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Published on: January 19, 2014
The Protests Turn Violent
Yanukovych Is Courting Disaster in Ukraine

Ukraine’s Victor Yanukovich is stuck between a rock and a hard place. How he responds to the latest violence could fatally deepen rifts in an already divided country.

Pitched battles continue to rage in central Kiev after clashes erupted today between police and protestors. Gutted police vehicles burn and dozens have been injured after a huge protest against new government abuses and overreach turned violent.

The spark for this new wave of popular anger against the government was the Ukrainian parliament’s unceremonious adoption of a set of laws whose goal is to smother the anti-government protests that first emerged in November. Their effect may be the complete disintegration of the last 23 years worth of hard-fought democratic progress. As the Kyiv Post’s Katya Gorshchinskaya put it, “Welcome to the new police state. We call it Little Russia.”

And it is growing Russian influence—and the Ukrainian government’s attendant turn away from Western values—that triggered the start of protests in late November. When President Viktor Yanukovych declined to sign a long-planned Association Agreement with the European Union and opted instead for Russian money and suzerainty, hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians took to streets around the country and pleaded for him to reconsider.  Instead of engaging in a dialogue with the protesters, Mr. Yanukovych has entrenched himself and chosen Putin’s methods for dispersing pesky disturbances.

The list of new crimes enumerated in the documents that some Ukrainians are calling “The Law on Dictatorship” is long and targets all segments of Ukraine’s protesting population. For example, participants in the collective driving protest movement “AutoMaidan” now face a two-year suspension of their licenses and confiscation of their vehicles for driving a car that “moves in a column of more than five.”

The new laws also take a page from recent Putin initiatives and target civil society organizations. Now NGOs that receive foreign funding must register as “foreign agents” within three months or be dissolved. They will also have to pay an 18% income tax and submit to a strict reporting regime. Those that are branded as “extremist” will be closed.

Defamation has been re-criminalized and “extremist activity”—which is poorly and broadly defined—can be punished by large fines and up to three years in prison. Online media outlets that have flourished throughout the protests will now have to contend with requirements to register themselves as “information agencies” and a very real possibility that the state will order internet providers to block their websites.

Those who have stood on Kiev’s central Independence Square for the last two months are threatened with 15 days in prison for wearing masks or helmets that are similar to those worn by law enforcement. Bullhorns are also banned. Additional prison sentences have been established for erecting tents or stages without permission from the Ministry of Internal Affairs.

By their nature, protests are an attention-seeking instrument and the Ukrainian protests have been the focus of much media interest. But Mr. Yanukovych is counting on the silent portion of the country to support him in quelling dissent, quieting the bothersome protests and returning Ukraine to some semblance of stability (95 percent of Ukrainians have called the country’s political situation “unstable” or “explosive”). His gamble is well-founded. Polling from late December shows that while 43% of Ukrainians do want to join the European Union now (13 points higher than any other option), fully 50% of Ukrainians do not support the Kiev protests. That latter statistic marks a turnaround in Ukraine’s tolerance for the protest—only weeks prior a majority had supported them. More significantly, only 31% of Ukrainians believe that the outcome of the protests will be positive for Ukraine.

Today’s violent protests may only strengthen ordinary Ukrainians’ desire to see an end to the bedlam. Many are only too happy to trade freedoms that they rarely use for peace and quiet. Cognizant that, in a nation where stability sells, events like today’s do not acquit the opposition forces well, the movement’s leaders have called on protestors to refrain from violence. They warn that many of the angry young men in the street are provocateurs paid by Yanukovych’s party to create chaos and turn the tide of public opinion fully against the protest movement.

But Mr. Yanukovych must also be careful in determining his next steps. Were he to aggressively enforce the new legislations or authorize brutality towards the protestors, he is courting the danger of swinging public opinion against him and seeing larger, angrier and more energized crowds emerge. As was demonstrated twice over the past weeks, the use of violence towards the protestors in Kiev has had a maximizing effect on the size and scope of the protesting crowds. Further violence or police crackdowns on protest activities will only exacerbate the situation.

Internal politics also complicate Yanukovych’s options. A large percentage of Ukrainians hold Mr. Yanukovych personally responsible for solving the current political crisis, but his choosing one side over the other will polarize this already divided country more than it has been before. Yanukovych’s political base is in eastern Ukraine, where the majority speak Russian and identify strongly with Russia. Only 17 percent of eastern Ukrainians approve of the protest movement and would be only too happy to see their president quash it in whatever manner he deems necessary. Meanwhile, 80 percent of citizens in the western and more European-leaning part of the country approve of the protest movement and disapprove of the president’s recent decisions. They did not vote for him and will not support him.

Viktor Yanukovych is thus stuck between a rock and a hard place. He needs Russian money and low gas prices—and the political influence that comes along with it—to keep Ukraine’s struggling economy afloat and his supporters in eastern Ukraine satisfied. But the visceral anger shown by many other of Ukraine’s citizens at his original decision to reject the European Union, last week’s move against basic civil liberties, and ever-rising levels of corruption may create an irreparable rift in the fabric of an already divided country.

Hannah Thoburn is a Eurasia analyst based in Washington, DC whose work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Atlantic and The National Interest.
show comments
  • Honk

    Just split the country in half. Problem solved.

    • Tom

      No one will go for that, except maybe the western half.

      • Komm

        Kyiv would go to. With pleasure!

    • Киев русский город

      Would you split the country then only economically useless west part with Lviv (which is former polish region) become new Ukraine.
      All the rest parts would join Russia with a big relief.
      Lviv probably join Poland in soon. There is no such country as Ukraine historically and in reality

      • tnmc

        Actually, there is no “Russia” at all. Muscovy, yes. But “Russia” is a total fiction. There is no “Russian Republic” in the “Russian Federation”. Moscow was a swamp when Kyiv was the centre of a great empire. You, Little Brother Moskal’, so sit in the corner and learn your history.

      • Komm

        Your nickname (Kyiv russian city) says it all.

  • Max Loginov

    crowd of 18-22 y o morons who dont care if it football match or revolution, they just need to crash and fight, named opposite demonstrators? lol for 1 day usual radical guy have about 150 ukr grivna its 20$ in usd. they r ready for 20$ per day to crash their country. Juda only smiles of that.

  • Yulia

    OMG!!! We`re tired from the USA and EU. We can decide our problems ourself. Hannah Thoburn, you`re lier! In Ukraine all South-East wants to be with Russia! Its not 17 % for sure. If you`re really analyst you should to know that in UA just west of country is dreaming about EU. Anyway take care about your own country and leave us alone.

  • Dave6034

    I visited Ukraine once in May 2003. A local TV crew interviewed me, and their last question was, “What do you wish for the people of Ukraine?” I answered “Boring life, because Ukrainians tell me that life here is much too interesting.” They laughed and agreed.

  • tnmc

    That “Fully 50% are against the Maidan” statistic you pulled didn’t mention that fully 45% support it with an interesting 6% listed as unsure. With a 2.2% margin of error that is statistically a wash.

  • Komm

    Sorry but the statistics you are refering to was made by pro-goverment social research institution. Of course they wont tell you that people do not support govt. Instead you can refer to ‘Razumkov Center’ institution that proved to be independent both to govt and opposition. Its fresh research (done in january) shows that 50% approve Maydan (western, northern and central regions of Ukraine), 42% disapprove (east and south). But the main thing is that paid progovt protests (awkward?) are only approved by 27% and 57% disapproved them. Taking into account lack of freedom of speech, free press and USSR style govt propaganda one would barely imagine how low would be real support of president politics in fair environment. Another interesting part of ‘Razumkov Center’ research shows that around 20% of people would agree to limits their freedom in exchange for welfare (take into account that Ukraine is poor country with its own meaning of ‘welfare’).

    Another thing is that alot of people in eastern regions of Ukraine have immigrated from Russia during USSR times or associate themselves as russians and so are under additional influence of Russian govt propaganda.

    As for the ‘commentators’ bellow. I dont know whether somebody on opposition protests are being paid or not. I’ve never heard of it, i’ve attended it on my own will and so do all of my friends. And it is proven fact that progovt protesters are either being paid, either being there under fear of losing job (if they are civil ‘servants’).

    And it would be actually a great idea to separate eastern and southern regions into a separate country. But it wont happen not because east feeds west and west wont agree. It’s actually a lie: eastern regions actually take most donations from budget, with Donetsk, homeland of Yanukovich, being the most donated region and with income less then spendings. Separation wont happen because all of major political forces (including opposition) are ruled by the oligarchs and their money and for them – the bigger the budget the better (cause they steal it).

    And please be aware of paid commentators hired by ua govt

  • gabrielsyme

    I’m surprised Yanukovych didn’t calculate that he could ride out the protests without real threat to his administration. Time was already lessening the protests, and surely would have continued to do so. By opting for an authoritarian solution, Yanukovych perhaps gives himself a better chance at long-term rule, but he also increases the odds of his overthrow.

    The irony is that the Ukraine need not be so rigidly divided. The people of the East, while some speak Russian proper, many speak Ukrainian. The languages are not rigidly divided, with the eastern dialects of Ukrainian closer to Russian. There are complex religious divisions, but since each group (Greek Catholic, Moscow Patriarchate, Kyev Patriarchate) asserts a national interest, that doesn’t seem likely to drive division either.

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