Yesterday afternoon there was talk of a new agreement been Ukraine’s Russia-aligned strongman, President Viktor Yanukovych, and the protesters gathered for an increasingly violent showdown in Kiev’s Independence Square. The last “truce” lasted a matter of hours before demonstrators, believing it to be a delaying tactic while the regime gathered forces for a crackdown, rushed to retake the entire square, and security forces responded by picking them off with sniper fire – a tactic which led to a series of horrifying YouTube videos.
This truce was supposed to be more durable, because Yanukovych was going to grant at least some of the demonstrators’ political demands. I found myself skeptical, because granting nearly anything the protesters wanted – a new constitution, a fresh presidential election – would weaken the regime’s grip on power, and that’s not what either Yanukovych or his Russian paymasters want. The Russians were rather clear that they expected a stable, compliant government with a firm hand on dissent when they forked over $16 billion to buy up Ukraine’s debt.
This morning came word that Yanukovych had fled Kiev to hole up along the Russian border, accompanied by earlier reports that he was resigning. Or maybe he’s preparing to roll back into Kiev with Russian support and put down the insurrection. Or perhaps this about to turn into a full-blown civil war. It’s hard to say at this hour, but Viktor doesn’t sound happy, and when Viktor ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy. According to the Associated Press, the protesters are in control of Parliament, but instead of resigning, Yanukovych “described the events as a coup and insisted he would not step down.”
And then he busted out the Nazi analogy Russian diplomats have been making over the last few days. Comparing people to Nazis is an extra-spicy insult in the Russian orbit.
“Everything that is happening today is, to a greater degree, vandalism and bandits and a coup d’etat,” Yanukovych said in a televised statement, clearly shaken and making long pauses in his speech.
He said decisions made by parliament Friday and Saturday “are all illegal” and compared the situation to the rise of Nazis in the 1930s. He said he would not sign any of the measures passed by parliament, which include trimming his powers and releasing his jailed arch-rival, ex-Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko.
The president said his car had been shot at, adding: “But I have no fear. I am overwhelmed by grief for our country. I feel responsibility.”
Thus far, the Ukrainian military has stayed out of the conflict. There are reports many security troops are throwing in their lot with the demonstrators. Regime loyalists are talking about forming “volunteer militias” to keep demonstrators at bay in the Russian-aligned eastern half of the country, which doesn’t sound like a recipe for harmony. The crowd in Independence Square says Yanukovych has effectively resigned, and is celebrating victory. Yanukovych’s predecessor, Yulia Tymoshenko – ostensibly imprisoned for abuse of power, but held up as a political prisoner and victim of a coup by the protest movement – is said by the BBC to be set for release later today, which would fulfill a big protester demand. There’s been some talk about breaking the Ukraine into at least two separate countries to resolve the political impasse.
Hopefully the situation will improve and there will be no further violence, but this doesn’t feel like it’s quite over yet.
Update: Just minutes after I posted this, the Ukrainian parliament formally voted to remove Yanukovych from power. This immediately fueled speculation that Russia’s Vladimir Putin would wrap up the Olympics in Sochi and head for the Ukraine with enough force to reinstall the ousted president. We shall see…