Mightier Than the Gun

03.02.14

How Ukraine’s Parliament Brought Down Yanukovych

When the time came, Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych’s own allies were the ones pushing him into the abyss.

You wouldn’t expect the parliament building for a country of 46 million to be so small, but that’s the case with the main Ukrainian legislative body. And when its session floor is packed with all 450 deputies, their staff, and hoards of journalists, it gets stifling and sometimes claustrophobic to be there. That turbulent Saturday of February 22nd was exactly like this, with Lesya Orobets, an opposition deputy, standing right in the middle of the chamber and waiting for historic voting results to show up. The Ukrainian parliament was deciding whether to officially oust President Victor Yanukovych. When she saw the number of 328 “yes” votes (over 100 votes more than enough), she felt happy for a second. Then, she says, the horrors of the last three days have caught up with her again.

“When I saw the voting result I just felt, ‘It happened’ in an exhausted way. Because, you know, we still had funerals. I just had taken off my jacket with bloodstains on it. We were still in this war-like post-traumatic syndrome experience, so there was no place for jubilation”, she tells me in almost perfect English, standing in the same parliament three days later. One of the most prominent leaders of the ongoing Ukrainian revolution, Lesya Orobets looks extremely tired because of three sleepless months of constant fighting, mostly standing shoulder-to-shoulder with protesters on Kiev’s streets. Her face darkens when she mentions the murders of February 18-20th, which dramatically shifted the mood in the country against President Yanukovych and prompted the collapse of his presidency.  “We weren’t happy for long after the voting, because it took us a very high price for that.”

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Before the vote on the 22nd, three rollercoaster hours had pushed the Ukrainian parliament (Verkhovna Rada, or simply Rada in Ukrainian) to its bold decision. After a long three months, the standoff between anti-government protesters and special police forces on the streets all across the country and renewed violence and bloodshed on February 18th brought Ukraine to the brink. The most tragic events happened on February 20th when at least 42 (mostly unarmed) protesters were killed by government snipers around Independence Square in Kiev in a matter of hours. The killings triggered Yanukovych's flight from Kiev after negotiating an internationally-backed ceasefire with protesters and opposition leaders. Still, his flight wasn’t enough for those enraged and shocked by mass killings, nor for the majority members of local parliament, who—after the disappearance of the President and most of his cabinet of ministers—were the only authorities left to face the chaotic country spinning out of control. Deputies, when discussing that day, all say they lacked legislative powers to restore order.

“We were feeling the growing frustration from protesters on the streets. The atmosphere among them was so tense that we knew there was no time for waiting left and they would storm the parliament building if something were not done as soon as possible.”

At first, MPs tried to call the runaway president and press him to resign. Even members of his own the Party of Regions made those calls. Yanukovych reportedly agreed to step down in a phone conversation with Arseniy Yatseniuk, one of the opposition leaders. This news quickly leaked to Kiev’s streets, where crowds exploded in wild cheers and celebrations.

“First, we heard he’s ready to resign. A number of deputies from Yanukovych’s team broke this news on the session floor—some of them heard this directly from the President, others just got the information second-hand. After that, for two hours, we all were living and breathing to hear the official resigation statement from Yanukovych”, recalls MP Andriy Shevchenko, one of the top members of the opposition Batkivshchyna party headed by Yulia Tymoshenko. But then the unexpected occurred: for reasons still unclear, Yanukovych changed his mind. In a recorded TV statement, he called the revolution in Ukraine “a Nazi coup” and refused to sign any legislation coming from the parliament in Kiev.

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“It was a shock, especially for Yanukovych’s team,” Shevchenko continued. “They waited for this badly, because it would’ve untied their hands in saving political careers and be a great relief for everybody. So that’s why the news of him changing his mind became the last straw. Members of the Party of Regions rushed to us with words:  ‘Get your resolution, let’s vote’. I think they were feeling betrayed and disrespected by their own leader.”

Many members of Ukraine’s parliament now say that they were so exhausted with the President’s back-and-forth moves that they decided to finally get rid of him. They didn’t even discuss it—there were no speeches on the floor about how important this day could be and why they should vote Yanukovych out. It was instead a mass impulse, something that they knew they had to do, to release the tension inside the parliament.

“The United States and the European Union would also have to approve it, which was putting additional pressure on us. Foreign ministers of Poland, France, and Germany, who were in Kyiv at the time, wanted us to wait at least 48 hours after the signing of our peace-deal with Yanukovych before taking any further steps,” says Yaroslav Ginka from the opposition UDAR party led by boxer-turned-politician Vitaliy Klitschko. “At the same time,” he continues: “we were feeling the growing frustration from protesters on the streets. The atmosphere among them was so tense that we knew there was no time for waiting left and they would storm the parliament building if something were not done as soon as possible.”

Three hours later, after Yanukovych refused to leave office, the Ukrainian parliament by an overwhelming majority voted to remove him from the post as the one who “has dissociated himself” by fleeing the capital. The ballot was passed with a constitutional majority and entered into force immediately.

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Although it appeared rushed, the parliament’s decision to oust Yanukovych was anything but spontaneous.  The draft was prepared well ahead, reportedly the day before the vote on Saturday. Deputies worked long and hard to find a legislative mechanism for the impeachment, because the move was so unprecedented.

Inna Bogoslovska, former member of the ruling Party of Regions, the first to leave the party after authorities started to issue orders to kill protesters, calls what happened in Ukraine’s parliament that historic Saturday “a snowball effect”.

“The collapse of the ruling Party of Regions had started right after we voted for a ceasefire. This provoked an avalanche [of frustration with Yanukovych]. You know when you see the avalanche from afar and you’re doing nothing, until it’s close and everyone realizes that it’s time to run? That was the same, we all have realized that it’s time to run and vote,” she told me with excitement in her eyes.

After spending hours with local deputies in the small but extremely cozy Ukrainian parliament, trying to recover all the details of that historic day of February 22nd, from their words you might get the idea that they were the driving force in bringing Yanukovych down. But, considering the long tradition of astonishing corruption in the Rada, this impression might be a bit naïve.  I go outside, to the former battle zone of Independence Square. Surrounded by torched buildings and cars, sooty, with bloodstains and bullet holes still visible, it is filled with thousands of mourning people even though it’s the middle of the work day. I see even grown men crying. Walking with me among the sea of candles and flowers in this open-air mega-shrine, Dmytriy Lytvyn, a well-known opposition journalist and blogger, tries to open my eyes to what really happened the day Victor Yanukovych was ousted. 

“Long gone are those times when the deputies of the Ukrainian parliament could just go with the flow and pass something if they wanted it. Right now all members of parliament are acting under strict supervision of their donors and sponsors,” he says, adding that real voting divisions in Ukraine’s parliament lie not across party lines, but across mostly pro-Yanukovych oligarch lines. “When we witnessed that historic vote to oust Yanukovych it was also a clear sign, that the biggest industrial and financial groups of Ukraine decided to overthrow the president and support the uprising instead. Without their green light it wouldn’t be possible at all.”

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He thinks that this is a very illustrative example of how even the legitimizing process for local revolution is being carried out by the same old system of political corruption. “I know that, they know that, so these people have no intentions to go home,” Dmytriy Lytvyn says to me spreading his hands in the middle of revolutionary Independence Square filled with thousands of protesters.

With over one hundred killed protesters, including 16 policemen and almost 300 still missing, Ukraine’s revolution is the bloodiest event in the country’s modern history since gaining independence from Russia in 1991.