Yanukovych’s Time Is Up in Ukraine;
the West Must Prepare
Ukrainian drama has taken a drastic turn. President Viktor Yanukovych seems to
be on his way out. On Thursday (January 30), he announced he was going on sick
leave, but his illness has the feel of something indefinite. The faster he
departs, the better for Ukraine. But because of the dire financial and
political situation throughout the country, with ramifications for relations
between Europe and Russia, the West must focus immediately on Ukraine as the
top international concern at this moment. Contingency plans for the demise of
Yanukovych need to be put in place.
Revolutionary times have their own logic that is very different
from the logic of ordinary politics, as writers from Alexis de Tocqueville to
Crane Brinton have taught. The first thing to understand about Ukraine today is
that it has entered a revolutionary stage. Like it or not, we had better deal
with the new environment rationally.
A revolutionary situation comes with one well-known dynamic, that
of a revolution eating its own children. Yet, this is not inevitable. Sensible
forces can overtake the revolutionary dynamic. A rational political elite
should try to get ahead of the train and drive it in a democratic direction.
The first and most important point is that President Yanukovych is
finished. Though duly elected in 2010, he cannot serve until the end of his
term in March 2015. His fate was sealed in three steps. First, he initially
campaigned for the European Association Agreement all fall, but then he refused
to sign it under pressure from Moscow. That mercurial decision led to a popular
uproar, including occupation of major public spaces throughout the country.
Second, on January 16, he had the parliament adopt nine
dictatorial laws, which could have put all the protesters in prison. The threat
of a crackdown gave the opposition no choice but to stand firm. Yanukovych had
transformed the struggle to a winner-take-all battle. By January 25, the
opposition occupied the regional administrative headquarters in half the
country. Yet, the opposition leaders still found it worthwhile to negotiate with
Yanukovych in spite of rising protests from the radical right. On January 28,
trying to salvage the situation, the parliament revoked its repressive laws and
the cabinet of ministers resigned. Still, the political process was alive with
demands for more from the government.
Third, on January 29, Yanukovych committed a fatal mistake. He
forced the parliament to vote for his version of an “amnesty” bill for
political prisoners. Amnesty would only be given if the protesters first
evacuated all the buildings they had occupied and ended their protests. The
opposition, having lost all faith in Yanukovych’s credibility, found his gambit
unacceptable. Moreover, Yanukovych went to parliament himself and personally
threatened recent defectors. Even so, he managed to mobilize only a slim
majority of 232 votes and 226 were needed.
With his recent actions, Yanukovych has effectively stopped the
political process. The opposition is now focusing on one demand: his
resignation. They also demand early parliamentary and presidential elections.
Yanukovych is generally perceived to have stolen the parliamentary elections in
October 2012, which were really won by the opposition, but he managed to keep a
lid on until now. The opposition is also demanding a reinstitution of the parliamentary-presidential
constitution of 2004, which Yanukovych had his obedient Constitutional Court
abolish in October 2010. But in reality, the only topic that the opposition is
willing to discuss with him is the conditions for his resignation.
Yanukovych’s downfall is not really surprising. He has made every
conceivable political mistake all along, confusing a steamroller approach with
political strength. Among Ukrainian politicians, Yanukovych reminds me of Pavlo
Lazarenko, Ukraine’s prime minister in 1996–97, who lied patently while scaring
everybody. Then he was suddenly gone. For laundering a now-paltry $130 million,
Lazarenko has spent a decade in California’s overcrowded jails. I asked the
wise socialist leader Oleksandr Moroz how this could have happened, and he told
me in his usual forefront fashion: “He did not share.”
Similarly, Yanukovych has concentrated all power and wealth within
a small group of young businessmen around his son Oleksandr.
It is not just the general public that Yanukovych has alienated.
By my count, Yanukovych’s first government of 2010 contained nine oligarchic
groups. Soon, the number declined to three, and now his government consists of
no one but the “Yanukovych family.” In the last month, Yanukovych has alienated
his last allies: gas oligarch Dmytro Firtash, metallurgical oligarch Rinat
Akhmetov, and the old Donetsk group of Prime Minister Nikolai Azarov. Who
remains after you have betrayed all your closest friends? Nobody! The big
businessmen complain bitterly in private of the Yanukovych family extorting
them and taking over their properties for little or no payment.
In the tax administration, ordinary officials are said to be no
longer allowed to take the customary cuts while delivering all the extorted
funds to the very top. Thus, the pervasively corrupt state administration also
opposes Yanukovych. The same appears to be true of law enforcement, with the
exception of 8,000 brutal riot police.
During the weekend January 25–26, Yanukovych lost territorial
control over the country. Opposition activists have taken over half the
country. The regional unrest has spread everywhere except for the Crimea and
Lugansk, the two most Russian regions. In the parliament, Yanukovych no longer
seems to have the support of more than 125 out of 450 deputies. Similarly,
opinion polls suggest about one-quarter of the population is with him. Only the
Berkut riot police and some hired thugs still support him, but that is a very
fragile base. The president has simply lost administrative and political
control over the country.
What Should the United States and European
Union Do Now?
the short term, the West should no longer call for negotiations between
Yanukovych and the opposition. Rather the West should be ready to mediate in a
negotiation to clear the way for his exit. For that purpose, the European Union
should have a senior representative permanently posted in Kiev during this
height of the political crisis. EU Commissioner Štefan Füle would be the natural choice, having
the greatest knowledge of Ukrainian leaders.
Personal sanctions should be imposed against those who pursue violence,
but this stage may pass fast. Yanukovych could depart in many ways, and it is
hardly meaningful to speculate how. It is more fruitful to discuss what may
happen after Yanukovych has departed.
Presumably, a provisional government of all the opposition parties
will be formed and new parliamentary elections held within three months. That
parliament may in turn adopt a new constitution. President Vladimir Putin of
Russia provided credits and ended multiple sanctions against Ukraine in his
support of Yanukovych on December 17, 2013. Now he and other Russians are
suggesting they will end their financial support and revive the prior sanctions
that were lifted to discourage Ukraine’s turning to the West. With Ukraine high
and dry as a result of Russia’s strong-arm tactics, the West faces a big agenda
First, Ukraine will face a severe financial emergency. The
International Monetary Fund (IMF) needs to engage immediately with a
provisional government as soon as one is set up. A depreciation of the
Ukrainian hryvnia appears inevitable, but possibly it can stop at 9.5 to 10
hryvnia per US dollar, against the current 8.5 hryvnia per dollar. Public
expenditures need to be frozen and dubious enterprise subsidies need to be cut.
Taxes are already high and cannot be raised further. The previous favorable tax
regime for small enterprises needs to be reintroduced to revive small
entrepreneurship. Finally, gas prices should be adjusted to costs and markets.
Second, there must be a response to the likelihood of Russia
imposing severe trade sanctions, presumably prohibiting all imports from
Ukraine, as Georgia and Moldova experienced in 2006. Here the United States and
the European Union need to react sharply both bilaterally with Russia and in
the World Trade Organization (WTO). To reimpose sanctions would violate
Russia’s commitments to the WTO, and the West should prepare an appropriately
Third, there must be a response in the likelihood of Russia
cutting its gas supplies to Ukraine, as it did in January 2006 and January
2009. Since about half of Russia’s gas supply to Europe still passes through
Ukraine, such a step would be a serious concern for the European Union, which
has ample legal means to retaliate against Russia. Indeed, Russia could lose
its gas market in Europe if it carries out such an act once again.
Ukraine is too big and strong a country for Russia to be foolish
enough to consider any military intervention, especially on the eve of the
The conclusion is twofold. On the one hand, developments in
Ukraine can become quite dramatic. On the other, the West can counteract quite
effectively. However, in order to be effective and resolve the Ukrainian drama
in a peaceful and constructive fashion, the West needs to engage in serious
contingency planning right now and comprehend that Ukraine is the current top
January 30th, 2014