Skip to main content

How Ukraine's protesters gave country a second chance at reform

By Taras Kuzio, Ukraine researcher, special to CNN
updated 11:37 AM EST, Sun February 23, 2014
Protesters in Kiev, Ukraine, cheer Friday, February 21, after news of an agreement between the government and opposition leaders. Violence recently intensified in Kiev's Independence Square, which has been the center of anti-government protests for the past few months. Protesters in Kiev, Ukraine, cheer Friday, February 21, after news of an agreement between the government and opposition leaders. Violence recently intensified in Kiev's Independence Square, which has been the center of anti-government protests for the past few months.
HIDE CAPTION
Unrest in Ukraine
Unrest in Ukraine
Unrest in Ukraine
Unrest in Ukraine
Unrest in Ukraine
Unrest in Ukraine
Unrest in Ukraine
Unrest in Ukraine
Unrest in Ukraine
Unrest in Ukraine
Unrest in Ukraine
Unrest in Ukraine
Unrest in Ukraine
Unrest in Ukraine
Unrest in Ukraine
Unrest in Ukraine
Unrest in Ukraine
Unrest in Ukraine
Unrest in Ukraine
Unrest in Ukraine
Unrest in Ukraine
Unrest in Ukraine
Unrest in Ukraine
Unrest in Ukraine
Unrest in Ukraine
Unrest in Ukraine
Unrest in Ukraine
Unrest in Ukraine
Unrest in Ukraine
Unrest in Ukraine
Unrest in Ukraine
Unrest in Ukraine
Unrest in Ukraine
Unrest in Ukraine
Unrest in Ukraine
Unrest in Ukraine
Unrest in Ukraine
Unrest in Ukraine
Unrest in Ukraine
Unrest in Ukraine
Unrest in Ukraine
Unrest in Ukraine
Unrest in Ukraine
Unrest in Ukraine
Unrest in Ukraine
Unrest in Ukraine
Unrest in Ukraine
Unrest in Ukraine
Unrest in Ukraine
Unrest in Ukraine
Unrest in Ukraine
Unrest in Ukraine
Unrest in Ukraine
Unrest in Ukraine
Unrest in Ukraine
Unrest in Ukraine
Unrest in Ukraine
Unrest in Ukraine
Unrest in Ukraine
Unrest in Ukraine
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
21
22
23
24
25
26
27
28
29
30
31
32
33
34
35
36
37
38
39
40
41
42
43
44
45
46
47
48
49
50
51
52
53
54
55
56
57
58
59
60
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Ukraine's President flees capital amid unrest; former PM released from prison
  • Kuzio: Public outrage fuelled by years of President's attack on democracy
  • Kuzio: Pro-Russian Party of Regions will have to find new candidate for election

Editor's note: Taras Kuzio is a Research Associate at the Centre for Political and Regional Studies, Canadian Institute for Ukrainian Studies, University of Alberta. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely his.

(CNN) -- The mass protests a decade ago in Ukraine may have been known as the Orange Revolution, but they never quite became a genuine revolution -- and the opaque manner in which politics and business are undertaken in the country never changed.

On the other hand, there's little doubt that the three-month long Euro-Maidan protests in Kiev are more of a genuine civil society-driven revolution with its own pantheon of martyrs.

Taras Kuzio
Taras Kuzio

The Euro-Maidan rallies exploded spontaneously in November of last year in protest at President Viktor Yanukovych's abrupt decision to drop the European integration that he and his predecessor, Viktor Yushchenko, had been negotiating for seven years. Last month's passage of anti-democratic legislation on "Black Thursday" incensed protesters, and the President's refusal to negotiate with the opposition led to two explosions of violence that left dozens of protesters and police officers dead and hundreds more wounded.

READ MORE: Uncertainty reigns as President flees

Public outrage has been fuelled by years of attacks by the Yanukovych administration on Ukrainian democracy and Ukrainian national identity. The attacks have seen Ukraine transformed into what U.S. diplomatic cables have described as a "virtual mafia state." Lawlessness became rampant in the courts, police, security service and on the part of lawmakers from the ruling Party of Regions and its satellite, the Communist Party of Ukraine. The NGO corruption watchdog Transparency International ranked Ukraine as the most corrupt country in Europe while the Heritage Foundation think tank ranked Ukraine as the country with the least economic freedom on the continent.

Opposition leader Tymoshenko returns
Ukrainian opposition leader wants justice
CNN crew sees Ukraine violence firsthand
Young medic shot through neck in Kiev

Ukrainians felt that their rulers were treating them with visible contempt as a conquered population. There was no accountability or limits on what could be undertaken. The constitutional court was stacked with the President's cronies, the judiciary was corrupted, Parliament turned into a rubber-stamp body where legislation was railroaded through without the votes. Opposition leaders, including former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko -- the President's archrival -- were thrown into jail.

Meanwhile, the government led by the Party of Regions' Nikolai Azarov undertook incompetent policies that devastated the country's economy. Ukraine's foreign currency reserves were looted to half of its previous value, which pushed the nation to the brink of default. The standard of living for most Ukrainians declined, but a small clique of oligarchs and the President's family continued to amass fortunes through rigged government tenders that are now the subject of criminal investigations.

READ MORE: Ex-PM goes from jail to center stage

Together this provided a combustible protest mood that united students, middle class professionals, businessmen, farmers, and workers. The Euro-Maidan were both anti-Soviet -- Yanukovych and Azarov were born in the late 1940s, when Joseph Stalin ran the Soviet Union and Donetsk was called Stalino -- and nationalist, as well as being pro-democratic and European.

Unlike Russian President Vladimir Putin, U.S. and European policymakers never understood Yanukovych and his Donetsk cronies. And their severe bout of wishful thinking that he had been converted to "European values" was very far from the truth. His foreign policy was pro-Yanukovych rather than being pro-Russian or pro-European. Yanukovych chose Russia over the EU because he believed this would better serve his re-election chances, a step that backfired and led him to not even completing his first term.

In reality, Yanukovych was very unlike other post-Soviet leaders whose origins could be found in the Soviet nomenklatura elites and among dissident nationalists. Growing up in the coal-mining backwater of Donetsk, the President was twice imprisoned in his youth. But his lucky break was to forge an alliance with the oligarch Rinat Akhmetov in the mid-1990s -- a powerful figure who has remained loyal to him to the bitter end. This propelled him into the governor's house in Donetsk and into the leadership of the Party of Regions -- a political machine that is now disintegrating before our eyes.

Over the course of nearly two decades, Yanukovych provided political protection as regional governor, prime minister and party leader for old Soviet industrial bosses and tycoons, some with past and existing ties to organized crime, and who became fabulously wealthy. When he came to power in 2010 Yanukovych served notice upon them that he and "The Family," as his allies from his hometown came to be known, now expected "tribute" and to live the lives of aristocrats. His stupendous and tasteless Mezhyhirya palace, replete with hunting grounds, tennis courts, helicopters, saunas and a Spanish galleon are a symbol of his corruption and it is little wonder that protesters targeted the compound after he fled from Kiev. On Sunday, Parliament nationalized the palace, returning it to state hands.

READ MORE: Who's who in Ukraine unrest?

Ukraine is set to hold early presidential elections in late May that are likely to be won in a landslide by a pro-European reformer such as Vitali Klitschko or Tymoshenko, who have stated their intention to rapidly sign the Association Agreement with the EU. There is a need for justice to be served to officials and business cronies who should be held to account for corruption, abuse of office and murder.

But not everyone in the country looks to the West -- in fact, most of eastern Ukraine voted for Yanukovych and his Party of Regions in the last general election. But today the party, which retains strong bases of support in Donetsk and Crimea, issued a strong statement condemning the President for human rights abuses, corruption and reneging on his presidential responsibilities.

With Yanukovych under criminal investigation, the party will now have to find another presidential candidate -- one who can claim to represent the "Rusophone" population -- but with elections only four months away and as a member of a now-discredited party that person is unlikely to garner widespread support. And although support for Ukraine's integration into the CIS Customs Union -- Vladimir Putin's pet project for a Eurasian Union -- is supported by a quarter of eastern Ukraine, this constituency will be on the defensive in the face of the pro-European front-runners.

Few countries receive a second chance to undertake changes and reforms of this scale, and the most difficult kind of work lies ahead for Ukraine. The Euro-Maidan protests have shown that Ukrainians demand their leaders treat them with dignity and an overhaul of how their country is run. Ukraine's politicians have a daunting task to satisfy these demands amid such a revolutionary mood.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 9:17 AM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
Donetsk's neediest line up for food handouts. There are long queues at the bus station as people try to leave town. There are no banks left open.
updated 5:25 AM EST, Tue November 25, 2014
Barking overwhelms the thud of artillery fire. An animal shelter is crammed with 1,000 dogs, many orphans of the conflict with owners who have fled or been killed.
updated 3:51 AM EDT, Fri October 3, 2014
Reza Sayah looks into why thousands of Ukrainians have left their old lives to volunteer to fight.
updated 4:48 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
CNN's Ralitsa Vassileva speaks to The New Republic's Linda Kinstler about Putin's motives with Ukraine and China.
updated 10:36 AM EDT, Wed September 24, 2014
President Barack Obama speaks at the 69th session of the United Nations General Assembly.
updated 5:58 PM EST, Thu November 13, 2014
The Commander of NATO forces in Europe says Russian tanks, Russian artillery, Russian air defense systems and Russian troops -- all heading into Ukraine.
updated 8:58 AM EDT, Tue September 9, 2014
Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 broke apart in the air after it was hit by a burst of "high-energy objects" from outside, a preliminary report by Dutch aviation investigators said Tuesday.
updated 12:11 PM EDT, Wed September 3, 2014
On a country road in eastern Ukraine, a scene of bucolic tranquility was suddenly interrupted by the aftermath of carnage.
updated 4:19 PM EDT, Tue September 2, 2014
In the city of Donetsk, the devastation wrought by weeks of fighting between pro-Russia rebels and Ukrainian forces is all too apparent.
updated 8:00 PM EDT, Sun August 31, 2014
CNN's Diana Magnay reports from the front lines in the Ukrainian conflict.
updated 7:26 AM EDT, Mon September 1, 2014
A few miles south of the town of Starobeshevo in eastern Ukraine, a group of men in uniform is slumped under a tree.
updated 9:43 AM EDT, Sat August 23, 2014
A shopkeeper's mutilated body, relatives' anguish, homes destroyed ... this is Donetsk.
updated 7:12 AM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
A 20-minute drive from Kiev takes you to a neighborhood that feels more like Beverly Hills than central Ukraine.
updated 9:12 AM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
Photos illustrate the ongoing crisis in Ukraine as fighting continues to flare in the region.
updated 12:31 PM EDT, Thu July 31, 2014
Future imports, exports between the EU and Russia are now banned -- but existing contracts continue.
updated 11:40 AM EDT, Sun July 20, 2014
Some contend that larger weapons have come into Ukraine from Russia.
updated 5:25 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
The downing Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 put the pro-Russia rebels operating in Ukraine's eastern region center stage.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT