Ukraine's Forever Revolution

Why the country's political crisis will persist, even if the protesters win.

Protesters unfurl a massive Ukrainian flag in Kiev's Independence Square. (Marko Djurica/Reuters)

KIEV, Ukraine — Another Sunday, another massive demonstration in Kiev.

As they have for the last two-plus months, tens of thousands of protesters poured into the center of the Ukrainian capital this past weekend. In the freezing cold, they chanted the same slogans that they have in weeks past: “Bandu het!” (Out with the gang!); “Zeka het!” (Out with the convict!); and their all-time-favorite, “Re-vo-lu-TSIA!” Opposition leaders promised to fight to the bitter end, while demonstrators screamed until they were hoarse, clamoring for results. Their list of stipulations is long, but as time has passed, the appeals have been distilled down to a single, mantra-like demand: President Viktor Yanukovych must go. Now.

Some commentators have picked up on the overwhelming sense of déjà vu marking recent rallies. “February 2,” tweeted Juri Maloverjan of the BBC’s Russian Service, “Groundhog Day.”

So much has happened over the course of Ukraine’s pro-European Union, anti-government protests, and yet nothing has changed. Lenin statues have been toppled, the prime minister has been replaced, and pitched battles have broken out on the streets of Kiev. And yet, as before, President Yanukovych is still in power. The protesters remain entrenched behind the colossal barricades they have erected to protect their tent camp, a city within a city, while Ukraine inches ever closer to Russia. And the West is scrambling—so far, helplessly—to respond.

The turmoil in Ukraine, a nation of 45 million and territorially Europe’s second-largest country after Russia, matters. And in the near term, the national crisis could play out in one of three ways: the stalemate could continue; a national-unity government of opposition and pro-government officials could form and ease Yanukovych from the scene at a later date; or the president could resign. Whatever the outcome, however, the country’s unrest won’t end any time soon.

Let’s start with the most likely scenario—that Yanukovych, a tough, Soviet-style apparatchik from the country’s industrial east, who served two prison terms in his youth for violent crimes, clings to power. He is a fighter and has been driven from office by a mass protest movement once before, during the 2004-2005 Orange Revolution. Here in Kiev, the conventional wisdom is that Yanukovych, following this humiliation, swore to never swallow that bitter pill again.

Moreover, Yanukovych now has a stronger incentive not to concede. Unlike in 2004, a loss this time around will undoubtedly mean the end of his political career, if not his personal wealth and possibly even his life. He also has the Kremlin’s carrots and sticks to consider. According to Russian officials and news outlets, the protesters are “Nazis” and “extremists” bent on staging a coup d’état, and the West must stop encouraging the activists and meddling in Ukraine’s internal affairs. At the same time, Russian President Vladimir Putin has floated the idea of delaying the latest $2-billion tranche of Russia’s economy-sustaining, $15-billion loan package to Ukraine, possibly as a less-than-subtle reminder that Yanukovych better not compromise with the protesters.

The longer Ukraine’s political crisis continues, though, the greater the chance that it will disintegrate into something far worse. The government wants the protesters gone, full stop—cleared from Kiev’s Independence Square (Maidan Nezalezhnosti) and the administrative buildings they’ve occupied outside the capital. The activists know they need results above all else, and some have been willing to resort to violence to break the political deadlock. Fighting could intensify in the capital and spread beyond it.

The risk of full-scale conflict is still remote. But it is real. The country’s first president, Leonid Kravchuk, sounded the alarm last week, saying the country was on “the brink of civil war.” And the military brass recently called on the president, in his capacity as “commander-in-chief,” to take “urgent steps” to bring stability to the country. This week, as talks between the president and the opposition sputtered, protest leader Vitali Klitschko warned that stalled progress could spur “radical actions,” while the leader of a fringe, far-right militant group pledged to oppose the government by armed struggle if necessary.

Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, left, winks at Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, during a summit on December 17. (Reuters)

The second option, a national-unity government, could ratchet down the current tension several notches, but it wouldn’t remove it. The frustrated and now increasingly aggressive protesters on the Maidan want one thing: Yanukovych’s disappearance from the political arena. They won’t accept any solution short of that—and won’t leave the square until they’re satisfied.

Which brings us to the last scenario: Yanukovych steps down, peacefully, and the opposition assumes power. While this development would defuse the conflict to a degree, it too would not resolve Ukraine’s crisis. Political divisions, both within the country and the protest camp itself, will remain, and possibly become more pronounced.

Ukraine’s Euromaidan protest movement, like many mass political uprisings before it, has united disparate groups and people by necessity, and what happens when the object of their loathing is vanquished is anyone’s guess. The three opposition politicians leading the movement—all of whom have an eye on presidential elections—whenever these take place—are divided and unable to agree on who the supreme commander is. The Batkivshchyna (Fatherland) party—which is headed by Arseniy Yatsenyuk, a savvy political strategist who looks like a CPA, while former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, the actual leader, remains in jail—has always considered itself the primus inter pares. Yatsenyuk is less charismatic than Vitali Klitschko, the boxer-turned-politician who heads the Udar (Punch) party, but he seems unwilling to yield the top position to the more popular Klitschko, who is the most likely to defeat Yanukovych in a head-to-head contest, according to recent polling.

Rounding out the triumvirate is Oleh Tyahnybok, the far-right leader, who, while the most electrifying politician of the lot, is an ideological outlier. His Svoboda (Freedom) party has recently made efforts to become more mainstream; nevertheless, large portions of Ukrainian society reject his brand of extreme Ukrainian nationalism, viewing the party platform as far too radical and ethnocentric (or even racist). So far, protest leaders have been unable or unwilling to control their extremist wing. As a whole, Euromaidan supporters are emphatically not the Ukrainian-speaking proto-fascists they’ve been portrayed as in pro-government and Russian media. Nevertheless, the far-right is a key contributor to these protests, and one that is increasingly demanding a more prominent political role.

And although Ukraine has made huge progress in overcoming its divisions (which are geographic, linguistic, historical, and economic), it still often looks like two separate countries. Despite the protests’ recent spread to the industrial, Russian-leaning, Russian-speaking east and south, Euromaidan remains predominately a phenomenon of the country’s west and center—and its leadership has done practically nothing to address this divide.

What’s more, some of the symbols and slogans the opposition has adopted are associated with the western-based Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA), which during World War II was allied with Nazi Germany (though it also fought the Germans at one point) and battled Soviet forces. The prevalent Euromaidan battle cry, “Slava Ukraini!” (Glory to Ukraine!) and black-and-red flag, seen everywhere on Independence Square, originated with the UPA. All this has repulsed Ukrainians whose fathers and grandfathers fought against the UPA.

If the opposition prevails over Yanukovych, they will still have to bridge these rifts. And Ukraine’s easterners and southerners, who up to now have been quiescent, may begin to voice their discontent.

So for those who have found the ongoing political standoff in Ukraine to be gripping theater, good news: The show is likely to go on for a long time. But for those actually caught up in the maelstrom, the future appears grim indeed.

As the opposition leader Arseniy Yatsenyuk put it at a recent rally, in a moment of bravado that has perhaps since passed,  “We will go forward together. And if it’s a bullet in the forehead, then it’s a bullet in the forehead.”