Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Is #Євромайдан the Second Orange Revolution?

Nine years ago, I was in Kyiv during the early stages of the Orange Revolution. Large-scale fraud in  the second round of the presidential election mobilized hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian citizens to take the streets and squares in Kyiv's center, drawing upon support from across the country. The negotiated settlement led to an opposition victory in the presidential election, constitutional reforms, and lessons learned by the losing side. The massive protests in Ukraine over the last couple of days, prompted by the government's decision to halt progress on an Association Agreement with the European Union, looks like these protests in some ways. But, many ingredients that propelled the Orange Revolution forward may be absent this time.

Role of Security Forces. When I boarded a train in 2004 to return to Kyiv from my observation deployment in Kherson, a train on the next track was being loaded with young crowd control troops and dogs heading north. Rumors of special forces being mobilized to break up protests were on everyone's lips, but the repression never materialized. As I walked around the city, I was surprised to find security services noticeably absent from the streets. The mayor of Kyiv allowed protesters to set up camp and the limited police presence was not intimidating. In 2013, security services have used force and seem willing to engage in moderate-level violence (tear gas, truncheons) in an effort to clear the squares and streets. They have not used overwhelming force yet (firearms, large-scale detention), but the level of violence already exceeds what occurred in 2004.

Clear End Game. In 2004, the options and outcomes were clearer than they are today. Protesters demanded a repeat second round of the presidential election, understanding that a clean contest was highly likely to yield a victory for Viktor Yushchenko. The current protests call for Ukraine to move closer to the EU via an Association Agreement during the November 28-29 Vilnius Summit. For many in the opposition, this outcome implicitly includes the release of Yuliya Tymoshenko from prison. But, what if EU leaders permitted an Association Agreement without her release? What if an alternate agreement, short of an Association Agreement, were reached? While many key EU politicians have indicated that signals about an end to selective justice are a necessary condition of the Association Agreement, the protests and government repression may have affected preferences. Could a peaceful end to Euromaidan, without punishment of protesters, be enough for the EU now? If it is, what are the implications for continued protest?

Regime Role in Negotiation. Another important difference between 2004 and 2013 is that the regime position nine years ago was being managed not by one of the candidates, but by then-President Leonid Kuchma. Kuchma's goals differed from Yanukovych's at the time; he wanted some institutional reforms to weaken the presidency that he had failed to secure earlier, and likely a golden parachute for his personal post-presidential situation. Kuchma was ready and willing to sacrifice Yanukovych and his ambitions for these outcomes. Rumors at the time suggested that Yanukovych preferred a repressive response to the protesters that Kuchma rejected. This time, Yanukovych and his team are in charge of the regime's response, and may have more to lose politically and personally in defeat (or retreat).

The Regime's Options. One alternative is an escalation of repression in an effort to quell protest. However, it is unlikely that Ukrainian citizens demanding change will go quietly; repression will have to be large scale and severe to be effective. For dissent to be quashed in this manner, the regime would need a full commitment by security services to conduct large scale operations and a willingness to arrest, detain, and commit violence unseen in the recent past. This alternative - the path taken by other post-Soviet states like Belarus and Azerbaijan - would be game-changing for Ukraine. While Russian partners would be unlikely to oppose this move, Europe would consider it beyond the pale. The return of Ukraine to a fully authoritarian society does not seem to be a likely outcome; I certainly hope that it is not even a possibility.

Another alternative is that the regime backs off and waits out the protesters. Winter is coming, as they say, and it does not seem like the logistical preparations for occupying the streets are as strong as they were in 2004. After Vilnius, no obvious mechanism exists to alter the policy course in the short term. While this option may cause longer-term challenges in elections coming in 2015, the levers of manipulation and fraud can be put in place by that time.

A third option is that the regime capitulates and finds a way to sign the association agreement. It may be possible to get the EU to agree to a signature without Tymoshenko's release if protesters are not harmed. If the release is still required, this alternative would generate even greater challenges for the regime in the longer term. Whether or not she is able to run for office, Tymoshenko is a force of nature whose skill set is especially suited for opposition activity. An EU agreement will cost Yanukovych, his business allies, and the regions of his core support dearly in economic and political terms if Russia decides to punish the country. Russia could make Yanukovych pay in many ways. But, the ace up Yanukovych's sleeve is that as much as Putin may dislike him, Putin may prefer Yanukovych to other viable alternatives.

Ukrainian citizens have demonstrated their readiness to mobilize and take the streets to challenge regime efforts to undermine their hard-earned progress toward democracy. As I strolled through the protesters' encampments in 2004, I asked many people, young and old, why they were protesting. Their consistent response was that they wanted to live in a "normal" country. The preference to live in a society where the rule-of-law prevails and officials can be held accountable for their actions persists in Ukraine. While it is unclear if mobilization in 2013 will achieve this outcome through an Association Agreement, the willingness of Ukrainians to take direct action to hold officials accountable may be the great legacy of the Orange Revolution and the primary way that Euromaidan is its successor.

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