More than twelve years as an American living in the capital of Ukraine cause one to stop taking much notice of the daily inconveniences: power cuts, Internet outages, up and down currency exchange rates that are cause for exchanging only enough money to get through the next day, murderous traffic, collapsing infrastructure. These are some of the niceties that come with life in the less-than-fully-developed countries that are what most of the wrecked post-Soviet republics still remain more than 20 years after they became independent.
One aspect of life that I never got used to was the progressively disastrous and criminal governments that ran Ukraine for more than two decades. The Ukrainian people put up with this condition for years but the recently-deposed regime of President Viktor Yanukovych went too far. The collapsing economy, massive theft by the president’s immediate family and its cronies and other rampant banditry—even murder by individuals in public positions—was more like the behavior of a Third World kleptocracy than a state with pretensions of someday joining the European Union.
Yanukovych and his inner circle became “toxic,” as more than one commentator described it, and the population finally decided “enough is enough.” This has led to the toppling of Yanukovych’s government by the “EuroMaidan,” the name given to the encampment of determined protesters that occupied Kiev’s main Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square) after the Ukrainian leader did an abrupt about-face on November 21 in which he refused to sign an Associate Agreement with the EU—despite months of prior assurances that he had every intention of inking the deal.
A whole series of wonders both made the victory of the EuroMaidan possible, while others now jeopardize the future of Ukraine as a nation. As Yogi Berra famously said “predictions are difficult, particularly about the future,” and nothing has validated the truth inside that witticism more than the events in Ukraine that transformed the political landscape of the nation in a period of five days: 18-22 February.
Looking back on the seven wonders of Ukraine’s EuroMaidan revolution is a reminder of how the desire to be free of a barbaric leadership can move people to commit heroic acts that no one could previously imagine. But the toppling of Yanukovych’s criminal state apparatus is also a reminder of the inherent danger in coddling brutal dictatorships.
The first wonder is how the Ukrainian people so defiantly mobilized against Yanukovych. Many observers, myself among them, discounted the possibility of the population ever again standing in defiance of an undemocratic government. The demoralizing aftermath of the 2004-2005 Orange Revolution that ushered in the failed presidency of Viktor Yushchenko made many people cynical about ever changing their system of government. Yushchenko’s almost complete lack of effective leadership made it possible for his long-time nemesis, Yanukovych, to defeat him in his reelection bid in 2010.
In years of covering uprisings in the former USSR and Eastern Europe I never saw a people so heroically and selflessly engaged as they were in trying to unseat Yanukovych. Fighting with their bare hands people took to defending the Maidan in the way hordes of ordinary citizens dug anti-tank ditches around Soviet cities during the Second World War. The scenes I witnessed of people passing bricks bucket-brigade style to build barricades were those of a people who have earned their freedom.
The second wonder is the delusional and incompetent handling of this crisis by Yanukovych. At several points in the last three months, the Ukrainian president had opportunities to defuse the situation. Instead, his promises not to use violence against the protest camp in the centre of Kiev turned out to be lies. Attempts by the hated Berkut riot police to storm the barricades resulted not only in dozens of deaths but also served to bolster the determination of those in the square.
The third wonder is how in the process, Yanukovych so effectively paved the way for his own ruin. Sensing that there was no way to come to an accommodation with his government, the demands of the EuroMaidan escalated. In November they wanted the EU agreement signed, by December they were demanding a change in the constitution and early elections. By January they were calling for Yanukovych’s out-and-out removal. By February 20—following a night in which more than 80 protesters were killed by the Berkut—the chant in the square became “zeku smert” (death to the convict), a reference to the fact that Yanukovych served terms in prison during Soviet times.
The fourth wonder is just how murderously medieval a mindset was demonstrated by the allegedly democratic government of Yanukovych. A common phrase uttered by many in Kiev was “Yanukovych is a bandit, and a bandit only realizes the degree to which he has murdered and done wrong when he is being led away in handcuffs—and not one moment before.” But his bloodthirsty impulses were not his alone. A not-terribly-well-publicized statement in January by one of the deputies in Yanukovych’s own Party of the Regions, Arsen Klinchayev, was that the number of people who had perished to date in the fighting on the Maidan was insufficient. More people had to be killed, he declared, because like Tiananmen Square in Beijing in 1989 the protesters “needed to be taught a lesson that you simply do not rebel against your masters.”
The fifth wonder is how inept the response from Washington was in this crisis. When the first attacks on the barricades on Kiev occurred in early December the Obama White House was busy making plans to attend former South African President Nelson Mandela’s funeral. The job of dealing with Yanukovych was outsourced to Joe Biden, which telegraphed that the situation in Ukraine was a secondary priority at best. Ukrainian friends and colleagues were beyond furious at the “above the fray” aloofness of Obama. “Ronald Reagan would have known how to deal with Yanukovych,” said one close friend, “he would have had him by the balls and screaming for mercy. What do we get out of this White House—one milquetoast declaration after another that the Administration ‘is against violence—kumbaya.’ But not a word about what they are prepared to do to stand up for these people dying on the barricades.”
The sixth wonder is that the EU that was so undiplomatically denigrated in a phone call between Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland and the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, Geoffrey Pyatt ended up saving the day and filling a vacuum so irresponsibly left open by Washington. Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski is far more deserving of a Nobel Peace Prize than the current occupant of the White House. His marathon negotiating sessions with Yanukovych are what saved the situation on Maidan from spinning out of control and resulting in horrendous bloodshed.
The final wonder is just how the world can stand by and watch Russian President Vladimir Putin continue to wreck Ukraine by his continued sponsorship of Yanukovych and how responsible nations tolerate his foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, and other Putin surrogates engaging in acts of serial dishonesty as they describe “Russia’s view” of the revolution.
Not surprisingly, almost the entirety of the Yanukovych government fled to Russia. Moscow has become a haven for the criminals who have looted the Ukrainian treasury and committed murder on a wide scale. The Ukrainian parliament and provisional government are calling for him to be tried in the Hague à la Slobodan Milosevic for the slaughter of the dozens of protesters in central Kiev.
But Yanukovych and his cronies sit free and secure in the welcoming bosom of Russia’s KGB-man turned dictator. Meanwhile, Russian troops are infiltrating the Crimea region while Moscow promotes a civil war there. Civilized governments need to do everything they can to promote and help this new Ukrainian government and to oppose Vladimir Putin until he pulls back the Russian military and Yanukovych and his cronies are extradited to stand trial. Anything less is a guarantee that the dozens who have died in Kiev are only the beginning.