo held up signs saying “we are not paid”. The authorities are relying on the tired and discredited narrative that this is an artificial protest, ‘”paid for” by domestic oligarchs or foreign powers. At least in Kiev, everyone knows this is false.

How will the authorities react?

They have already tried violent dispersal of the demonstrators and it didn’t work. There is no iron law saying it wouldn’t work a second time; but the likely human cost now looks high and the regime’s ranks are far from united. The President has lost his Chief of Staff; the head of Kiev City Police has also gone. Yanukovych’s natural instinct, however, is not exactly negotiation. The authorities have been building up their defences since 2010. The use of thugs and paid provocateurs against demonstrators is still a real prospect – so the West should be wary of any black PR that the demonstrators used violence first.

Yanukovych has phoned Barroso and promised to send a delegation to Brussels to “look at” key aspects of the EU-Ukraine agreements. There will be severe disappointment in Brussels if they arrive without the power to negotiate. The EU was possibly saved from a bad agreement in Vilnius if it had acceded to some of Ukraine’s more outlandish demands. The authorities are no longer in a position to make such demands, so the ideal scenario of an Agreement without them may ironically be more possible now than it was last week.

Some demonstrators are calling for Yanukovych’s resignation and for ‘revolution’; but the real point of pressure is on the government. A dozen MPs have quit the ruling Party of Regions already and their parliamentary majority is under threat. Prime Minister Azarov could easily be the fall guy, and could be replaced with a compromise candidate. President Yanukovych would then be dangerously isolated, however, so will resist such a scenario as strongly as he can.

How will Russia react?

Putin has invested heavily in sabotaging the Eastern Partnership across the board; but the great victory that Russia was celebrating at the end of the Vilnius Summit now looks potentially hollow. Even more fundamentally, Putin thought he had inoculated Russia, Ukraine and the surrounding states against any repeat of the kind of protests seen in 2004. Now they, or something like them, are happening again.

Andrew Wilson is Reader in Ukrainian Studies at UCL-SSEES. 

This post was first published on the ECFR blog and is reproduced with permission. Andrew can also be heard discussing the situation in Ukraine with Mark Leonard,  and Kadri Liik  in the ECFR’s World in 30 Minutes podcast series here.

Note: This article gives the views of the author(s), and not the position of the SSEES Research blog, nor of the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, nor of UCL.