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

Democracy Lab

In Russia, the Price of Dissent Keeps Rising

Russia's activists are battered and demoralized. But not everyone has given up.

MOSCOW — On Nov. 18, the 53-year-old Sergei Krivov fainted inside his glass cage during a hearing at Nikulinsky Court in Moscow. There he was,  stretched out flat on his back on the bench, while the hearing against him and 11 other opposition protesters proceeded. His lawyer, Viacheslav Makarov, repeatedly urged Judge Natalya Nikulina to call for an ambulance, pointing out that his client was unconscious. But the judge waved off the lawyer's requests. The defender called for an ambulance himself, but when it arrived, the doctors were not allowed to enter the courtroom. Astonishingly, the hearing continued.

Outraged, the journalists and friends of the suspects sitting in the courtroom began chanting, "Shame, shame!" On the day of the court hearing, Krivov was 63 days into a hunger strike protesting his arrest and that of the other 11 suspects of the "Bolotnaya Square Case." The case is named after an anti-Kremlin demonstration that took place on Bolotnaya Square over a year ago, on May 6, 2012, where over 27 people were detained and hundreds of witnesses questioned. Even pro-Kremlin experts consider these arrests "political," though they are quick to blame the suspects for being violent.  

Krivov, an activist of the opposition People's Freedom Party, was not arrested until last October, months after the protest. Almost every day before that, he staged one-man street protests to demand freedom for his friends who had been arrested weeks earlier. Krivov was finally arrested for grabbing a club from the hands of a policeman; he later admitted his guilt for this action. Russians who participated in the anti-government protests in 2011 were deeply disturbed by the televised images of the exhausted Krivov in his glass cage, confronting a 10-year jail sentence. But the majority of Russians hardly paid any attention to the news from the court. Few know anything about Krivov or what motivated him to go on such an extraordinarily long hunger strike. Activism, indeed, is fading in Russia.

The first time many Russians noticed the Bolotnaya Case was this past Thursday, when President Vladimir Putin expressed his opinion about the opposition activists on trial. Speaking at a gathering of writers, the president stated that "if someone is allowed to violate the law,  like tearing shoulder patches off a policeman's uniform or punching policemen in the face ... Russia will experience the same problems as it did during the Bolshevik revolution of 1917."

The president spoke of "limits" and "red lines," and assured the audience that in Russia, "no one is being snatched or thrown into prison for thoughts, ideas, or political views, and we will never allow this to happen." To a majority of Russians, the word "revolution" is associated with dark, bloody, and hungry times, followed by decades of repression, arrests, and the executions of millions of their countrymen. Revolution? "No, thanks," many of my Moscow friends are wont to say. "What we want is reform, transparency, and justice."

Some observers present in the courtroom audience last Monday wished the president could have been there to witness the chaos with his own eyes. The judge ended up asking everybody to leave the room. Court guards had to carry one of my colleagues out; she had refused to leave the unconscious person until he received medical attention.

The award-winning photographer Grigory Yaroshenko never attended political hearings in the past. Galleries, photography workshops, and casual dinners with friends felt more natural to him than public activism. Yaroshenko told me that it was one thing to read about something on the Internet and form opinions, and a completely different thing to see it with his own eyes. "When the judge refused to let doctors help the unconscious person, who by law was still innocent, I felt like I was a witness to outrageous lawlessness," Yaroshenko told me. "I just don't see how I'm supposed to act, how to live, how to go on sitting around in cafés when something so cruel is happening around the corner from my house."

Later that day, I joined Yaroshenko and other colleagues at a charity auction organized in support of Denis Sinyakov, an arrested photographer. Sinyakov was detained and then held for over two months (along with another freelance journalist and 28 Greenpeace activists) -- at  first for piracy, and then for "hooliganism" after staging a protest action in the Arctic. For the second year in a row, Greenpeace activists attacked Gazprom's Prirazlomnaya oil platform, the first platform producing oil in the ice-covered Arctic. Sinyakov's colleagues gathered at a Moscow gallery to make the point that Sinyakov wasn't expressing his political views by attending the protest -- he was just doing his job as a photographer.

This isn't the first time that human rights defenders have appealed to the Russian authorities about political arrests. This week, Human Rights Watch reported on the October detention of three environmental activists from Watchers of the North Caucasus, a group working in the Olympic city of Sochi. The Human Rights Watch report offered a straightforward recommendation: "Authorities should stop harassing and detaining environmental activists and allow them to carry out their work." Back at the gallery, participants spent thousands of rubles buying beautiful photographs by some of Russia's best photographers to raise money for Sinyakov. Nobody in the room intended to cause trouble for their country; they definitely weren't aiming for anything as destructive as the revolution of 1917. But for most participants, the unprecedented charity auction in support of a prisoner, right in the heart of Moscow, was a personal revolution.

"We are here to make a difference, to demonstrate the unity of journalists, of free-lance photographers, standing together in support of a friend," said Oleg Nikishin, a lifelong photographer and reporter.

That night, we received good news: The court decided to let Sinyakov out of jail on bail. The auction organizers said that the victory was "very much thanks to our united efforts." At least there was one victory to celebrate this week.

OLGA MALTSEVA/AFP/Getty Images