Ukrainians protest tilt to Russia as mass demonstrations weaken president

December 2, 2013

Thousands of Ukrainians blockaded government buildings in Kiev on Monday, demanding the resignation of President Viktor Yanukovych and denouncing him for rejecting a long-awaited trade pact with Europe in favor of closer ties with Russia.

Later in the day, the embattled president called European Commission President JoséManuel Barroso to propose reopening discussions on the agreement, which Yanukovych had been scheduled to sign Friday. The European Commission said it was willing to resume talks.

Whether Yanukovych will now turn away from Russia remains to be seen. What is clear, political observers say, is that the protests have wounded Yanukovych’s presidency, calling into question whether he can deliver to Moscow what it wants: the loyalty of Ukraine.

“Russia wanted to make Yanukovych more cooperative,” said Boris Makarenko, deputy director of the Center for Political Technologies in Moscow. “But if he’s weak, if he’s a lame duck, what use is he as a partner?”

When Yanukovych decided to drop his pursuit of Europe, he was betting that loans promised by Russia would revive the dying Ukrainian economy long enough to get him reelected in 2015, Makarenko said. The Ukrainian president, he added, badly miscalculated.

The Post's Moscow Bureau Chief, Kathy Lally, explains why Ukrainians are protesting in the streets. (Sandi Moynihan/Kathy Lally, Sandi Moynihan and Terri Rupar)

“He underestimated the strength of the protest,” Makarenko said. “Didn’t he realize he was splitting the country?”

Only last week it appeared that Russia, still crowing over persuading Syria to relinquish its chemical weapons, had scored yet another foreign policy triumph. President Vladimir Putin persuaded Ukraine to scuttle its plans to sign a trade and political agreement with the European Union that had been laboriously negotiated over more than six years.

Yanukovych defended his choice by saying that Russian trade sanctions, some already imposed and others threatened, were too painful to endure. Russia also reportedly offered to lower gas prices that were keeping Ukraine deeply indebted to Moscow and to provide billions of dollars in loans if Ukraine would abandon the European deal.

Neither Putin nor Yanukovych, however, appeared to consider the will of the Ukrainian people and their dream of someday becoming a European nation. Outraged Ukrainians began protesting on Nov. 21. On Saturday, some of the protesters were beaten by police, inflaming passions. By Sunday, the crowds numbered 300,000 or more.

Putin spent Monday in Armenia, a former Soviet republic that has decided to stay in the Russian orbit. While there, Reuters reported, he suggested that the Ukrainian protests were the work of outsiders, “very well-prepared and trained militant groups.”

An article in the government-run Russian newspaper Rossiskaya Gazeta emphasized the theme of Western aggression. “The European Union wanted to turn Ukraine into a state governed from Brussels,” the article said, “thus cutting it off from Russia.”

But Ukrainians have made it clear that they are acting from conviction, Makarenko said. Local government officials in the western cities of Lviv, Ivano-Frankivsk and Ternopil threatened to call strikes and mobilize citizen demonstrations. The Associated Press reported that the mayor of Lviv said police would remove their uniforms and defend the city if the central government presented any threat. In Kiev, protesters planned to occupy city hall and cordon off government buildings.

“It looks as if the West was absolutely not involved,” Makarenko said. “People are protesting because they’re being deprived of their dream to make their lives closer to Western standards. It may dawn on Russian policymakers that street protests may not have been inspired by the State Department after all.”

Thomas Bagger, head of policy planning for the German Foreign Office, said Europe was not interested in bargaining over Ukraine. “The European Union is in the incentive business, it’s not in the coercion business,” Bagger said. “We were right not to enter into a bidding contest with President Putin.”

Ukraine’s parliament promised to deliberate over the crisis Tuesday and to possibly consider a no-confidence vote in the government. Yanukovych, however, said he had no plans to disrupt a four-day state visit to China. He is scheduled to depart Tuesday.

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