Oh, what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive. The redirection of Ukraine is not going at all well; in fact, it probably now occurs to the architects of the bring-Ukraine-into-the-western-fold-and-snatch-it-from-Putin plan that it could hardly have gone worse. The country is stony broke and groaning under a mountain of debt, the government is broadly perceived as illegitimate and self-appointed despite the west’s loud shouting that it was established in the finest traditions of democratic struggle, an early and blindingly stupid decision to pander to the west-Ukraine base by altering the status of languages in Ukraine aroused fury across the Southeast, and so incensed the mostly-Russian Crimea that it threw down its hat on the floor and slammed out of the building forever; gonzo, off to join the Russian Federation by popular acclaim. Another earlier terrible decision – to recognize Kosovo – kicked the legs out from under western arguments that a unilateral declaration of independence is against international law. Now Ukraine has lost a good-sized chunk of its seacoast, not to mention its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), along with significant deposits of oil and gas, some of which already had exploration deals signed with the United States and Italy, now null and void. Routing the South Stream pipeline along a shallow shelf rather than through the deepest part of the Black Sea – as would have had to be done to avoid Ukrainian territorial waters which now belong to an independent Crimea – will save Gazprom $10 Billion right off the top. Sometimes the only thing that will make you feel better is to go off and have a good cry.
But how did we get here? Did events have to unfold the way they did? They certainly did not, but I’m glad you asked. Because modern man has a short memory, and things move so fast in our world that peddling an alternate narrative even a short time later is relatively easy. What really happens often goes down The Memory Hole. But I like to think of bloggers, along with being the last shred of journalism’s conscience, as a kind of grating over the memory hole, that prevent big stories from falling through and disappearing. Here to refresh everyone’s memory on events so recently transpired, is hoct. Those letters are short for Hero Of Crappy Town, from a quote by Firefly’s Hoban Washburne; “Let’s go to the crappy town where I’m a hero”. Advertising himself as “Anti-state, anti-empire, pro freedom”, hoct is comin’ at you live from Ljubljana, the capital of beautiful Slovenia. Take it away, hoct!
The Toppling of Viktor Yanukovich: Points to Remember
Few Ukrainians Will Mourn Yanukovich’s Departure
Polling from February 2014 indicated only 23% of Ukrainians supported the government of Yanukovich against the opposition and the protesters. The West-Center of Ukraine resented him his corruption, his authoritarianism and his failure to definitely orient economically towards Brussels and sided decisively against him. But equally so the South-East of Ukraine failed to rally behind him, in the way that West-Center had rallied behind the opposition. Indeed why would it have?
From the point of view of many in the South-East Yanukovich was corrupt, indecisive and had lied to them about where he was planning to take the country. For example, after Yanukovich was elected head of state in 2010, largely on the votes of the Russian-speaking South-East Ukraine, he and the people around him wasted no times in initiating trade talks with the European Union that led to the 2013 EU Association Agreement proposal, but only came around to making Russian a regional state language in 2012. That is, fully two years after taking power, but just in time for his party to receive a boost for the 2012 parliamentary elections.
As a consequence of his cynicism in ignoring the aspirations of the South-East, except immediately before elections, the segments of the population that had propelled him to power in 2010 withdrew support and he was left to fend for himself.
The Protest Movement That Brought Him down and the Opposition That Replaced Him Are Not Massively Popular
The same polls that put Yanukovich at 23% placed the support for the protesters squared against him at 40% — hardly numbers to write home about. Far from rallying the country behind them, the Euromaidan rallies against Yanukovich proved highly divisive. If on the one hand 80% of the public was behind them in Western Ukraine, they failed to secure any traction in the East where just 7% reported having a positive view of it.
The South-East refused to rally for the floundering Yanukovich, but nonetheless watched the forces in revolt against him with apprehension. It recognized their posture as aggressive and their demands unreasonable and the main causes of escalation of crisis and chaos in the country. According to vast segments of the population in the South-East Yanukovich was rotten, but the opposition and the protesters may be rottener still, and dangerous to boot.
Western Interference with the Crisis in Ukraine Was Crucial in Toppling Yanukovich
The standoff on the ground in Ukraine was not played out between parties of great strength, but on the contrary between parties of exceeding weakness. Neither the government nor the opposition succeeded in making much of a connection with the people. In the case of Yanukovich, his own base grew ambivalent about him, and he spent the entire crisis offering ever wider concessions to his opponents. On the opposition side, the initially truly massive anti-government
rallies of November 2013 quickly devolved into smallish camps that on most days comprised no more than tens of thousands of highly-motivated, street-fighting protesters, often of a radical right-wing persuasion, who were more anti-Yanukovich than they were pro-opposition.
If Yanukovich had been stronger he would have been impervious to attempts at unseating him coming from such a weekly-supported opposition whether it had Western backing or not. Likewise if the opposition had been actually able to draw the Ukrainian masses to its side it could have toppled such a weak president on its own. As it was, it was instead Western backing that bolstered the anemic opposition so it was just strong enough to prevail against the frail Yanukovich.
The key element of Western support for the opposition was not logistical. It will almost certainly be revealed the US in particular disseminated funds and training to opposition activists and groups, but this was nowhere as important as was the moral support the opposition was offered by the West. As soon as the political crisis in Ukraine had started the governments of Western powers adopted the highly unusual posture as if the opposition and the protesters were the democratically elected government of Ukraine and the actual, sitting government was a usurper of state authority.
One by one various Western officials made pilgrimages to the protesters in Kyiv to proclaim they “stood with the people of Ukraine” (and presumably against Yanukovich). Similarly, when 18th February brought about a sharp escalation of violence in Kyiv with 26 people killed, the West denounced the violence from the state that had resulted in deaths of fourteen protesters, but not the violence from the protesters that had resulted in the deaths of ten policemen.
It is highly unlikely the protests would have persisted for as long without such Western encouragement, and totally inconceivable that without it they would have succeeded in toppling Yanukovich after they had dwindled in size to just tens of thousands, and had lost the (slight) majority support of the Ukrainian public that they initially had. As it was Yanukovich was eventually worn down by the odd combination of a small number of highly-combative protesters (some of whom were anti-EU), the pro-opposition public sentiment of West-Central Ukraine, and the Western declarations undermining the legitimacy of a leader they had been negotiating with to bring Ukraine into their orbit just a few months prior.
Up until 19th February the Violent Protests in Kyiv Were Policed with Relative Restraint
Right until the end of the standoff in Ukraine official Washington kept talking about mythical “peaceful protesters” in the capital. This was absurd, as for the most part the protest movement was not a peaceful one. As the anti-Yanukovich protests in the capital dragged on its size shrunk and its character changed. As less dedicated participants gradually opted to stay at home, the protests became dominated by those more dedicated and often perfectly willing to try to topple Yanukovich with force. Rather than spend all of their days chanting and marching, the protesters after November demonstrated a preference for storming government buildings and roughing up state officials. When Yanukovich tolerated the occupation of a key part of Kyiv by the protesters for three consecutive months, he was acting in a way that is highly uncharacteristic for a head of state.
The lack of actions in his case, however, is easily explained. Yanukovich rightfully felt himself weak and preferred to try to wait out the protesters rather than take them on and order the police to retake the Independence Square. More remarkable was the posture of the police itself. Perhaps counter-intuitively, the violence of February 18th is a case in point. On that day the protesters burned down the Party of Regions headquarters in Kyiv, killing an office worker inside and presumably caused the deaths of 10 policemen who suffered fatal wounds on that day. For their part fourteen protesters were reported dead that day, presumably as a result of actions of the police.
It is hard to imagine a police force anywhere in the world that would in the same (extreme) circumstances show this amount of stoicism. This is not to say the posture of the Ukrainian police in Kyiv was praiseworthy, or that they were any better than the protesters. But it is to say that they for a long time conducted themselves with restraint totally uncharacteristic of police forces and only employed violence roughly proportional to that which the protesters were dishing out themselves against the police and other government-affiliated targets of the Euromaidan rioters.
When Will We Know for Sure What Happened on the 20th February?
If the Ukrainian police on 18th February was still a picture of relative restraint, the picture was seemingly entirely different on the 20th when more than seventy protesters were reported killed without the loss of a single policeman. It is true that as late as 18th February the policemen were complaining they did not have authorization to defend themselves with firearms. By 20th February such permission had been given to them.
It is perfectly plausible the Ukrainian policeman in Kyiv now flaunting firearms and still enraged by the loss of ten of their colleagues two days prior took the opportunity to exact random vengeance against the protesters. It would not be the first instance of policemen doing so. An example from 1993 where a similar number of people (76) were killed in a punitive FBI raid in Waco, Texas against the Branch Dravidians to avenge the prior loss of four ATF agents comes to mind.
However, there is also another possibility. In a leaked recording of a telephone conversation with Catherine Ashton, the Estonian foreign minister Urmas Paet raised the possibility that at least some of the fatal shootings were carried out by a third party working on the orders from someone within the opposition. The allegation seems quite far-fetched initially; however, what may give it some credence is that Paet also reports visible reluctance on the part of the new authorities in Kyiv to investigate the shootings.
Indeed, days after Paet-Ashton conversation was leaked, the new government in Kyiv accused Russia of being behind the massacre on the 20th February. This is highly unlikely since with Yanukovich still in power rising tensions in Kyiv clearly went against Russian interests. What to really take from the allegation is that the new government in Kyiv itself now claims the Ukrainian police was not solely responsible. And in the case the police really did not shoot all of those killed on the 20th as the former oppositionists and protesters now claim, then who did?
Yanukovich Was Overthrown after He Had Already Agreed to Hand Over Power
What most everyone but Moscow has forgotten is that before Yanukovich was overthrown on the 22nd, he had already agreed on the 21st to constitutional reform, power-sharing with the opposition in a national unity government, as well as calling early presidential elections that he was certain to lose.
The challenge to Yanukovich in the crisis in Ukraine did not come so much from the uninspiring and partly already discredited political opposition, but instead from the Euromaidan protest movement. Yet the way Yanukovich went about trying to preserve his position was by offering concessions to the political opposition. This was never going to work, because the opposition correctly understood it was being presented with such offers only because it had succeeded in attaching itself to the protest movement. It felt it could not accept a deal with Yanukovich that was going to be rejected by the radical protesters whose demands always went considerably beyond what Yanukovich could offer.
As it was the opposition finally signed a deal with the Yanukovich presidency on February 21st, when the latter – prodded by France, Germany and Poland – offered the opposition a deal simply too good to refuse. Essentially, it was a delayed capitulation. In three months time Yanukovich would be gone, and the opposition would have everything it ever wanted. Predictably, even such terms were not good enough for the protesters, who instead of disbanding, redoubled their efforts and the next day expelled lame duck Yanukovich to Kharkiv.
The New Government in Kyiv Is No More Legitimate than the Old
During the crisis in Ukraine the public support for Yanukovich shrank to a pitiful 23% and he was near-universally loathed in West-Central Ukraine. Albeit the technically legitimate head of state having been lawfully elected president in 2010 he had clearly lost popular mandate. In this sense it is easy to agree his government ceased to be legitimate, particularly as it pertains to Western Ukraine, as it claimed authority over a people that had rejected it.
For its part, the new government is scarcely more popular and is just as beholden to Ukrainian oligarchs, but has the added legitimacy problem in having risen to power in a technically unlawful manner. The new powers in Kyiv took power from Yanukovich with a vote in the legislature that theoretically has the power to unseat the president, but did so without following proper procedure or securing the three-quarters majority required by the Constitution. It is easy to see how Ukrainian citizens who dislike the new Batkivshchyna-Svoboda government would see them as having taken power in an unconstitutional coup d’état.
Indeed the new powers are facing a notable challenge to their authority in the streets of eastern Ukraine as well as in the country’s courts. There is a lawsuit before the Supreme Administrative Court of Ukraine contesting the legality of the parliament appointing its speaker the Acting President of the country with decision expected on March 19th. The same court has also yet to rule on the legality of the parliament in sacking five judges of the Constitutional Court of Ukraine on February 24th.
The Policies of the New Government Are Far More Divisive than Those of Yanukovich Ever Were
Being a politician against whose rule seemingly half of the country mobilized against, first in the 2004 Orange Revolution and the second time in 2013-14, Yanukovich will hardly be remembered as someone who helped introduce tranquility to Ukraine. At the same time, however, it can not be said the course he charted for Ukraine was ever a radical one. His rule may have been marred by immense corruption, indecision and incompetence, but not by radicalism. A native Russian-speaker from Donetsk he, but for stinginess from Brussels when the deal was within their grasp, negotiated and nearly signed the EU Association Agreement for Ukraine. In a highly polarized and divisive world of Ukrainian culture wars Yanukovich did not dwell on the extremes, but on the contrary charted a relatively moderate, measured and low-risk course.
Contrast this with the boldness of the new authorities in Kyiv. After toppling Yanukovich the very first move of the legislature was to vote to repeal a law that had permitted Russian-speaking regions to elevate the status of Russian in their jurisdictions. The new authorities followed it up by ordering television providers to drop Russian channels popular in the East and announcing the formation of a new paramilitary force for internal use that will recruit from the militant Maidan groups and is to be overseen by the national security chief from the far right Svoboda party and his deputy from the neo-Banderite Praviy Sektor.
Despite its shaky position the new government in Kyiv is not balking from radical moves that may serve to rally its base, but which are also guaranteed to polarize the Ukrainian public and aggravate the East further. Including because of the rashness of the new transitional rulers in Kyiv the political and societal upheaval taking place in Ukraine does not look likely to wind down just yet.