Ukraine’s important next move

February 21, 2014

Ukraine’s people are radicalizing by the hour. The estimates of at least 60 dead, the flow of blood, the images of snipers on both the government and the security side taking aim, the shrouded bodies being blessed by priests, and the incendiary rhetoric all point to a country where tensions, suppressed for decades, could take militant, armed form.

On the Maidan, Kiev’s central square and the main site of the protests, the “right sector” — a group of members of various groups including extreme rightists who sport Nazi symbols, have seized the role of protectors of the opposition. Volodymyr Fesenko, head of Kiev’s Center for Political Studies, says that “people support them not because they share its far-right ideology, but because they view it as the opposition’s army.”

The leader of the Maidan “army,” Dmitro Yarosh, said through a spokesperson that “our group is fully capable of waging a civil war.” Supporters of the group have already called for the people to arm themselves — a call that has allowed President Viktor Yanukovich to brand them as terrorists.

I spoke with two acquaintances in Kiev on Thursday evening, neither of whom wished to be named. Their descriptions were of a gathering horror. Bands of thugs now roam the streets, armed with pistols or more, trashing cars and threatening pedestrians. Insofar as they are loyal to any side, these are likely to be pro-government, but residents of any opinion fear them and are organizing armed groups of their own to confront them if necessary.

The western parts of Ukraine, including the ancient city of Lvyiv (or Lvov), are roused as well. With less opposition from the authorities, government buildings and police stations have been occupied. The governor of Lvyiv, Oleg Salo, confronted by demonstrators in his office, resigned — later saying he had done so under protest and retracting it.

The voice of the far right in parliament, the Svoboda (Freedom) Party, with a 10 percent share of the vote since October 2012, has a 40 percent share in the western Lvyiv region. The party’s leader is Oleh Tyahnybok, a urologist, who was voted “Person of the Year” by readers of the news magazine, Korrespondent.

Tyahnybok — photographed yesterday shaking the hand of Senator John McCain (R-Ariz) — has been quoted as seeking to rouse Ukrainians to fight against “the Muscovite Jewish mafia,” and has called on President Yanukovich to halt “the criminal activities of organized Jewry.”

How far these sentiments are shared is unclear, but at a time of fear and struggle, militancy and the promise of protection exert a powerful attraction.

Yanukovich has drawn his support group tightly around him. His main support is Russia, where President Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev have accused the protestors in Ukraine of planning a coup. But Yanukovich’s largest support base at home has been the group of fabulously wealthy men who, while not in his intimate circle, have remained with him while he commanded the political space. He in turn allowed them freedom to pursue their businesses.

Rinat Akhmetov, the richest oligarch, and Dmytro Firtash, whose wealth depends on his control of the gas industry, both have substantial groups of supporters in parliament — and both have control over media with popular television channels.

In the past two days, some television channels have broadcast non-stop news of the demonstrations to the generally pro-Russian east side of Ukraine, an apparent swing toward the opposition. Both Firtash and Akhmetov have called for an end to the killing.

The powerful chief administrator of Kiev, Volodymyr Makeyenko, resigned this week and re-opened the metro system which had previously been closed to discourage protesters from coming into the center of the city. Yanukovich’s parliamentary majority, centralized in the Party of Regions, is now losing a number of members.

In response to the mounting violence, the United States has announced visa bans on 20 senior Ukrainian officials (though it has not given their names) and the European Union suspended export licenses for any equipment which might be used for “internal repression.”

Three European foreign ministers from France, Germany and Poland met with Yanukovich for five hours on Thursday afternoon. On Friday, opposition leaders and Yanukovich signed a peace deal that includes provisions for a national unity government and a presidential election.

This is, and has been since last year, a geopolitical struggle. For Russia, retaining Ukraine within its sphere of influence is crucial. In his state of the nation address at the end of last year, Putin laid out a vision of a Slavic “civilization,” led by Russia and including Ukraine, which would be united in a Eurasian Economic Union by 2015.

Putin, ever more repressive at home, sees the world as a series of competing blocs made up of the United States, China and the European Union. Russia, with a declining population of around 140 million, needs, in Putin’s view, to create an eastern rival to the EU and to the two new eastern and Western superpowers.

I asked one of my acquaintances — expecting a negative — “Does anyone think Russia will invade?” To my surprise, she replied — “Well, yes, many do. And I think they already have. In the sense that they control.”

The Ukrainian authorities are caught in a vast chess game far beyond their skill level.

PHOTO: An anti-government protester holds a Ukranian flag as he advances through burning barricades in Kiev’s Independence Square February 20, 2014. REUTERS/Yannis Behrakis

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One of the worst things about what is going on in the Ukraine is that it is give us a new lens for viewing the so-called Arab Spring of a couple of years ago. Perhaps the phenomenon we are seeing is what happens when a regime that is derived from a Soviet client runs out of steam in the flash-mob world of the 21st century. It’s a scary thing, both because of the difficulty several Mediterranean countries have had in trying to bring order out of chaos and because what happens to the successors to the client states of the old Soviet union might also happen in Russia itself. You don’t have to be a big fan of the Russian government to miss the fact that it would be extremely problematic to replace it with chaos.

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