KYIV – Acrid black smoke hangs in the air and stings the eye in much of central Kyiv, where state repression is dampening hope of resolving Ukraine’s political crisis. With a truce between the government and the opposition shattered only hours after it came into effect, and with dozens of people reported killed in recent days, any hope for an end to the country’s deepening civil disorder appears to be fading fast.
Yes, a tentative settlement has been reached, following mediation by European Union foreign ministers, with a promise of early elections. But such settlements have been proposed before, and no agreement is likely to gain broad acceptance unless it includes the immediate departure of President Viktor Yanukovych.
In fact, Yanukovych’s government seems prepared to use any and all measures to remain in power. Taking a page from Russian President Vladimir Putin’s playbook, tax police are prosecuting civil-society organizations in the hope of cowing them into silence and irrelevance. Yet, despite such intimidation, Ukrainians from all walks of life have been protesting for three months in cities across the country.
At its heart, this is a struggle between Ukraine’s European-oriented West and its Russian-fixated East for the country’s geopolitical soul. Will Ukraine move closer to the European Union or instead join the Russian-dominated Eurasian Union?
Despite the mounting violence, Ukraine is not on the verge of civil war – at least not yet. But make no mistake: the risk of the country – and its military – splintering is very real, as Yanukovych’s decision to sack Volodymyr Zamana, the head of the armed forces, attests. The conflict needs to be stopped now.
To achieve that, Ukraine needs a transitional government of experts and a new constitution that returns the country to the system that prevailed until a decade ago, with power divided between Parliament and the president. Moreover, a presidential election should be held within three months, with a new parliament voted in soon after.
But Yanukovych has shown that he does not want a negotiated solution. Until the recent surge in violence, it seemed that dialogue might defuse tensions. An amnesty for detained protesters was offered, and protesters agreed to withdraw from government buildings. But when demonstrators fulfilled their promise and evacuated occupied buildings, Yanukovych resorted to force in an effort to end the protests altogether.
Indeed, the police began firing into crowds of demonstrators, and have reportedly killed at least 70 and injured hundreds more. Hospitals are overflowing, and many people are avoiding state clinics, because they are afraid of being detained – or worse. The activist Yuri Verbitsky, a mathematical physicist, was abducted by five men in late January from a Kyiv hospital, where he had gone to seek treatment after being injured by a stun grenade at a demonstration. Verbitsky’s battered body was found the next day in a forest outside the city.
Any prospect for resolving the crisis ultimately depends on regaining citizens’ trust in their police and security forces, which are now viewed by many as an occupying force. To reestablish the public’s confidence, there can be no impunity for those who fired bullets or gave the orders to fire. Officials’ excessive use of force, and the government’s reliance on semi-criminal thugs (known as titushki) to attack protesters, must be thoroughly investigated.
But, even as the ongoing violence makes such an investigation all the more urgent, Ukraine’s prosecutor and courts refuse to act. That is why it is crucial that a high-level international mission – comprising civil-society leaders, the Council of Europe, and the European Union – launch a comprehensive inquiry and pressure Ukraine’s government to cooperate.
The EU and the United States have introduced diplomatic sanctions since the latest round of murderous violence began. This should include a travel ban not only on all officials who ordered, oversaw, or implemented the crackdown, but also on Yanukovych’s political enablers: the oligarchs who are now sitting on the sidelines while spiriting large sums of money out of the country.
Sanctions should be lifted only when a credible investigation into the last three months of violence is permitted and a technocratic government is in place (at which point the EU and its member states should offer concrete economic assistance). Prime Minister Mykola Azarov resigned last month, ostensibly to make way for such a solution. But Yanukovych has refused to take the next step, or to commit to constitutional reforms, which largely explains the protesters’ growing frustration – and their determination to press ahead in the face of brutal repression.
There is a perception in the West that all of Ukraine’s political forces are weak, divided, and corrupt. And there are growing concerns, often fueled by sensationalist media coverage, that far-right forces are gaining the upper hand within the opposition camp. But, though such forces do exist, the vast majority of demonstrators on the Maidans across the country are ordinary people angry about abuse of power, state violence, official impunity, and corruption.
For the venal and vicious elites who have taken control of Ukraine, the real threat is these demonstrators’ perseverance, not the provocations of a radical fringe. Indeed, while I refuse to believe that Ukraine’s march to civil war is unstoppable, I also know that our citizens will never be silenced again.