Democracy Lab

The Ukrainian President's Big Broken Promise

Why the Ukrainian leader's decision to backtrack on Europe could cost him his political career.

Irina Kotsubinskaya, a first-year student at Kiev University, came to just in time to see squads of police unleash an attack on the young men and women lying next to her in Ukraine's Independence Square, clubbing and kicking their prone bodies. The activists had spent the night chatting and joking before hundreds of cops swarmed the square at 4 a.m., knocking Irina unconscious. When the first blows rained down on her, she couldn't quite believe that it was actually happening: it was "like a horror movie," she recalls. One of the cops grabbed her by her long scarf and dragged her weak, bruised body across the square, as if she were not a young, thin woman, but a sack of potatoes. Thankfully, Irina's scarf wasn't too tight; she did not asphyxiate.

Irina had been coming to Independence Square every day for the previous week for one reason: to support her dream of one day becoming a citizen of the European Union. For a while, at least, that was also the stated ambition of Ukraine's current president, Viktor Yanukovych. When I spoke to Yanukovych back in December 2008, he was determined: "We decided that our main goal will be integration in Europe at the first congress in 1997, and in all these years we not only never changed our program, we are even more convinced that Ukraine should be a part of Europe." He also assured me that, as long as he remained politically active, he would never allow Russia to treat Ukraine as a subordinate "little brother." When we spoke, he was still a leader of the opposition, but a little more than a year later, in January 2010, he was finally elected president.

Today, nearly half a million Ukrainians have taken to the streets of their capital to denounce Yanukovych for being too pro-Russian and anti-European. Last month, the president, backed by his ruling Party of the Regions, staged an abrupt about-face, declaring that Ukraine was no longer willing to sign agreements on closer political and economic cooperation with the European Union at a long-planned summit meeting in the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius. His decision has sparked a surprising tide of discontent among many ordinary Ukrainians. (Polls show that a majority of Ukrainians support closer ties with Europe.) Many observers surmise that Yanukovych's sudden decision to reverse course on policy towards Europe had a great deal to do with pressure from Russia, which has brought its considerable economic leverage to bear in its attempts to dissuade Ukraine from aligning itself with the West.

This isn't the first time that Yanukovych finds himself on the wrong side of the barricades. During the 2004 Orange Revolution, his long years in parliament, and his stint as prime minister of a largely pro-Western Ukrainian government in 2006-2007, Yanukovych confronted intense criticism from the opposition and the press. But through it all, he expressed pride about the pro-Western reforms implemented during his time as prime minister: "In terms of democracy, Ukraine has gone much further forward than Russia -- that has been noticed in Europe and a number of other countries," Yanukovych told me in 2008.

Considering that their president has made many statements like this over the years, it should come as no surprise that Ukrainians feel cheated. What happened to Yanukovych and his expressed desire "to bring Ukrainian living conditions closer to European standards and principles"? For years, he personally worked hard on making the Ukrainian integration possible, attending numerous forums and meetings with European leaders. But when the historical day came to sign the crucial pact with the EU, he reversed his position, quite suddenly. "It's all about power," Igor Bunin, director of the Center of Political Technologies in Moscow, said. If Yanukovych allows his power to weaken and lets his main rival, Yulia Tymoshenko, out of jail, as EU demands, Bunin says, "Tymoshenko will beat him at the next presidential election, 100 percent. As things stand now, though, he still has a slight chance of winning."

Moscow politicians say that both Europe and Russia are twisting Viktor Yanukovych's arms. "He has a difficult choice between public fury and political uprising now, and a hunger uprising a year down the road," Robert Schlegel, a member of parliament from the ruling United Russia Party, told me. Schlegel claimed that a civil war in Ukraine is an all too plausible scenario due to tensions between the country's ethnically Russian East and its pro-Western West. Would Russia ever cheer Ukraine's accession to the EU? Certainly not under the "enslaving conditions" of the EU's Association Agreement, Schlegel declared. "Yanukovych knows all too well that if our economy, our market, our factories are under a threat, we'll have to strike back just to defend ourselves."

Yanukovych tried to straddle these differences and keep power at the same time. It proved impossible. Images of bleeding faces destroyed by police stun grenades, of beaten teenagers and women, will now remain a part of Ukraine's history forever. "We'll do everything not to allow such violence take place again," the Ukrainian TV host Mustafa Nayyem told me. "We'll remember these images every time we meet with politicians who think they can just apologize and keep their political positions. They're just a dead part of our society," He was one of many dozens of journalists beaten by police last Sunday.

Will the Russian opposition come to a boiling point any time soon? "Only if the Kremlin humiliated Russian people over something truly dear and important," one of the key opposition leaders, Ilya Yashin, told me in an interview on Dec. 5. "That's what Yanukovych did. He broke the promises he had given his people for years."

JANEK SKARZYNSKI/AFP/Getty Images

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