Time for new elections to break the deadlock in Ukraine

The EU should be aware of how much criticism it is getting on the ground. By not imposing sanctions after the US and Canada have already done so, the EU is doing real damage to its reputation in the region. If the Ukrainian protestors lose faith in the EU, then a more inward-looking struggle will get even uglier.

Events in Ukraine did not reach the dénouement predicted by some when parliament sat on 28 January. In fact, the possibility of compromise hinted at over the preceding weekend seems to have disappeared once more. The government fell, but the new acting prime minister is Serhiy Arbuzov, one of the “curators” of the Yanukovych “family”. This is the exact opposite of Yanukovych’s apparent offer the previous weekend to set up a coalition government. Russia is already going slow on its promised aid package, presumably to stiffen the authorities’ resolve.

Nine out of 12 the repressive laws “passed” on 16 January were repealed – but not all. The Law on “the public denial or justification of the crimes of fascism” was recriminalised to target the right-wing Freedom Party. Many in the West are buying the story that the protests are no longer worth supporting because of the over-prominence of the Freedom Party (as also prominently reported in this article in The Nation and this one in the Guardian.)

There is a new “amnesty law”, but it was controversially passed in the government version and boycotted by the opposition – once again with credible reports of fraudulent ‘voting’, after Yanukovych himself had descended on parliament to issue make all kinds of threats. The “amnesty” only applies if protestors leave buildings first; which they are now supposed to do within fifteen days. A full state of emergency is still possible.

Physical safety is still most people’s primary concern: the protestors want to disband the militia that has attacked them. The president, on the other hand, needs the militia to defend himself. With almost no publicity, the government adopted plans on 27 January to increase the size of the main militia forces six times, raising the complement of the two main units, the Berkut and Grifon, from 5,000 to 30,000 men. “Civil defence” forces will be introduced. The Special Fund (i.e. state reserves) will be raided for the money to pay.

The seizure of government buildings in the west and centre of Ukraine has continued, albeit without the opposition taking over local government itself. Demonstrations are also building up in the east. The government knows its militia are thinly spread, so it is making more and more use of titushki thugs to beat up demonstrators. Most are simply common criminals with police records who must “do service” or face prosecution.

On 31 January it was announced that Yanukovych was ill and indisposed, adding even more uncertainly to the situation.

What are the policy implications?

The EU should be aware of how much criticism it is getting on the ground. By not imposing sanctions after the United States and Canada have already done so, the EU is doing real damage to its reputation throughout the region. If the Ukrainian protestors lose faith in the EU, then a more inward-looking struggle will get even uglier.

If the EU is reluctant to move because of private banking interests, it is time to name and shame individual banks. A Ukrainian group called For Accountability has set up a website that calls “for targeted measures to hold accountable those who have wilfully participated in or benefited from the repression of peaceful protests, the violation of human rights, or the criminalisation of power in Ukraine”. The West should do more to shape the calculations of all those on whom the regime depends: the “oligarchs”, the police, judges and civil servants.

There needs to be more engagement and tougher messages from the EU member states that matter most to Ukraine’s trade and the Ukrainian elite’s money (including the UK, with German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier at least verbally active); engagement cannot be left to the usual supporters of the Eastern Partnership.

Any negotiated solution needs to recognise three key facts. Normal political process has seized up. First, Yanukovych has proved disingenuous and is viewed by many as the key roadblock to progress.  Second, “negotiations” that involve just the three parliamentary opposition parties, without representatives of the protestors, will not go far. Third, the oligarchs are key decision makers, but so far are only operating behind the scenes.

So all or some of these parties need to be linked up. Possibly through a more inclusive “round-table” process. The “official opposition” needs to be encouraged to listen more to civil society. Only a genuine sense that the key domestic forces are engaging can forestall the worst types of foreign intervention.

Alternatively, early elections, even for both parliament and president, are perfectly compatible with the constitution. There is precedent for this: in 1993 Ukraine solved a crisis by agreeing to (and unlike Russia, sticking to) a timetable for two sets of early elections in 1994. The current configuration of forces – the ruling party, the two main parliamentary opposition parties which do not really speak for the “Maidan”, the Freedom Party with its own agenda and the unrepresented and unofficial forces of the “Maidan” – needs reshuffling and refreshing.

Basic questions of legitimacy have been raised by the use of force, by the government’s farcical but poisonous contempt for legal procedure and by the radicalised mood on the streets. Only new elections can solve this. Elections can be polarising, but not if they are a fight over a common goal. At the moment, this sense of common goal is precisely what is disappearing fast.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.

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Senior Policy Fellow

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