Ukraine liberates itself
Hard to tell precisely what is going on in Ukraine or predict what the outcome will be, but it seems clear enough that President Yanukovich is out after he fled from Kiev yesterday, leaving the city and the presidential palace in opposition hands. Security forces loyal to the president have given control of the capital to security forces backing the opposition. The parliament has removed its speaker, a Yanukovich ally, declared the president unable to perform his duties, freed opposition leader Yulia Tymshenko and called elections for May 25, more than six months earlier than provided for in yesterday’s European Union-brokered agreement.
The situation is still perilous. It could easily degenerate into civil war, if security forces in the eastern portion of the country remain loyal to Yanukovich, who is describing the events as a coup. Moscow could make life difficult for any successor government, either by tightening its purse strings or shutting off supplies of natural gas. The European Union and the United States, both of which will be pleased to see the back of Yanukovich, are unlikely to ante up as quickly as President Putin will turn the screws, or as much as Moscow has offered. The situation in Crimea, which is mostly Russian-speaking and transferred to Ukraine only in 1954, could become problematic. Putin could try to hive off the eastern provinces and Crimea. That after all is what he did to the Russian-speaking portions of Georgia when he got the chance, making Abkhazia and South Ossetia into supposedly independent Russian satellites. Not to mention the Trans-Dniester portion of Moldova.
There are deep divisions not only between the ex-president and the opposition, but also within the opposition, which includes right-wing nationalists as well as pro-European liberals. Once the contest with Yanukovich is out of the way, the unity of the opposition can be expected to break down. That is only natural. The question will be whether they work out their disagreements with each other and with pro-Russian Ukrainians in peaceful or violent ways. There are no guarantees on that score, especially as the security forces appear to be choosing sides. What looks today like the happy triumph of relatively peaceful protests over a brutal proto-dictatorship, which killed demonstrators by the score, could look different in a few months.
But for the moment it is certainly tempting to celebrate. It isn’t only the Russian hockey team that has had a bad week or so. Putin’s effort to force all of Ukraine back into Moscow’s sphere of influence looks likely to fail. Its citizens have reasserted their right to choose a European, as opposed to a Russian, future. Its parliament has tried to lay a legal basis for the shift in direction and future decisions on the country’s future. Friends in Brussels and Washington will remain sympathetic if Ukraine chooses a liberal, democratic future.
Some will wonder, if a new election can settle the issues in Ukraine, why can’t that happen also in Syria? The simple answer is that it can, but only when Bashar al Assad joins Yanukovich in Moscow. The notion that a free and fair election can be held any time soon in a country that has never had a competitive election and where ballots are marked with a thumbprint drenched in blood from a pinprick is delusional. Elections will some day play a key role in Syria, but for the moment we’ll have to content ourselves with alleviating the humanitarian suffering, using the UN Security Council resolution that passed today.