Six reasons to be cautious about likelihood of opposition success in Ukraine

December 17, 2013
The author on the streets of Kyiv, Ukraine.
The author on the streets of Kiev, Ukraine (Personal photo courtesy of Lucan Way)

Joshua Tucker: The following is a guest post from University of Toronto political scientist Lucan Way, who is currently returning from Ukraine. The post is based on remarks – now substantially edited – that Way originally made on his Facebook page while in Kiev, Ukraine. 

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The level of spontaneous self organization in Kiev is truly remarkable. The protesters have been far less violent than some other protests in the world, including the G20 protests in Toronto in 2010. Simultaneously, the current Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych is weak. His support has plummeted such that just about any opposition candidate is now predicted to beat him in a hypothetical presidential election. His support from Ukraine’s oligarchs is also soft, as evidenced by the relatively balanced coverage on TV channels. During the Orange Revolution, in 2004, only one channel was presenting protests in a positive light. Now it is many channels, suggesting that the oligarchs are reluctant to put all their chits behind Yanukovych.

Nevertheless, in my view a sober analysis of the situation still suggests that Yanukovych has the clear advantage despite reports that momentum is on the opposition’s side. He has this advantage (at least until 2015) for the following reasons:

1.The opposition lacks a plausible politician who can clearly claim leadership of the movement.

Ten years ago, Viktor Yushchenko was sufficiently dominant in 2002/2003 to convince other opposition leaders to back him in the 2004 presidential election, thus setting the stage for the Orange Revolution. No such leader exists today.

2. Civil Society is a great traffic cop but not a powerful mobilizer of crowds:

The opposition/civil society has done a miraculous job of organizing food and logistical support for the protests. But a survey of protesters by Democratic Initiatives suggests that a full 90 percent of protesters came to Kiev on their own. As it result, is unclear if anyone has control over the crowds that are currently here and, therefore, the ability to sustain the protests.

3. Rats will only jump a sinking ship if there is another boat to go to.

In a nutshell, there is no viable force for the politicians from the ruling Party of Regions to defect to, despite the lack of support for Yanukovych. History shows that autocrats can survive for a long time when the regime has weak support within but the opposition is even more fragmented.

4. Yanukovych was democratically elected.

It is sometimes forgotten that Yanukovych was elected in a relatively fair election and was in the opposition in 2010. This puts the current opposition in a far less advantageous position than in 2004. Most importantly, the opposition does not have a clear legal rationale for holding early elections. This in turn puts Western actors in a somewhat difficult position regarding the opposition and Yanukovych than ten years ago.

5. There is no obvious clear majority for Europe in Ukraine.

Most recent respected polls show about 40 percent support for the European Union and 30 percent for the Russian sponsored Customs Union; an advantage for the E.U., but hardly a clear majority.

6. Protests cannot go on forever

Protesters have been brought to the streets mainly by Yanukovych’s tactical blunder in violently clearing protesters. However, in principle there is nothing stopping Yanukovych from sitting on his hands, not giving away anything serious, and letting the protests peter out. Right now it seems impossible to imagine this happening, but comparative cases suggest that protests may die out if the protesters are not either provoked or able to obtain clear victories (think Serbia 1996/1997; Iran 2009).

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