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On February 18th-20th confrontation with the police saw Ukraine's long-running anti-government protests transformed into an insurrection. As support for the president, Victor Yanukovych, fractured, a compromise deal with opposition politicians was brokered by the EU. As it did not include the immediate removal of Mr Yanukovych, however, it was always likely to be unacceptable to the more radical "Euromaidan" protesters. That night, the president and most of his cabinet fled the capital, Kiev. The collapse of the Yanukovych government is the most significant political event in Ukraine since independence in 1991. Nonetheless, acute political and economic challenges for the new authorities lay ahead.
At least 25 people were killed on February 18th-19th, as state security forces attempted to remove anti-government protesters from the centre of the capital. They have been camped out in Independence Square (known as Maidan) since late 2013, when Mr Yanukovych, in an unexpected about-face, refused to sign the long-planned association and free-trade deal with the EU. Violence was reignited by the failure of the ruling majority in the Verkhovna Rada (parliament) to countenance a return to the 2004 constitution, which would transfer key presidential powers back to parliament.
After mass shootings, president's ship began to sink
The president's grip on power was weakened decisively following yet more deadly street battles on February 20th. From the side of the square that they still held, in early morning demonstrators' self-defence groups began a co-ordinated counterattack through the thick black smoke of burning tyres. Officers fired live rounds at their advancing opponents, mowing down a large number of them straight away. Still more were killed by police snipers firing from the rooftops in neighbouring streets. Amid scenes of urban warfare, in which they were heavily outgunned, the protesters continued to drive back the security forces. News of high fatalities—at least 50 more people died—saw uprisings take off again in important provincial cities.
In contrast, the institutional support system around the president began to crumble as both ordinary soldiers and army officers refused orders to quell the protests. Rising numbers of deputies from the president's Party of Regions (PoR) began to resign and the media outlets of his main big business allies started to broadcast the protests in a more objective light. This was followed by news of police units declaring their allegiance to the Euromaidan activists. As a result, the president's options narrowed markedly—either to attempt a compromise or to intensify the crackdown.
EU mediates the deal that failed
With violence escalating, the foreign ministers of three EU countries—Poland, France and Germany—rushed to the city to try to mediate a compromise. They shuttled between the opposition and the president through the night and for most of the day of February 21st to come up with a combination a terms that could be backed by all. Radoslaw Sikorski, the Polish foreign minister, had to remind participants that in a compromise, no one gets everything they want. "If you don't support this," he is reported to have told the opposition, "you will have martial law, the army. You'll be dead." The demonstrators' co-ordinating council then gave its go-ahead for the document to be signed. The main features of the deal included a reversion to the 2004 constitution, which provides for a more parliamentary style of rule; the formation of a government with members from the ruling and opposition parties, within ten days; and the holding of a pre-term presidential election, as soon as possible after work on new "balanced" constitution was complete (by December 2014 at the latest).
Soon after, parliament passed a series of laws with extraordinary rapidity—reinstating the 2004 constitution, offering amnesty to all protesters, removing Vitaly Zakarchenko as minister of the interior and releasing Yuliya Tymoshenko, a former prime minster jailed under Mr Yanukovych in a case widely perceived as politically motivated. The session confirmed a key development of the previous day (February 20th), the desertion of the president's supporters, as many members of his PoR voted for these bills.
However, far from all of the protest groups that make up the Euromaidan movement were ready to accept an agreement which left Mr Yanukovych in power, and said so vocally. During the night of February 21st, the president and most of his cabinet fled the city. Police withdrew from Kiev's streets and, the following morning, protesters stood guard in front of key government buildings. Over the weekend of February 22nd-23rd, the Rada continued to pass bills at breakneck speed—relieving Mr Yanukovych of his duties when he refused to resign, setting a date of May 25th for a presidential election and appointing Oleksandr Turchynov, a former head of state security under the premiership of Ms Tymoshenko, as interim president.
It is now probably safe to describe the events of February 18th-23rd as a bona fiderevolution—that is, a mass movement that dislodges by force a government perceived as irredeemably corrupt, with the hope of initiating institutional or systemic change. Despite the speed with which the Yanukovych government collapsed, in the end, continuing attempts to find and arrest him—wherever he is hiding—may be a sideshow. However, his disappearance leaves the new authorities facing a range of daunting challenges with which they will have to get to grips quickly. These include:
- the formation of an effective new government, made harder perhaps by the re-emergence of the freed Ms Tymoshenko, if she decides to stand as a presidential candidate, and the unclear future role of the Euromaidan activists—some of whom will presumably enter formal politics;
- the prevention of financial meltdown—chiefly, the collapse of the hryvnya and a run on the banking system—through the promise and agreement of Western loans in return for reform;
- the calming of the political situation in the Russian-speaking south-east, especially Crimea, and the elaboration of a constitutional settlement amenable to electorates across the country; and
- dealing with Russia's response to the political changes in its neighbour, after what seems like huge foreign policy defeat for the Russian president, Vladimir Putin.
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