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Jan 15, 2014 | Commentary

With the media’s attention on Ukraine waning, now would be a good time to reconsider the Ukrainian “winter of discontent” and the meaning of this second “revolution.” From the comments and analysis bouncing back and forth, one would be forgiven for believing that the world – or a large part of it at any rate – is poised to resume with bi-polar confrontation, pitting the Euro-Atlantic partners against a resurgent Russia-cum-subservient near-abroad. While this prospect is still valid, major powers being motivated by the attractiveness of natural resources essential for their economic growth, we should re-evaluate the meaning of the so-called pro-Western/pro-Russia confrontation on Kiev’s Maidan. The point here is that major behavioural and attitudinal changes (compared to Eastern European custom in dealing with political crises and demonstrators) have gone unnoticed.

Arguably, we are seeing a major normative change in the heart of the former Soviet Union, and we should really be relieved. In Eastern Europe, or east of the River Niemen, politics is an all-or-nothing game, where the stakes are sometimes between life and death. The revolutionary ethos still motivates both the democrats and the “post-Soviet anti-reformists”. The former are evidently calling for radical change, while the latter, still to a significant extent, continue to demonstrate the conspirational complex of the Marxist revolutionary, even if the ideology has been discredited and no longer informs policy.

For both sides, legitimacy is always in question. In Ukraine, this has taken the shape of accusations of foreign meddling when Yanukovich’s predecessor, Viktor Yushenko (a pro-Western president) was elected in the wake of the 2004 Orange Revolution. Any demonstration or popular demonstration seems tainted with the influence of Western powers. Conversely, whenever a candidate that is not suitably “pro-Western” is elected, accusations of vote-rigging abound. This complex has been aptly demonstrated in the last decade of political life in Georgia, for example.

In Ukraine, however, the elections that removed Yushenko from power and replaced him with Yanukovich were regarded by the OSCE and the international community as free and fair. This has not prevented the latter from pointing at evidence of Russian “pressure” in the snap decision by Ukraine to quit the Association Agreement talks with the EU and opt instead for a customs union with Russia. For many still marinating in Cold-War-think, this is a first step towards joining a Eurasian Union dominated by Russia, which is tantamount to a “Soviet Union 2.0.” Decidedly, a bi-polar frame of mind can conjure up manifold threats from what was not said, or said behind closed doors. But in fact, much is different in how Russia and Ukraine behave relative to each other and to the West, and perhaps it is the Euro-Atlantic powers that should review their level of attractiveness and their negotiating tactics when dealing with what is still called a transitioning economy.

Most importantly for security governance professionals, the government’s reaction to the protests that followed its decision to join the customs union has been unexpected and surprising. Except for the beatings that took place from November 30 – December 2, 2013, on the opening days of the protests, demonstrations and stand-offs have been mostly violence-free. Yanukovich chose to condemn police abuses, sacked his security chief, and publicly committed the security forces to do their work ethically. Although there have been recent re-occurrences of police brutality, angry mobs have also threatened clashes with security officials. Here, the analyst is grappling at a conundrum. How are we to judge such clashes, when the official side has hitherto refrained from employing disproportionate force? Are we to believe that civil society activists are in fact provocateurs, and in this case, how is it legitimate for the security forces to react? Or, is official leniency another case of “maskirovka” that we should take with a grain of salt?

We would have ready answers to such uncomfortable questions if SSR efforts destined to Ukraine had bothered to measure results more assiduously. Namely, by establishing a correlation between the security officers that have gone through Western-provided training and their career paths, and demonstrating conclusively to the elected officials, their parliamentary committees, etc., the political benefits of a security force that functions with integrity (especially when it comes to crises like this). Finally, there are administrative benefits as well. If one can measure rather successfully the public’s feeling and degree of trust towards their security forces, it follows that whenever a decision to use coercion is called for, it will be better accepted by the mainstream population and will not be politically polarized as it is now. Currently, the public (especially in the West) has to rely on “old” impressions to determine whether there is a change in official behaviour or public attitudes.

But in fact there is a change; it comes from the very top. With the government’s commitment not to use disproportionate force to quell the demonstrators, what the Yanukovich administration is saying to Ukrainians – although it also reaches foreign ears – becomes binding. There is, in this sense, a new “social contract” being written, where the security forces serve the political leadership by not accentuating the cleavage between the government and the governed through indiscriminate or disproportionate actions. Much still needs to be done, but a way forward would be to congratulate the Yanukovich government for his position on the use of force, even if we disagree with his decision to go with a customs union with Russia.

Today roughly 200,000 protesters still occupy EuroMaidan, although Western media has long since moved on to other things. This is also a significant change. Ten years ago, the media stuck with the Orange Revolution until Yushenko was elected President of Ukraine. Not this time. Perhaps this is a sign that EuroMaidan protesters may have overdone it. In fact, some have pointed out that if they are not happy with Yanukovich’s decision to join Russia’s customs union, they can still remove him from office in the next election. If Yanukovich was certain of re-election either by fairness or fraud, he wouldn’t tread so cautiously.

The Kyiv Post claims that some 50 protesters and journalists were hurt in clashes related to the protests. Out of the millions who have occupied Kiev’s Maidan, for the last three months, that is still too much, but far from the rampant abuse that we had grown to expect. Very few governments would tolerate such disobedience – no matter how peaceful – over such a long period in the middle of a large metropolis. By comparison, the Federal Bureau of Investigation stormed the David Koresch’s Branch Davidians’ compound after a 51-day standoff in an isolated community in 1993. But the Yanukovich government has remained unmoved, and reports of the fragmenting Maidan Council suggest even more that the nerves – if not the legitimacy – of the movement may be less legitimate than expected also.

What we are witnessing in Ukraine since October 2013 is a relative over-reaction by civil society, and the comparative moderation by the government forces. Perhaps the positive consequences of the negative examples provided by Ceaucescu, Milosevic, Qaddafi, Hussein and sundry third world dictators have reached the attention of the leaders in Ukraine. Or, we may need to revisit our own criteria for branding civil and human rights abusers.



Frederick Labarre is an Associate at the Security Governance Group.