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

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

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.

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.

Taras Kuzio

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.

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.

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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.