The two-month long Ukrainian political crisis, which has embroiled Kiev into a de facto guerilla war between police and protesters, came to a head yesterday when Prime Minister Mykola Azarov and his government resigned and the parliament voted to repeal nine out of 12 anti-protest laws that President Viktor Yanukovitch had pushed through earlier this month in a heavy-handed attempt to quell the country’s unrest.
The draconian laws were voted in by the Parliament on January 16, prompting a massive backlash the next day, with activists marching along Grushevskogo Street in central Kiev, which leads to the Parliament and government buildings. Armed police moved in to stop the protesters and over the next 10 days, Grushevskogo Street turned into a scene out of a combat movie. Protesters threw molotov cocktails, stones and fireworks at police, who answered with stun grenades, rubber bullets and truncheons. When policement killed three protesters with bullets, the opposition set tires on fire as a barricade to prevent them from levelling their rifles. Meanwhile, large gangs of pro-government thugs roughed up protesters, journalists and even ordinary citizens from Western Ukraine. Few managed to escape safely—at least seven people remain missing and two protesters were reportedly tortured to death by security forces disgused as street thugs. Reports have also surfaced of ‘death squads’ executing kidnapped protesters, and of police arresting scores of activists for trying to protect themselves from attack. The punishment for protesting is 15 years in prison.
The escalation of the violence between police and protesters was provoked by Yanukovitch’s total deafness towards the power of the people’s claims. Instead of making conciliatory gestures towards the opposition, the government escalted the violence. But yesterday, rather than declaring a state of emergency, the president finally surrendered. The second round of negotiations between Yanukovitch and leaders of the opposition led to some obscure arrangements, to put it mildly. The resignation of Azarov leaves Sergy Arboozov as acting Prime Minister—and Arboozov is widely known as the president’s man.
Back in 2010, when Yanukovitch first started cementing his power, he enlarged his authority with the help of the Constitutional Court. Among the rights it granted him was the power to propose Prime Ministers to the Parliament for a vote. Morever, every minister must be onfirmed by presidential decree. Over the last four years, Yanukovitch concentrated his power to such an extent that almost every important decision in government must be approved by him—and he’s also been known to use prohibited means to get his way in politics, too. Therefore, even if the opposition got him to agree to offer the Prime Minister post to an opposition leader, such as Arseny Yatsenyuk, it’s hardly a real compromise.
To use a chess metaphor, it may seem like Yanukovitch is the lonely white queen set against a full set of black pawns—but beware! When you sit to play with Yanukovitch, he can suddenly pull several bishops and castles out of his pocket.
The opposition also lacks a decisive majority vote. When the 12 anti-protest laws were voted on in Parliament, the Speaker even did not count the ayes. An electronic voting system was blocked by the opposition to prevent the government’s usual mass falsifications (using so-called “pianists,” who vote for 3-10 of their collegues by pressing the buttons like a piano keyboard), but MPs from the ruling party just raised their hands and after seven seconds the Speaker declared 239 votes in favor of the laws.
Now that the slaughter on Kiev’s streets has paused, how will the country get the balance of power right? The President should give back the powers he usurped from Parliament, letting the MPs form the Cabinet. Moderate MPs should side with the opposition to help form a new majority to dismantle the president’s superpowers. Of course, Yanukovitch and certain ministers will be loath to cede any power, for it would signal the end of carte blache for corruption and possibly the start of criminal proescutions.
On the other side, the opposition doesn’t want to be responsible for any serious economic decisions without having decisive majority in the Parliament. It looks like a deadlock, but nothing but bloody chaos is in the rearview mirror, so the country’s new government will have to find some impossible way out of their stalemate.