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Ukraine at crossroads as Moscow’s man in Kiev exits

Leader's overthrow seen as clear rejection of system modeled on Putin's 'illiberal democracy'

The Observer

Seen from the point of view of President Vladimir Putin, Russia’s foreign policy of late had been enjoying something of a purple patch.

Putin has kept the West at bay over the conflict in Syria for three years and his client, President Bashar Assad, in power thanks to the Russian veto in the U.N. Security Council.

And for a brief period, it appeared Moscow had pulled off another coup — blocking closer integration of Ukraine and the EU while pulling that country closer to his envisioned Eurasian Union, the key front in his effort to reunite in a political and economic bloc as much as possible of the former Soviet Union under Moscow’s tutelage.

But as the Winter Olympics in Sochi ended Sunday, it cannot be ignored that in his latest machinations in neighboring Ukraine, Putin appears to have tripped up. His ally, President Viktor Yanukovych, whom he had sought to prop up with a deal to provide cheap gas and $15 billion in credit, is on the ropes after unleashing lethal force last week against protesters that saw at least 77 killed.

Amid the drama of the last few days, and the whiff of revolution, it is worth voicing caution, however, about what the future holds.

Ukraine has witnessed revolutionary scenes before that failed to bring much political stability. The recent Arab Spring revolutions have shown that an intoxicating sense of liberation from an old guard do not necessarily deliver better political systems — at least in the short term.

What is clear is that with the withdrawal of Moscow’s patronage, Yanukovych looks badly exposed, even among supporters from his own Party of Regions. Following the tentative peace deal between the opposition and Yanukovych on Friday, the country’s parliament delivered a series of humiliating blows to Yanukovych, who had already been forced to agree to revert to the 2004 constitution limiting presidential power.

In quick order, it approved the firing of the interior minister, who led the brutal crackdown. It ordered reparations, too, for all the injured and ordered the release of former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, Yanukovych’s bitter rival. Among those who voted were members of Yanukovych’s own party.

By Saturday afternoon, a special plenary session of parliament had voted by a massive majority to remove Yanukovych, even as the embattled president was in east, rallying his base and accusing his opponents in a televised address of being nationalist “Nazis” responsible for a coup.

None of this will make the solving of Ukraine’s problems any less acute in the months ahead.

While much has been made of differences in Ukraine between its Ukrainian-speaking, largely Catholic west and its industrialized, Russian-speaking east, and between the idea that the west looks toward Europe and the east toward Moscow, Ukraine’s political discontents are more complex and messy.

Anger at the endemic corruption, unaffordable gas subsidies and chronic inequalities is not confined to the west and center.

The reality is that what “pro-Europe” means in the context of Ukraine’s recent political events is not necessarily a concrete or even realistic notion. Instead, it has come to represent a convenient shorthand to encapsulate everything the Yanukovych government is not: embracing ideas such as rule of law; a fairer society where wealth is not simply appropriated by the president’s inner circle; political freedoms and legal accountability.

It represents a rejection, too, of what was becoming an increasingly autocratic system modeled on Putin’s own “illiberal democracy” — as some have called it — whose features are kleptocracy, intolerance and a crackdown on protest and freedom of expression.

It is perhaps this that was most significant in the deal and parliamentary votes last week — a widespread agreement that those features of the Ukrainian political system most like Putin’s Russia should be dismantled.

All of which still leaves many risks ahead.

A feature of Ukraine’s crisis is how protest and violence have become part of a political bargaining process that has seen a cycle of clashes followed by negotiations, purported deals that fall apart and more violence.

Most pressing is whether the country can hold together amid declarations Saturday from political figures in both the east and the Crimea that they now represent the government’s constitutional legitimacy, and calls in some quarters for the establishment of militias.

Equally critical is how Ukraine’s mainstream opposition will deal with a newly empowered — if small — hard-line nationalist movement.

Another problem is one of leadership. While Tymoshenko’s release is to be welcomed, it should also be recalled that the two-time prime minister is a flawed figure whose relentless squabbling with her former Orange Revolution ally, President Viktor Yushchenko, opened the way for Yanukovych’s election in 2010.

Then there is the fundamental issue that Ukraine must negotiate: how a country that has political and trade links with both Europe and with Russia will find a balance between the two forces. While the promise of early elections is welcome, they need to be conducted in a less charged atmosphere to avoid more conflict and violence.

In part, that will depend on whether Moscow is honest and allows the country’s divided electorate to determine its own future. A final question is whether Putin’s stumble in Ukraine will have any ramifications for him closer to home in a Kremlin that draws lessons for Russia from the fate of the post-Soviet order in Ukraine. Moscow will have been deeply unsettled both by the prominent role played by the troika of EU foreign ministers and by the perceived challenge to Russia’s authority in the region.

All of which, taken together, promises fraught months ahead.