Ukraine made its choice

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV.COM Ltd.

The regime in Ukraine may be tempted to declare state of emergency and use force, but this scenario is highly undesirable as it may lead to the split of Ukraine and the loss of its statehood. Here the role of the Ukrainian opposition is extremely important, as it has received a carte blanche from the Ukrainian society, writes Vadym Omelchenko

Vadym Omelchenko  is President of the  Gorshenin Institute.

“Ukrainians first took to the streets on 21 November after the cabinet of Mykola Azarov put on hold preparations for signing an association agreement with the EU. A protest by Lviv students, supported by their teachers and headmasters, was especially populous. From 30,000 to 40,000 young people flooded Lviv squares to demand that President Viktor Yanukovich sign the association agreement in Vilnius. The protest was picked up by students of Kiev universities who also said they were going to rally until the agreement is signed. The student protests were outright apolitical and aimed at protecting Ukraine's European choice. The opposition parties also took their supporters to the streets to demand the government dismissal.

The largest public rally took place on Sunday 24 December when millions of protesters came out in Ukrainian cities. The entire week the Ukrainian authorities had been circulating economic myths about the EU refusing to compensate it for losses inflicted by complicated relations with Russia and its leadership's aggressive trade policy. The protesters did not trust the myths as many understood that the Ukrainain economy had entered its pre-default stage much earlier than August 2013, when the so-called customs war between Ukraine and Russia broke out. Not disregarding the Russian factor, many experts said Ukraine's economy had been ailing due to unprecedented corruption and poor investment opportunities.

While President Yanukovich was talking money in Vilnius, Ukrainians protesting in the squares discussed European values to which they were looking up. This did not escape the attention of Polish ex-President Aleksander Kwa?niewski , who said that such a public longing for European values can hardly be seen in Europe these days. Indeed, Ukrainians have sent a clear signal to Europe that the basic values of the European Union can be inspiring, uniting and worth a sacrifice.

The news of President Yanukovich's refusal to sign the association accord in Vilnius caused huge disappointment. Ukrainians felt cheated, deprived of their dream and vote. More radical demands to dismiss the cabinet, hold an early parliamentary election and impeach President Yanukovich followed. European politicians, who had a chance to visit protest sites in Ukraine, were stunned and inspired by how resolute were Ukrainians in proving that Ukraine belongs with Europe. Loreta Graužinien?, Pawe? Kowal and Rebecca Harms issued statements of solidarity with the protesters. In the later days the Euro-Maydan, an informal name for pro-EU rallies, was visited by many European politicians, including Jacek Protasiewicz, Jerzy Buzek, Jaros?aw Kaczynski and many other. Their support was of extreme importance.

However, the true storm was caused on the Saturday morning by media reports on the unparalleled brutal clampdown on a student rally in Kiev's Independence Square. Thousands rushed towards St Michael's Cathedral in the morning where over a hundred students took refuge escaping from riot police. Many of them were injured. Politicians and heads of diplomatic missions arrived there as well. Dozens of thousands took to the streets of Ukrainian cities with one key message "we will not let the authorities beat our children".

The week of rallies climaxed on Sunday with from 500,000 to 1.5 million people protesting in Kiev alone, according to various estimates. Whereas police used to outnumber the activists until recently, thus making Ukraine similar to Belarus, this time it was the other way round. The protesters again occupied Kiev's central squares and announced an indefinite protest. Some protesters clashed with police outside the office of the presidential administration where hundreds of masked young people attempted to attack internal troops protecting the office. The bloodshed was stopped by opposition MPs who labelled the attackers as provocateurs.

The situation in Ukraine remains very difficult. The opposition is demanding the dismissal of the government and the president. The West resolutely condemned violence against peaceful protesters and cautiously called on the Ukrainian authorities and the opposition to build dialogue. Official Moscow has been keeping distance from the Ukrainian events so far.

Is there a place for compromise, and how can things unfold? Viktor Yanukovich might be tempted to seek a compromise taking into account the scale of the protests, the economy and foreign policy being in zugzwang [a situation in chess where one player is put at a disadvantage because he has to make a move when he would prefer to make no move]. However, the model of the current Ukrainian authorities is built in such a way that by reaching a compromise with the opposition, Yanukovich risks losing support in parliament and consecutively his power. The loss of power can have catastrophic consequences for him. He was wrong counting on Russia's help. Putin is not in a hurry to issue loans or lower the price of gas.

The probability of the use of force to suppress the protest by declaring a state of emergency is being discussed in these hours. There are some signs suggesting that this scenario does exist and the probability of its implementation is very high. According to the Constitution of Ukraine, a state emergency (effectively limiting the freedom of assembly and movement, introducing a special framework for mass media and government bodies, and, finally, allowing the use of force) is declared by the president's decree which shall be endorsed by parliament within two days. However, other scenarios are also possible. If leaked reports in Ukrainian media are correct, a certain emergency council was set up to include power ministers, the head of the National Security and Defence Council, and reportedly Viktor Medvedchuk, a former head of President Leonid Kuchma's administration and close friend of Vladimir Putin. This brings the memory of the State Committee on the State of Emergency formed in the Soviet Union in 1991 when Mikhail Gorbachev was isolated in Foros, while emergency measures were introduced in the country in his name. This scenario would allow President Yanukovich to formally wash his hands of using force and, depending on results, either join the council, or enforce his function as the guarantor of the constitution.

I would like to repeat that this emergency scenario is possible. Today, the regional councils in the eastern regions and the Crimean parliament, which are loyal to the government, adopted an address to the president demanding that the riots be stopped and the constitutional order be protected, while the Crimean parliament directly demanded the declaration of a state of emergency. If provocations against the uniformed agencies continue, they may be used as a legal justification for a state of emergency. According to media reports, the Internal Troops are being pulled to Kiev from the regions.

However, whereas it is theoretically possible to localize the protests in the east and in Kiev, this cannot be done in the western regions of Ukraine unless force is applied. This scenario is highly undesirable as it may lead to the split of Ukraine and the loss of its statehood. Here the role of the Ukrainian opposition is extremely important. It received a carte blanche from Ukrainian society.

Just like in 2004, the Ukrainian parliament can take on the role of a stabilization centre. If a new coalition of reforms and a new government are formed, and the 2004 constitution is reinstated, Ukraine can become a parliamentary-presidential republic again. Let me remind you that in 2004, the events unfolded under a similar scenario and European diplomats, including President Kwa?niewski , played a huge role by acting as an intermediary between the authorities and the opposition.

Despite the drama of these days, millions of Ukrainians showed the world that Ukraine is Europe. That we made out choice and will protect it. There was no mistake. These days Ukrainians would appreciate the support and solidarity of Europe on all levels. Ukrainians trust Europe and trust is binding.”

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