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A Turning Point in Ukraine?

The horrific bloodshed in Kiev on Thursday, which left at least 70 people dead, was followed on Friday by a tentative accord between President Viktor Yanukovych and opposition leaders which mandates “early presidential elections, a coalition government and reduction of presidential power through constitutional reforms.”

It would be good if the accord sticks, in order to prevent further fighting, but at this point it is far from clear that it will do so. It was only on Wednesday, after all, that a previous truce had been announced, and then just as promptly broken. It is clear, however, that at least for now Yanukovych has temporarily disappointed his backers in the Kremlin by refusing to declare “emergency powers” and call in the army to clear out demonstrators from central Kiev after his police force failed to get the job done. Indeed, the rebellion has spread beyond the capital, with demonstrators seizing control of government buildings, including police stations, across western Ukraine–i.e., the mostly Ukrainian-speaking and Western-leaning portion of the country.

Not only has Yanukovych lost control of the streets, he has lost, at least for now, control of parliament too, where opposition leaders and defectors from the pro-government party got together on Thursday to pass a resolution calling on interior Ministry troops and police officers to return to their posts and telling Yanukovych he did not have the power to declare a state of emergency without lawmakers’ approval.

It is far from clear that this crisis will have a good outcome–the best outcome being a negotiated transfer of power to a more pro-Western, democratic government committed to rooting out corruption, instituting the rule of law, and moving Ukraine into closer association with the European Union. But already it is clear that Yanukovych and his No. 1 supporter, Vladimir Putin, have suffered an embarrassing rebuke, which clearly demonstrates that Ukraine is no Russia. It is, in other words, not a place where people will gladly trade all hope of freedom for the false allure of “stability” and temporary prosperity. It is, instead, a land of heroes where many are willing, like America’s own Founding Fathers or like freedom fighters in lands from Egypt to Burma, to risk their lives and their liberty in order to make their country free.

The example of Egypt shows how easily such aspirations can be perverted and undermined. But sometimes, just sometimes, the wishes of the people for freedom and opportunity do result in the kind of government which can make those aspirations into reality. Let us hope Ukraine will be one of those places where revolutionary ferment produces lasting and positive change, but if it is to happen, the people of Ukraine will need outside assistance, if only to counterbalance the assistance that the forces of repression receive from Russia.

In recent days the EU and the U.S. have taken a positive step by instituting travel bans and other limited sanctions on those responsible for the violence in Kiev. But more must be done. As I have argued before, the U.S. and the EU need to present a financial package to Ukraine to make up some of the losses if it winds up rejecting Russia’s $15 billion bribe, er, subsidy. Of course the West cannot blindly shower euros or dollars on Kiev, but it should make clear that if Ukraine does the right things–if it sticks to the current accord for peaceful political change and if it moves into closer alignment with the EU–there will be more than good wishes delivered in return.

The failure of the U.S., the EU, and associated institutions, such as the IMF, to make good on such a pledge–to offer a conditional financial aid package to help rescue Ukraine from its immediate economic woes–is puzzling and shameful especially when you recall how the EU was willing to pump so much money into Greece, a much smaller and less important nation. The battle for Ukraine remains at a tipping point and it is up to Western leaders to show resolve and vision in helping the people of this impoverished and embattled country to achieve their highest aspirations.