With President’s Departure, Ukraine Looks Toward a Murky Future

Novinite Insider » EXPERT VOICES | February 24, 2014, Monday // 09:03
Bulgaria: With President’s Departure, Ukraine Looks Toward a Murky Future Photo by EPA/BGNES

The New York Times

By Andrew Higgins

As ranks of riot police officers, Interior Ministry troops and even the president vanished Saturday from the capital, Ukraine slipped, with often-eerie calm after months of tumultuous protests and a week of bloody mayhem, into the hands of revolution.

Gone along with President Viktor F. Yanukovych, who had fled to eastern Ukraine, was any trace of a Friday peace deal that had sought to freeze the country’s tumult by trimming the powers of the president while allowing him to stay in office until the end of the year.

At the president’s mist-shrouded residential compound just outside the capital in Mezhgorye, Sergey Belaus, a major in Ukraine’s State Protection service, said he had handed over control of Mr. Yanukovych’s living quarters and his tennis court to the head of a small band of antigovernment militants at 9 a.m.

“He came. We talked, and we agreed that he would now be in charge,” said Mr. Belaus, recounting that helicopters and cars had fled the compound, on a bluff overlooking the Dnieper River, overnight. He said he did not know where Mr. Yanukovych had gone.

Also unknown is what now fills the vacuum left by Mr. Yanukovych’s departure: perhaps an orderly new leadership headed by established opposition parties, perhaps a chaotic cacophony of voices driven by the passions of the street or, most ominously of all, perhaps the establishment of two or more rival power centers pushing the fractured nation into a Yugoslav-style disintegration.

Fear of the establishment of rival power centers gained ground on Saturday when Mr. Yanukovych, having left the capital, popped up on television from Kharkiv, a Russian-speaking and strongly pro-Russian city in the east of the country near the Russian border. He said he had not resigned, had no plans to do so and was consulting with supporters in the east about what to do next.

“I am a legitimately elected president,” he said defiantly. “What is happening today, mostly, it is vandalism, banditism, and a coup d’?tat.”Kharkiv has strong ties to Russia. Early Soviet leaders — doubtful of Kiev’s loyalty, fearful of Ukrainian-speaking regions farther west but determined to anchor Ukraine under Moscow’s control — chose Kharkiv as the capital of their newly established Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, a nominally autonomous entity but entirely controlled by Moscow.

Southern Ukraine, especially the region of Crimea, also has strong ties to Russia. Pro-Russian politicians in Crimea have been demanding autonomy from Kiev and even “protection” for their aspirations from Moscow, which has a large military presence in the Black Sea region, notably in Sevastopol, a port city with a huge Russian naval base.

If Mr. Yanukovych sought to rally the east of Ukraine to his side, the west of the country, long a bastion of fierce Ukrainian nationalism, would almost certainly respond by mobilizing its own forces to protect the idea of a single nation.

All this presents an unwelcome distraction for President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, who has been busy at the Winter Olympic Games in Sochi trying to present a softer, friendlier image of his country to a suspicious world. But, with the Olympics set to end on Sunday, Mr. Putin will no doubt turn all his attention to a drama that has driven a key Russian ally from Kiev and now threatens to install a new government dominated by people Moscow has characterized as extremists, terrorists and even Nazis.

The east-west divide has bedeviled Ukraine since it first emerged as an independent state after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union. In each election since, voters have split along a line running roughly through the middle of the country.

But these divisions have grown into a gaping chasm in recent months as the Ukrainian-speaking west has rallied unambiguously behind protesters in Kiev’s Independence Square while many in the east, their views shaped in part by doom-laden reports on widely watched Russian television, have recoiled in horror at what they saw as an attempt to oust a legitimate, democratically elected leader viewed as one of their own.

Mr. Yanukovych built his political career in Donetsk, an eastern coal-mining and industrial center whose bleak Soviet-era urban landscape is a world away from the elegant and proudly European splendor of western cities like Lviv.

These stark divisions, rooted in history, language and culture, have put Ukraine on a fault line that has shaped not only the country’s domestic politics but also a geopolitical struggle between Russia and the West at the heart of Ukraine’s current tumult. The protests in Independence Square began in November after Mr. Yanukovych rejected a sweeping trade and political deal with the European Union and turned to Moscow for help.

Looming over this struggle, and over the prospects of survival for whatever government emerges in Kiev, is a stark question: Who will help fill the depleted coffers of a country on the brink of bankruptcy and crippled by arguably one of the most troubled economies in the world?

Russia was willing back in December, offering billion and cheap natural gas. But the price Moscow exacted in return, a future in the Russian orbit, only inflamed the protests. A rejection of Russian aid seems to have been one of the conditions set by European diplomats who helped mediate the now-moribund political deal on Friday between Mr. Yanukovych and three opposition leaders.

Russia’s envoy at the talks, unlike the Europeans, refused to sign the final agreement. And while Washington and European capitals cheered the accord as a breakthrough that could end a lethal spiral of violence, Moscow raised niggling legal points about constitutional changes.

Europe’s determination to force a deal was captured by a television camera that filmed Radoslaw Sikorski, the Polish foreign minister, giving a blunt warning to opposition leaders. “If you don’t support this, you will have martial law, the army,” Mr. Sikorski said as he hurried out of a room at the presidential administration. “You’ll all be dead.”

With protesters now in control of the presidential compound in Mezhgorye and the government district of Kiev, the deal lies in ruins. It is now Mr. Yanukovych who risks being killed if he shows his face in Kiev. But the economic mess that drove much of the anger against him remains, only now it is Europe and America that must help Ukraine.

The agreement signed Friday did not explicitly reject money from Russia, but Europe and the United States have been leaning heavily on Kiev to accept that only a Western aid package led by the International Monetary Fund can rescue Ukraine’s economy.

“The United States view — and I believe this view is shared by our European allies and partners — is that the only viable route back to sustainable economic health for Ukraine goes through the I.M.F.,” said a senior state department official speaking on the condition of anonymity on Friday.

To this point, however, neither Washington nor Brussels has figured out how exactly to come to the aid of one of the most corrupt and inefficient economies in the world without being dragged into the sinkhole with it.

“Nobody wants to end up owning all the problems that Ukraine faces,” said Mark Leonard, director of the European Council on Foreign Relations. “The country is bankrupt, it has a terrible, broken system of government and insane levels of corruption.”

With this in mind, Europe and the United States have largely subcontracted the job to the I.M.F., which has been negotiating with Kiev for months over an aid package that, unlike the money offered by Moscow, has numerous strings attached, notably requirements that Ukraine scythe a thicket of bureaucratic regulations and cut subsidies that keep domestic energy prices low — and cripple the government’s finances.

American and European officials have indicated that the I.M.F. might be ready to relax conditions that, if imposed on Ukraine’s new government, would only stoke public anger and jeopardize the survival of what is likely to be a very fragile and fractious leadership.

After three months of chanting “bandits out,” Ukraine’s protesters appear to have finally achieved their goal. But whoever now comes in will inherit a country bereft of money, political consensus, a unifying culture and even rudimentary agreement among citizens on what their nation is.

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Tags: Ukraine, Kiev, Yanukovych, Radoslaw Sikorski, Moscow, Russian, European Union, Independence square, Donetsk, lviv, Soviet Union, Putin
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