February 19, 2014, by Lindsay Brooke

Is Ukraine governable?

The tragic events that unfolded in Kyiv on 18-19 February, in which at least 26 lives were lost including 12 police officers, begs the question as to whether Ukraine is governable. This latest wave of violence was started by radical elements amongst the protestors who having marched on the parliament were furious to learn that lawmakers were not even going to be allowed by the Speaker of parliament to debate opposition bills to reform the constitution in order to reduce the powers of the presidency which might have formed a basis for a new coalition government. Encouraged by the west, two opposition political leaders met Angela Merkel on Monday, the protest movement anticipated not only a change in government and the constitution but a ‘reset’ in the country’s entire political system. However, the authorities had other ideas. Riot police prevented the storming of the parliament and used the protestors’ assault as a pretext to attempt to remove the protest camp that has existed in Independence Square since late November. This process continues as I write.

This is an existential struggle: on the one hand the protestors believe the authorities are ‘criminal’ and can therefore be legitimately overthrown and on the other hand the authorities believe the protestors are ‘terrorists’ trying to stage a coup d’état against the country’s democratically elected and therefore legitimate government. The violence on the streets in Kyiv and elsewhere is likely to further entrench these beliefs.

The answer to the question as to whether the country is governable depends on two issues. Firstly, will the security operation succeed in containing opposition not only in Kyiv but in the cities in the west and centre of the country? Secondly, if it does succeed, will this demonstration of power provoke some form of insurgency which could result in the break-up of the country?

Whilst only around half of the country’s population are believed to support the protestors, the ruling Party of the Regions is woefully lacking in supporters in Kyiv and in the west and centre of the country. President Yanukovych was effectively forced to decide whether to cede or exercise his powers. Since the protest movement began the authorities, with the exception of 30 November when the riot police forcibly tried to clear the square in the middle of the night, have tried to avoid appearing authoritarian. It is perhaps surprising that the authorities did not try to contain the protestors sooner when lethal force would not have been necessary. What the protest movement and the violence have demonstrated is that Ukraine is a weak rather than an authoritarian state. The state lacks resources and capacity, the economy continues to suffer from the global financial crisis, and the people are poor.

This weakness in part stems from the way both Russia and the west have tried to force Ukraine to decide whether it pivots to the east or to the west. Russia used trade restrictions and energy policy to undermine Ukraine’s already weak economy to persuade it not to sign an Association Agreement with the EU. For its part the west has undermined the legitimacy of the country’s political and economic elites destabilising the state sufficiently to prevent it from joining the Russian led Customs Union. The results of these geopolitical power plays are to be seen in the streets, morgues and hospitals of Kyiv. A weak state combined with Russia and the west fighting each other for influence in Ukraine has reduced this young European nation to its knees.

Blogpost by Adam Swain, School of Geography, University of Nottingham, 1600 GMT, 19 Feb 2014

Posted in PoliticsResearch news