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Did Yanukovych Relent? Does it Matter?

EU foreign-policy chief Catherine Ashton made news today by declaring that Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych “intends” to finally sign a free-trade agreement with the European Union after weeks of protests. It’s unclear, however, if Yanukovych can end the standoff.

If the message was intended to get the protesters to back off, it might not be nearly enough. As the Washington Post reports, “protesters weren’t buying it and spent the day bolstering the five formidable snow and ice barricades that protect their long-running encampment.” No surprise there: Yanukovych has been too fickle to be trusted, having spent years gesturing toward Europe and working toward an agreement only to bail at the eleventh hour. Yet that’s exactly what his government is asking for: trust. As the Post reports:

“This is real, this is absolutely real,” Ukraine’s foreign minister, Leonid Kozhara, told the Interfax news agency Thursday, adding that Ukraine might sign on with Europe as early as next spring.

That suggests a long winter ahead for the opposition, which has shown no signs of flagging. “Both sides are playing on time and trying to wear the other side down,” Jan Techau, an analyst with the Carnegie Europe think tank in Brussels, said during a conference call Thursday.

In fact, the climb-down from Yanukovych shows just how much trouble he found himself in when he spurned Europe seemingly for Putin’s Eurasian customs union. To wit: if his agreement to sign with the EU some time next year was intended for Putin as a hardball negotiating tactic, he’s probably not scaring anyone in the Kremlin. Ukraine is heading into the winter now without a deal with either side and in debt, still dependent on Russian gas. Where’s Yanukovych’s leverage with Russia?

If, on the other hand, the pronouncement that he’s ready to deal with Europe was intended for the West in general and the United States in particular to ward off American sanctions, it won’t matter much either. The U.S. raised the issue of sanctions (with the State Department’s Victoria Nuland conspicuously on the ground in Kiev) in response to Yanukovych’s heavyhanded deployment of riot police to attempt to clear the protests. If he wants to avoid sanctions, he should resist the use of force against the opposition. If he doesn’t, vague promises to one day sign a deal with the EU won’t change anybody’s mind.

Similarly, if he was trying to get Ukraine a better deal from the EU, his sudden determination to reopen negotiations reeks of desperation and will most likely be greeted with the reminder that beggars cannot be choosers. One suspects that Yanukovych knows all this, and that the prevailing explanations for Yanukovych’s behavior are just a bit too pat. Maybe it’s not really about Russia, or Europe, or the U.S., or even Ukraine; maybe it’s about Viktor Yanukovych.

Now you’re getting somewhere, says the Kiev-based Andrey Slivka:

With Yanukovych, it’s always best to assume the worst. Ukraine has always been a kleptocracy, but “the family,” as it is known, has raised the thievery to new heights. The President’s older son, Oleksandr, a dentist, has become one of Ukraine’s richest men since the start of his father’s Presidency. Yanukovych himself—an actual ex-con, who did jail time in his youth for robbery and assault—has built himself an estate the size of Monaco on the outskirts of Kiev; access to the area is now restricted. “Raider” attacks, in which regime-connected businessmen deploy extortion to literally steal other people’s businesses, are notorious. Leery of mixing with the population, Yanukovych has taken to helicoptering into work from his estate, landing at a helipad he built in one of Kiev’s lovely riverside parks.

None of independent Ukraine’s earlier Presidents were prizewinners, but Yanukovych has been particularly brazen in his provocations. In addition to the theft, he’s centralized power according to a system that one political scientist has termed “sultanism,” and he has harassed the media. So when the beatings on the Maidan gave Ukrainians an excuse to come out on the streets, the protests turned from a cry against the loss of the “European choice” into something far more visceral: an expression of hatred for Yanukovych and everything he represents—basically, the mean reality of life in a post-Soviet strongman state.

Yanukovych’s decision to spurn Europe wasn’t a betrayal so much as a confirmation. Ukrainians did not think they were being governed by European-style democrat. Yanukovych’s reversal was simply a product of what Ukrainians who didn’t like him already didn’t like about him.

In that light, a new turn back to the EU won’t change much. It may help the country–though if a deal doesn’t happen until mid-2014 at the earliest it will first come at great cost. Yanukovych has misread his country’s mood–as Slivka notes, Kiev’s statue of Lenin survived the Orange Revolution, but didn’t survive this populist outburst. Perhaps Yanukovych will have better luck, but he increasingly can’t count on being thrown a lifeline from abroad.


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