Three reasons why protests in Ukraine could end up helping Yanukovych

December 19, 2013

Police and protesters confronting each other in Ukraine on Dec 11. (Alexander Zemlianichenko/Associated Press)

Tuesday, we featured a guest post from University of Toronto political scientist Lucan Way on reasons to be cautious about the opposition’s likelihood of success. Later in the day we learned that Ukraine would receive a huge ($15 billion) infusion of financial support from Russia.  (It seems Putin is feeling generous – he is apparently following that up with a series of pardons, including Pussy Riot, the Arctic 30 and, most surprisingly, Mikhail Khodorkovsky) Back to Ukraine, I asked Way whether he thought that, counter-intuitively, the protests could actually end up helping Yanukovych in the long term. He responded with the following three reasons why he thought they might do just that:

1. Help from Russia with little in return

The first and most obvious benefit for Yanukovych is a steep discount in gas prices and a massive infusion of $15 billion from Russia that will allow Yanukovych to avoid debt default.  While Russia has forced significant concessions from Belarus and Armenia (including membership in the Russian Customs Union and increased control over pipelines), Yanukovych has been able to get Russia’s help without strings attached. Few doubt that Yanukovych could have gotten such a deal from Putin absent the protests.  And even if Yanukovych has made secret concessions to Putin, there is little reason to think that Yanukovych will deliver them once he has gotten Russian support.

2. Rise of nationalists and future splits in the opposition

Right now the opposition, which consists of three competing parties, is relatively unified in its efforts to organize protests in Kiev.  Yet, the protests have clearly benefited the nationalist Svoboda Party the most. Svoboda, which until 2004 was known as the Social-Nationalist Party, has dominated other parties at the demonstrations.  Its activists have included the protests’ most “fearsome demonstrators” who “have led some of the more provocative efforts to occupy buildings and block government offices”. Its deputies have been virtually ubiquitous as organizers on the ground.  Finally, Svoboda’s leader, Oleh Tyahnybok has had a far more forceful presence at the demonstrations than the other opposition party leaders.

Svoboda, which obtained 13 percent of the vote in the 2012 parliamentary elections, will almost certainly be strengthened by these demonstrations no matter what the outcome.   Until recently, the more pro-European western Ukraine was able to win elections despite representing just a quarter of the electorate by making alliances with centrist forces in other parts of the country.  If Svoboda starts dominating the west, such an alliance will be much harder to maintain, thus fatally splitting the opposition. Tiahnybok may now be in a much better position to get to the second round of Presidential elections in 2015 – an outcome that would almost certainly guarantee a Yanukovych victory.

3. Rise of nationalists will help solidify support for Yanukovych in his political base in the East.

Economic malaise has severely weakened support for Yanukovych in his political base in Eastern and Southern Ukraine, which accounts for just under half of the electorate.  Yet, the visible presence of nationalists at demonstrations – something that will almost certainly be played up by the government-controlled media — is likely to scare them back to Yanukovych.

Joshua Tucker is a Professor of Politics at New York University. He specializes in voting, partisanship, public opinion, and protest, as well as the relationship of social media usage to all of these forms of behavior, with a focus on Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.
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Andrew Gelman · December 19, 2013