“Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,/ But to be young was very heaven!–Oh! times.”
So wrote William Wordsworth about the commencement of the French Revolution. His words, no doubt, are echoed by many in Kiev today as they contemplate the sudden and shocking success of their revolution.
President Viktor Yanukovych has been chased from power. His opulent palaces are now open to the public to see the extent of his enrichment at public expense. His leading political opponent, Yulia Tymoshenko, has been freed from prison. One of her allies, parliament speaker Oleksandr Turchynov, has assumed the powers of the president and a snap election has been called to elect a permanent successor. Remarkably enough there has been little violence or looting; this has been an unusually orderly revolution–so far.
But we have seen just in the past week how dizzying can be the twists and turns of Ukrainian politics, and there is no reason to believe that they are at the end of the journey. Recall that as recently as Thursday, Kiev was the scene of bloody fighting, which was brought to a halt by a power-sharing accord reached on Friday between Yanukovych and opposition leaders. That accord, in turn, was rendered irrelevant by the president’s decision to flee his capital on Saturday.
Whatever next? No one can say, but one quarter from which we can expect the unexpected is Moscow. Vladimir Putin has been seen, rightly or wrongly, as the puppet-master pulling Yanukovych’s strings. It was Putin who convinced Yanukovych to forego closer ties with the EU in return for a $15 billion loan from Russia. This was seen as a masterstroke at the time, but it sparked a revolution which has cast Yanukovych from power, at least for now, and instilled, no doubt, deep dread in the Kremlin.
If an autocrat can be ejected from power by popular action in Kiev, why not in Moscow? In reality, of course, there are numerous reasons why Putin’s hold on power is more secure, but dictators are habitually paranoid and Putin is no exception: He knows that the example of Ukraine is likely to embolden his opposition in Russia.
We can expect a riposte from Putin before long, and from his allies in Ukraine who are down but not defeated. How the revolution will unfold no one knows, but Ukraine has had plenty of experience of thwarted upheavals.
This is, after all, the second popular uprising against Yanukovych, the first being the Orange Revolution of 2004-2005. Although thwarted in his attempt to steal that election, Yanukovych returned to power in 2010, managing to win a fair election after his political adversaries failed to show results while in office.
This is a second chance for the pro-Western parties in Ukraine to deal with the deep-seated malaise of the economy, the pervasive corruption, and all the other ills that afflict this troubled land. They had better do better than last time–and all the while fending off what are sure to be determined attempts at sabotage emanating from Moscow. Let us hope that the U.S. and the EU will throw their weight on the scales to help prevent Putin’s puppets from slinking back into power.