We have seen this before. A president or dictator who is used to wielding power cannot cope with losing it. This time it is Yanukovych in Ukraine. NYT reports on his failure to grasp the degree of passion that had gripped protesters. Out of touch is the phrase, I believe.
Having spent even a limited amount of time in a civil society project in Ukraine some years ago, I can only say that the frustrations that exploded in this protest did not arise out of nowhere. And I would add that the ouster of Yanukovych does not solve the problems that have gripped Ukraine over the last decades.
Yet, there was no doubt that after the Kiev protesters had demonstrated their determination to fight and the police their reluctance to do a Tianammen Square, that something had to change. Things could not just go back to normal. At this moment, political realism set in. One urgently needed a symbol of what is wrong. Something — better yet, someone — that could be cast overboard. It appears that Mr. Yanykovych was among the last to realize this. No doubt because he did not want to see what was going on around him. But thrown overboard, he was. And very quickly as well.
His ouster is significant. But there are deeper problems at play here. As I mentioned, the protesters did not emerge out of thin air. Neither did Yanukovych come to power out of thin air. The ethnic Russian population that supported him will be deeply unhappy about what happened in Kiev. The next step in this drama will be to see what they may or may not do about his ouster. Can there be a “new deal” that satisfies both eastward leaning and westward leaning factions? Perhaps. But it is a deal that will need to be struck before there is further violence.
If you were a protest leader, what would you do? You are newly powerful, but with an unruly and perhaps unreliable base of support. Do you move to strengthen that base? That means demanding more reform and western tilt and potentially more conflict. Or do you try to consolidate the gains that have been achieved? To play for national unity? That means risking that you go back to square one (as happened after the Orange Revolution). Or do you turn over the leadership to a figure like Tymoshenko and melt back into the crowd?
And what about Tymoshenko, freshly rescued from prison by parliamentary vote? She has an agenda. Everyone knows that. Has her time come? My guess is that at the top of the political elite, at least some would like her to take the lead. If nothing else, it would be safer to let someone else take the risk of failing to put humpty dumpty back together again. But is she too connected to the past? She has a past and not all of it is savory. Can she fashion a message that resonates now?
Well, this story is far from over. And if you don’t believe this, consider the recent past. Anyone remember the Lazarenko saga, a former prime minister, recently released from US prison? And there is the the gruesome Gongadze story. The brave lad challenged power with honest reporting about corruption. Things did not work out very well as his reporting collided with the interests of the political elite, allegedly including then President Kuchma who may have ordered him to be murdered. And then there was the poisoning of Yuschenko during his presidential election campaign. These things happened because of a certain ruthless quality that one finds in Ukrainian power games. We should not forget that.
Can these things change? They can. But we should learn a lesson from Djindjic’s assassination in Serbia some years ago. Those with entrenched interests do not give them up for the asking. And in Ukraine, if history is any guide, there are folks with entrenched interests at stake.