The outcome of the protests in Ukraine is uncertain. President Yanukovych is exploring re-negotiation with the EU; the opposition is getting more organised. But how should the EU and the world react to the situation in Ukraine?
As the OSCE foreign ministers gather in Kiev, the outcome of the protests in Ukraine is uncertain. It would be foolish to make predictions. President Yanukovych is exploring re-negotiation with the EU; the opposition is getting more organised. A violent crackdown is still a possibility; some are defecting from the regime, but there are also some signs that the regime is re-consolidating itself. But after several days of mass street protests, it is a good time to think about some general issues.
Is this another ‘Orange Revolution’?
Countries that have a revolution often have another one (think of France); especially if the first is deemed to be unsuccessful, leaving unfinished business behind. The most important similarity is the return of the crowd as a factor in Ukrainian politics. One of the most depressing features of Ukraine’s many failures after the Orange Revolution in 2004 was that people became apathetic. Political demonstration became a business: every demonstration was a fake, people were paid to protest. So the return of real protests changes the dynamics, for both opposition and government. Participants at the first big demo held up signs saying “we are not being 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. Some may believe this in Russia or in eastern Ukraine; but in Kiev everyone knows this not to be true. There are important structural differences, however. The Orange Revolution was centred around a pivotal event – a rigged election – so the endgame was clearer. Moreover, Yanukovych has not done anything so clearly wrong this time (it was his campaign team that rigged the 2004 election); though further regime violence would change the picture.
Yanukovych, like other authoritarian leaders of various shades in the region, has been building up his defences in recent years. The security forces were split in 2004; now they are much stronger. Since 2012 (once the European Football Championship Finals were safely out of the way), the regime has been increasingly reliant on hired thugs to attack peaceful protestors or stage violence as agents provocateurs, with the flimsiest of cover stories that these are ‘anti-fascist’ groups. The phenomenon is so well-known they even have a local name – titushkas. As part of the same fight-back against ‘political technology’, opposition activists have issued instructions on how to deal with them. Finally, there is some talk of ‘revolution’. The occupied city hall has ‘centre of the revolution’ graffited on the outside. But so far this is more like a period of ‘abnormal politics’. Russia was able to close down its period of ‘abnormal politics’ after the 2011 elections by mid-2012. So we don’t yet know if Ukraine will do the same.
What are the elites’ calculations?
The established leaders of the opposition were caught off guard by what was in origin a social network protest and the protesters are not necessarily trying to put them in power. Inevitably if sadly, the parliamentary opposition decided only one week ago to run three candidates in 2015 (Klitschko, Yatseniuk and Tiahnybok), they have engaged in something of a public popularity contest. Klitschko seems to be winning.
There are similar tensions within the ruling elite. There are signs of defection; but there are also rules of momentum. Elites may be thinking about defecting, but they also thinking about whether other elites are likely to jump ship. It is not clear how many MPs have resigned from the governing party. The President’s Chief of Staff first resigned and then was suddenly back at his desk. The ruling Party of Regions easily defeated a first attempt to unseat the government on 3 December (the motion won only 186 out of 450 votes).
Has Russia miscalculated?
Since the summer, Russia has been piling the pressure on all six states in the Eastern Partnership, as well as targeting Lithuania, the Summit host last week. Armenia dropped out in September, Belarus was only ever a marginal participant; Azerbaijan was rightly or wrongly treated as a special case because it is an energy supplier. Those who attended the Vilnius Summit put on a brave face. They were reluctant to use language like ‘disaster’ or even ‘disappointment’ which would endorse the Russian position. But at the end of the summit, the Russians could not have been more pleased. According to Fyodor Lukyanov, head of the Council on Foreign and Defence Policy, “In the past few weeks, this turned into a zero-sum game between Russia and the European Union. Tactically, this was a clear Russian win."
Now things look rather different, as (a seeming) geopolitical victory arrived in the company of fearful prospects of ”colour revolutions.“ The Orange revolution left a powerful impression on the Kremlin. Ever since 2004, Putin has put an enormous amount of effort into inoculating Russia from the spread of these type of protests, and covertly helping Ukraine and other neighbouring states to do the same. Now the crowds are back in Ukraine. And they have used the same kind of ‘technologies’ – peaceful protest, social media – that the Kremlin has always feared might be exported by the Arab Spring.
In 2004 there was no prospect of a revolution in Russia, even though the regime panicked. Now, there is. True, Putin survived his own protest wave in 2011-12, when the Moscow protestors talked in vain of organising a ‘Russian Maidan’. They may not currently have the strength to try again, but Putin will be thinking about how to stop them. The Russian blogosphere and twitter-world is full of comments on and comparisons with #Euromaidan – “if they can do it, why can’t we“? Putin of course does not currently have the same vulnerabilities as Yanukovych. The Russian state and economy are more robust. But the outlook for the medium-term suddenly looks less secure. Putin’s actions over the coming months will show us what lessons – for domestic as well as foreign policy - he has extracted from the current events in Kiev.
Can the domino process reverse itself?
At the end of the Vilnius Summit, people were worrying that Russia might increase the pressure on the two remaining ‘success stories‘ - Moldova and Georgia. They will obviously be watching closely what happens in Ukraine; and will take heart if the Ukrainian protests are successful. This could be a time of general democratic renewal or, yet again, disillusion.
What did the EU do wrong?
For the EU, the Vilnius Summit and the related events have offered a healthy, if somewhat bitter lesson. It is important to draw the right conclusions from it. First, for too long the EU seems to have been unaware of the real nature of tensions, calculations and power relationships inside Ukraine, as well as of the essence and meaning of contacts between Russia and Ukraine. The EU expected reality to bend itself to accommodate the EU’s somewhat procedures-based approach. When it didn’t, the EU did not have a plan B. It did not stick to its principles or play power games properly.
The EU over-concentrated on the Tymoshenko case. It was not a mistake to object to her wrongful imprisonment. But the Yanukovych regime was always likely to be reluctant to budge on this particular issue and the EU did not think of analysing the alternative wants and weaknesses of the regime. The Cox-Kwaśniewski mission had too narrow a focus and became too leverageable. The demand to release Tymoshenko should still have been there, but should have been embedded in some broader process. That said, once Tymoshenko’s release had been made the most prominent explicit condition for signing, it was wrong to backtrack the way the EU did, forgetting her entirely in the latest phases of talks.
Arguably, Yanukovych’s reluctance saved the EU from a bad agreement with Ukraine at the Vilnius Summit – if it had agreed to just some of Ukraine’s outrageous list of demands and lost face by signing the agreement without Tymoshenko’s release. Before Vilnius, Prime Minister Azarov claimed that Ukraine needed between “150 and 165 billion Euros” to help with modernisation. As of 3 December, the demand had come down to 10 billion Euros. Clearly, to some degree the EU fell into the trap of being caught in a bidding war, implicitly, but ineptly accepting the Russian zero-sum game and not playing its own soft power advantages. The EU was not prepared for such a contest.
Now the EU should learn to combine normative and realistic approaches in a more effective way. The normative approach needs to be upheld in relations with Ukraine, but it needs to be combined with readiness to offer some much-needed economic help on a strictly conditional basis (not to be confused with uncritical bank-rolling of the regime, which the EU was right to refrain from.)
The EU should also have a serious brainstorm about its relations with Russia – in the context of the Eastern Partnership, but also more generally. It should be ready to seriously counter Russian pressure that is undoubtedly coming, should Ukraine reconsider and aspire to sign the agreement in the near future. This – given the popular mood in Ukraine and the effects this has on the elites – is not entirely unrealistic. The second chance may come soon, and the EU should be better prepared.
Meanwhile, the EU should busy itself by looking for more creative approaches to engage the best Europeans in Ukraine – the country’s civil society.
How should the EU and the world react in both the short and the medium-term?
- The EU should strongly emphasise the illegitimacy of regime violence. It should also stress that the use of paid provocateurs is being monitored. Black PR about protestors initiating violence should not be believed. Any repeat of Saturday’s violence should be met with coordinated protest.
- There should be as big a turnout at the OSCE Ministerial Council as possible, including from the EEAS. Issues of physical safety at the meeting should not be exaggerated. Any EU ministers will be warmly welcomed by the crowds. This is the ideal time to caution the regime, and warn that any crackdown will be met with sanctions, just as in Belarus after the 2010 elections. This is a much bigger threat to the Ukrainian elite.
- The EU should be prepared to move quickly on any mediation request – especially if it comes from Russia first.
- It needs to be emphasised that the Agreements on offer at Vilnius are still on the table. If the composition of the government changes, it will be more willing to return to negotiations. If the government completely changes, we should be prepared to schedule an emergency signing summit, before the next scheduled EU-Ukraine meeting in March 2014. If Ukraine comes back to the table beforehand (and the delegation sent to Brussels refrains from making more demands), it must stick to the conditionality originally applied or betray the demonstrators in Kiev.
- Ukraine’s blackmail at Vilnius was unacceptable. The EU cannot and should not reconsider its refusal to bankroll the regime. But the EU can help with opening markets to goods and services subject to Russian trade restrictions. It can help smooth a path to the IMF, but again Ukraine must be pressed to adopt the necessary reforms. Ukraine needs prospects of a European future. The EU’s role should not be to shield the country from the consequences of its own failings, but to start an integration process focused on implementation.
- The EU must shift politics away from the elite and the technical approach of the past to an approach based on solidarity with and support for Ukrainian civil society. Ukraine can be fast-tracked to visa freedom once it takes the same steps as Moldova. The EU should advertise the benefits of Erasmus Plus from January 2014.
- Before the recent events, the EU was pushing Ukraine to reform its legal system because of issues of ‘selective justice’. This is even more important now that the regime has used force against its own citizens. The depoliticisation of the entire legal, security and judicial system is now an issue and the EU can help strengthen the rule of law in Ukraine through the EU-Ukraine Agreements. The EU should therefore avoid talk of ‘regime change’. It must be up to Ukrainians themselves whether to make any such change. What matters long-term is quality of governance and the rule of law: if the opposition takes over we should make sure they come in with the new rules of the game. EU conditionality can help here. The EU should indicate that it is serious about Ukraine, if Ukraine is serious about the EU.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.
Read more on: Wider Europe