Can Ukraine halt the slide toward authoritarianism?
December 11th, 2013
03:48 PM ET

Can Ukraine halt the slide toward authoritarianism?

By Matthew Rojansky and Blair Ruble, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Matthew Rojansky is the director of the Kennan Institute at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Blair Ruble is the director of the Global Sustainability and Resilience Program at the Wilson Center and a former director of the Kennan Institute. The views expressed are their own.

Last night’s attempt by Ukrainian security forces to clear Independence Square (the Maidan) in Kiev marks a troubling shift in Ukrainian politics. Up to now, a messy and informal dialogue had been underway among the government, activists on the street, opposition political figures, and foreign interlocutors. But the use of security forces now, even as EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland are in the Ukrainian capital, sends a strong signal that President Viktor Yanukovych intends to resolve the current political showdown on his own terms.

The latest events have some superficial similarities to the Orange Revolution nine years ago.  Those events – which played themselves out in the very same square in downtown Kiev – appeared at the time to have consolidated a hard struggle to secure a democratic and pluralistic Ukraine.  The years since, however, have been difficult ones for the very institutions that are necessary for democracy to thrive. Nonetheless Ukrainian politicians competed in bumper car-style politics, colliding but bouncing off one another other more or less unharmed. The current escalating clashes between Yanukovych and the opposition could transform Ukrainian politics into a winner takes all demolition derby more commonly seen in Russia.

As former Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma once famously observed, “Ukraine is not Russia.” Moreover, Ukraine has not transformed into Russia overnight.  However, last night’s display of force could signal a troubling shift towards authoritarian tactics by the state. Given the presence of senior western officials in the city, the United States can hardly ignore the actions of the Yanukovych government, and a strongly worded statement from U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry indicates Washington’s mounting outrage over the use of force against peaceful protestors.

The Yanukovych government bears much of the blame for how events have unfolded. Protests that started out peaceful were clumsily and sometimes brutally dispersed early on, fanning the flames of outrage among the opposition. Increasingly, the authorities appear to be out of touch with the majority of ordinary people. Had the state responded to these demonstrations more delicately, politics in Ukraine might have continued more or less as usual.

More from CNN: Ukraine's future is with EU

Instead, reports of cell phone blackouts and cyber attacks, raids on opposition political party offices, intimidation of journalists, and seizure of protesters traveling from outlying regions into Kiev are troubling. But they are not yet on the level of the brutal crackdown that followed similar protests in Belarus in 2010 and 2011, where phone service was completely cut and hundreds of activists were beaten or arrested, or in Russia, which has shuttered nearly all independent media, and routinely harassed opposition political leaders and NGOs.

Despite the authorities’ increased use of force following the Russian or Belarusian model, the Yanukovych government is hardly a Kremlin puppet. Yanukovych has little reason to trust Russian assurances of support during or after the confrontation with protestors, not least because Putin has previously backed Yanukovych’s rivals, including the now jailed opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko. Nor does Russia necessarily “win” in the increasingly unlikely event that the Yanukovych government stays in power.  Whether or not it returns to the table with the European Union, Ukraine is still unlikely to sign up to the Russian-led Eurasian Customs Union, since the country’s most powerful businessmen – the oligarchs – no doubt fear exposure of their most lucrative assets to Kremlin-backed raiders.

The opposition itself is divided over fundamental principles. Some look westward to the European Union as a symbol of democratic governance, anti-corruption and pluralism, and long to preserve and advance Ukraine’s progress towards those same values.  Others are simply fed up with post-Soviet kleptocracy, disillusioned and disappointed after the failure of the Orange Revolution to produce long-term gains, and have no more faith in the nominal leaders of the opposition political parties – mostly all millionaires or billionaires – than they do in the current corrupt authorities. Finally, there is a significant right-wing nationalist component that has an agenda that explicitly identifies Ukraine as a country of and for ethnic Ukrainians, excluding not only Russians, but the traditionally maligned minorities – Jews, Muslim Tatars, Poles, Hungarians, and others.

Despite the violent turn in Ukraine it is not too late to stop a more permanent turn toward authoritarianism. The opposition protests clearly started as a call for more democratic, transparent, and accountable governance. By focusing on these themes and continuing to speak out loudly and firmly against any escalation of violence, the United States can have the best hope of positive influence on a political situation that grows more complex every day.

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Topics: Russia • Ukraine

soundoff (23 Responses)
  1. rightospeak

    Too much propaganda ,too little analysis or facts. It is like spam or the fistful of advertising garbage in the mail- not much can be done about it. The corporations rule and people can do little to change it till the CRASH comes. THE BIG RESET is on the way. The corporations abused economics and the payback is inevitable.

    December 11, 2013 at 5:44 pm | Reply
  2. umland

    The main threat is not authoritarianism, but separatism, civil war and, in the worst case, Russian intervention. This country is different from Russia or Belarus. The regime is not consolidated, but neither is the state.

    December 11, 2013 at 6:07 pm | Reply
  3. Joey Isotta-Fraschini©

    The image of protestors' toppling a statue of the looter Lenin is valuable in recovery from a terrible communist tragedy.

    December 11, 2013 at 6:28 pm | Reply
    • Ethan Couch

      Thank you, Joey. We can't this communism anywhere, especially in my beloved Texas, can we?

      December 12, 2013 at 12:22 pm | Reply
  4. Joseph McCarthy

    Judging by the ignorance displayed by the pro-EU demonstrators in Kiev that's currently going on, authoritarianism appears to be the only answer to this. As the French have already learned some 150 years ago, rule by the uneducated mob can be far worse than any authoritarian leadership. Then again, a lot of ignoramuses here are going to holler to the contrary as they have no knowledge of neither French nor Ukrainian history!

    December 11, 2013 at 8:35 pm | Reply
    • Ethan Couch

      If Judge Jean Boyd ever got hold of you Joseph, you'd be swinging from a very tall oak tree for saying the things you do here!!!!!

      December 12, 2013 at 12:25 pm | Reply
    • Michael Brytan

      The vast majority of people who support European integration are WELL EDUCATED and young. The minority who support some form of integration with the Russian lead Customs Union tend to be older and less educated. The three leaders of the opposition are well educated. Vitaly Klitscko the World's Heavy Weight Champion also happens to have a PhD in exercise science. The other two leaders of the opposition parties are no less educated. Once is a medical doctor (specialist) and the other has a post graduate degree. The current president is an ex-con, former Communist turned mafia businessman, with two phony university degrees (never earned – bought).

      December 12, 2013 at 2:49 pm | Reply
  5. rightospeak

    Interesting statistics of wage increases adjusted for inflation by 24/7 Wall St.
    US will increase 1.5 % , Ukrainian workers 6.1 % for 2014. Inflation in Ukraine 0.6 % in 2012, looks stable for 2013, 2014.

    Ukrainians are understandably frustrated with the HUGE BUREAUCRACY of government jerks that make their life miserable. Reforms are slow in coming, property rights -the big hurdle of post Communist countries is not being honored or are very slow in coming . Even the fact that Lenin's monument was still there after Bolsheviks starved millions of Ukrainians to death while selling wheat to the West is an indication of government arrogance there .
    The Ukrainians need to ask for LIBERTY OF NOT GETTING INTO DEBT like so many post Communist countries.did not pay attention and became colonies. Industries destroyed, people out of work, banking system taken over by foreign Capital. Products that they used to make , now they had to import – they had to play the monopolistic game of the EU. It is the local economies in Ukraine that will make Ukraine prosper , not Globalism.

    December 11, 2013 at 10:11 pm | Reply
    • Joseph McCarthy

      Well said rightospeak, except that the 1934-35 famine there was more of an act of nature rather than "man made" as reported by the Western propagandists of that time. Even today, the right-wing, Western press is still trying to discredit those leaders in Ukraine who are not pro-Western. Today, the West is trying hard to get their hands on Ukraine by using the ignorance of the masses there who have been fed European propaganda!

      December 12, 2013 at 8:02 am | Reply
      • rightospeak

        My comment to you ,Joseph, about the Ukrainian Famine was removed by CNN Thought Police censors. Just like under Communist Dictatorship ! I will skip comments for today.

        December 12, 2013 at 9:59 am |
      • Michael Brytan

        At the time of the Russian Revolution (WW!) only 7% of the peoples living in Ukraine were ethnic Russians. The Soviet man made famine known as the "Holodomor" occurred in 1932 – 1933. It is estimated that 7 – 10 million Ukrainians perished in the 5 year period surrounding this event. Much of Eastern Ukraine was depopulated of Ukrainians and in their place loyal Russian speaking communists were brought in to colonize the empty villages. In fact, it is during this period that president Yanukovych's father a russified Belorusan arrived in Ukraine.

        December 12, 2013 at 3:04 pm |
    • Michael Brytan

      Well said ! The current government is not pro Wes or pro East. They are pro Themselves. They are a small mafia gang from the Donetsk part of Ukraine who simply want to enrich themselves at the expense of everyone else. They couldn't care less about the population. They are willing to sell Ukraine to Russia. The payment = very cheap gas which they can resell and make themselves fabulously wealthy. Yanukovych is an ex-con former Communist turned mafia businessman who can never reform the country. He simply doesn't know how. Just like the statue of Lenin was torn down in Kiev, so to must Yanukovych be pushed out.

      December 12, 2013 at 3:23 pm | Reply
      • Ethan Couch

        Holy cow Michael, you just took the very words right out of my mouth!!!!!!!! This Yanukovitch has got to go and surrender Ukraine to the EU for them to exploit that country's natural resources! Nothing's too good for the Eurozone!

        December 12, 2013 at 8:55 pm |
  6. matslats

    >Washington’s mounting outrage over the use of force against peaceful protestors.
    What about Occupy Wall Street?
    Washington can STFU

    December 11, 2013 at 10:28 pm | Reply
    • Joseph McCarthy

      Thank you, matslats. I agree.

      December 12, 2013 at 8:03 am | Reply
  7. DONGSZKIE

    Ukraine is still very much under the clutch of Russian coersion, particularly with Putin.

    December 12, 2013 at 12:51 am | Reply
  8. svpyadav

    Respected Mr. Mathew Rojansky and Mr. Blair Rubble Garu,
    Ukraine Political leaders not having much of patience, when they devided by the Russian Govt. and Administrative services working not good and U S media also disturbing there. that's why this was happening.

    December 12, 2013 at 2:48 am | Reply
  9. j. von hettlingen

    This clear East/West divide in Ukraine could be a burden to the country's development. Yanukovich believes he could dance at two weddings, by buying himself time to reach a deal with either Russia or the West.
    Ukraine needs cash urgently. Yanukovich wasn't successful during his begging tour in China last week. Beijing preferred not to irk Russia and didn't write him a check.
    Now he wants 20bn euros ($28bn) in aid from the EU in return for signing the agreement. The West is willing to help, but with strings attached. Next week he is holding talks with Russia.

    December 12, 2013 at 8:51 am | Reply
  10. Maxym

    Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/emaidanua. About Ukraine and Euromaidan in English there

    December 12, 2013 at 9:05 am | Reply
  11. Quinton

    Why in the world can Ukraine not remain neutral and have ties to both the EU and Russia? Then again as usual, the EU wants more than economic ties, I suspect, judging by what's currently going on in Greece, Italy and Spain.

    December 12, 2013 at 10:08 am | Reply
    • Ivan

      It's not the EU that's demanding exclusivity, but rather Tsar Vladimir Vladimirovich Ubiytsa.

      December 15, 2013 at 6:51 pm | Reply
  12. free west ukraine

    Free the west ukraine people from there east russian backed government kick all them out of there russian counter parts and if not we can see the east ukraine go back into russia and the west blinds with Europe and if the russians want war for the hole of ukraine the fight can only be just for the west ukraine new government that is to be on the face of real freedom to happen the russians want the east ukraine russian population to attack the west witch is happening do too the russian back government in power now...so truly free ukraine from putins evil ways

    December 12, 2013 at 6:09 pm | Reply
    • Judge Jean Boyd of Texas

      Well posted, free west ukraine. I agree.

      December 13, 2013 at 4:40 pm | Reply

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