Tue, Feb 25, 2014 - Page 9 News List

Threat of Ukraine revolution poses problems for Putin

The rebellion against Viktor Yanukovych’s government is also a rejection of Russian autocracy

By Observer writers in LONDON

Instead, it has come to represent a convenient shorthand to encapsulate everything the Yanukovych government is not: embracing ideas such as rule of law; a fairer society where wealth is not simply appropriated by the president’s inner circle including his dentist son; political freedoms and legal accountability.

It represents a rejection, too, of what was becoming an increasingly autocratic system modeled on Putin’s own “illiberal democracy” — as some have called it — whose features are kleptocracy, intolerance and a crackdown on protest and freedom of expression.

It is perhaps this that was most significant in the deal and parliamentary votes last week — a widespread agreement that those features of the Ukrainian political system most like Putin’s Russia should be dismantled.

All of which still leaves many risks ahead. A feature of Ukraine’s crisis is how protest and violence have become part of a political bargaining process that has seen a cycle of clashes followed by negotiations, purported deals that fall apart and more violence.

Most pressing is whether the country can hold together amid declarations on Saturday from political figures in both the east and the Crimea that they now represent the government’s constitutional legitimacy and calls in some quarters for the establishment of militias.

Equally critical is how Ukraine’s mainstream opposition will deal with a newly empowered — if small — hardline nationalist movement, not least Pravy Sektor, whose members were prominent in the fighting in Independence Square and elsewhere and which claims to have armed itself.

Another problem is one of leadership. While Tymoshenko’s ordered release is to be welcomed, it should also be recalled that the two-time prime minister is a flawed figure whose relentless squabbling with her former Orange Revolution ally and former president Viktor Yushchenko opened the way for Yanukovych’s election in 2010.

Then there is the fundamental issue that Ukraine must negotiate: How does a nation with political and trade links to both Europe and Russia find a balance between the two forces pulling on it from outside? While the promise of early elections is welcome, they need to be conducted in a less charged atmosphere to avoid more conflict and violence.

In part, that will depend on whether Moscow is honest and allows the country’s divided electorate to determine its own future. An ominous indication of Moscow’s unhappiness with the EU-negotiated deal is be found in the remarks of Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Saturday afternoon accusing the opposition of being led by “armed extremists and pogromists” threatening the country’s “sovereignty.”

A final question is whether Putin’s stumble in Ukraine will have any ramifications for him closer to home in a Kremlin that draws lessons for Russia from the fate of the post-Soviet order in Ukraine.

Moscow will have been deeply unsettled both by the prominent role played by the troika of EU foreign ministers and by the perceived challenge to Moscow’s authority in the region.

All of which, taken together, promises fraught months ahead.

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