Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych has been deposed; Maidan demonstrators are “appointing” new ministers; and the Party of Regions, which used to provide the pro-Yanukovych majority in the Verkhovna Rada (parliament), has as good as disappeared. Political analyst Tatiana Stanovaya discusses why the regime, which seemed relatively solid only six months ago, has collapsed, and what lessons other authoritarian leaders should draw from this.



The Ukraine of November 2013 and the Ukraine of February 2014 are two different countries. It’s hard to believe so much change could occur in such a short time. Many details still need to be established, but one can already pinpoint key factors that led to the collapse of Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych’s semi-authoritarian regime. There is no doubt that the Kremlin will study these factors under a microscope, and that measures to prevent the spread of the “revolutionary plague” to Russia will follow.

Since the 2004 Orange Revolution, Ukraine has been living through a long period of political turbulence, the historical meaning of which consisted in two important processes: the formation of a new constitutional system; and the crystallization of a renewed political elite capable of assuming responsibility for the long-term development of the country. The failure of these processes culminated in the 2014 Ukrainian revolution.

The main things historians will likely accuse Victor Yanukovych of are a parasitic style of governing, prioritizing commercial interests over the political, and disregarding the social agenda. The Orange Revolution created a public demand for a strategic vector, whereas the government was only capable of thinking in terms of tactics. It suffices to reference Yanukovych’s flirtation with European integration projects. Launched in 2013, the campaign “We are joining Europe”—one of the official government’s most blatant acts of bluff—turned out to be nothing but a bartering tactic to obtain loans from Moscow and Brussels, and the Ukrainian dream of a European future became a bargaining chip. This was the biggest mistake made by Yanukovych—a man who thought the primary duty of a responsible president consisted in patching the holes in the Ukrainian budget.

The “European dream,” articulated by Yanukovych and then sold at the last moment for a loan from Moscow, ruined his own regime. Thus, the first lesson leaders can draw from Ukraine: A government should not use the expectations of the active part of society as a bargaining chip in obtaining its tactical objectives. Such a policy will instantly destroy the people’s vision of the future, resulting in the mobilization of a protest movement and its acquiring political strength.

The second lesson: Avoid a suicidal economic policy. There are almost no revolutions without an economic basis. The Ukrainian economic situation had been deteriorating for the last few years and grew critical in the fall of 2013. Among other things, Ukraine had accumulated an enormous gas debt to Russia It became evident that the country’s budget deficit exceeded all admissible limits and that there was nothing to cover it. The opposition was accusing the government of concealing the actual state of affairs. The country was in urgent need of external help. The International Monetary Fund and the World Bank demanded that Yanukovych implement unpopular reforms, without which economic catastrophe could not be avoided. More than anything, the opposition was outraged by the corruption: beneficiaries of federal acquisitions were literally pulling the budget apart. Transparency International’s 2013 Corruption Perception Index demonstrates that the conditions for conducting long-term business in Ukraine have deteriorated significantly. Due to protectionism and the fusion of political and business interests, Ukraine found itself in the high-risk group of countries, along with Cameroon, Iran, Nigeria, the Central African Republic, and Papua New Guinea.

Unlike Russia, Ukraine has neither gas nor oil revenues. Ukraine’s critical economic situation shows what might await Russia, though, should there be a drop in world energy prices. A corruption problem not only can destroy an effective economic policy; it also illustrates the government’s moral inadequacy.

The third lesson of the Ukrainian revolution: Businessmen close to the government should not enjoy special privileges at the expense of established business groups. Like Yanukovych’s government, Russian president Vladimir Putin’s regime indulges in such practices as well. The fact that the Donetsk business clan turned its back on Yanukovych for refusing to sign the association agreement with the European Union and openly supported the Maidan movement served as a key factor in the collapse of Yanukovych’s regime. After becoming president, Yanukovych began squeezing out traditional groups of influence and replacing them with a group known as “the family” (with his son Alexander at its head), which appointed its own people for key positions and bought up more and more assets. The untold riches of the deposed president’s son and his cronies are the subject of speculation across Ukraine. Pictures of the “summer house” of Ukraine’s ex-prosecutor-general Viktor Pshonka caused quite a stir.

It was the use of weapons against demonstrators that tipped the scales toward revolution. Whatever the circumstances, the shooting of opposition activists results in the delegitimization of the political leader responsible.

The Ukrainian elite could not but be outraged by the rate at which Yanukovych’s close circle was accumulating wealth. The Donetsk clan, on which Yanukovych once depended, chose to keep its distance from such a government. The clan’s neutrality and its calls to solve conflicts peacefully could be interpreted as veiled support for the Maidan movement. According to the Russian TV channel Dozhd, Rinat Akhmetov, one of Ukraine’s major oligarchs, could not openly support either side of the conflict; however, Yanukovych’s close circle labeled him “dove” and “peacemaker.” Earlier, he publicly called for a peaceful settlement of the political conflict and emphasized that any heavy-handed approach, any use of weapons, would be unacceptable. Ukrainian businessman Vikton Pinchuk also called on those involved in the conflict to find a peaceful solution, and stressed that “for each of us, love for Ukraine must be immeasurably more important than any other feelings and interests.” Petro Poroshenko, whose business was affected by Moscow’s discontent (Russian authorities introduced a ban on imports of confectionery products manufactured by his corporation Roshen), assumed an openly pro-Maidan attitude. On the other hand, another influential oligarch, Dmitri Firtash, was leaning toward a pro-regime position: his Inter TV channel exhaustively covered the first days of Maidan; later, however, the channel switched its focus to Yanukovych. Firtash’s motives are clear: he wanted to keep his options open on the gas market, and consequently, he could not afford marring his relations with the Kremlin.

The fourth lesson: A government should not shoot at its own people. It was the use of weapons against demonstrators that tipped the scales toward revolution. Coverage of the confrontation between the opposition and the government is full of holes. It is known that weapons were used by both sides. The involvement of sharp shooters, however, remains a mystery: each side of the conflict accuses the other of using snipers. Whatever the circumstances, though, the shooting of opposition activists ultimately results in the delegitimization of the political leader responsible.

The erosion of Yanukovych’s government following his refusal to sign the European Union association agreement was fatal for the Ukrainian president. This refusal sharply aggravated conflicts among the elite and provoked clan disputes and the struggle for key government positions. Hence Yanukovych’s doubts about his ability to rely on law enforcement resources. Ukrainian law permitted him to use law enforcement bodies for clearing downtown Kiev without the use of weapons. But Yanukovych could no longer expect to have absolute authority over the police and security forces. Law enforcement authorities were split: some demanded that protest meetings be violently broken up; others opposed going to war against their compatriots. This split marked the beginning of the end of Yanukovych’s regime, despite Moscow’s attempts at encouraging the Ukrainian president to take drastic actions (suffice to recall Russian prime minister Dmitri Medvedev’s call on Yanukovych not to be a “doormat”). A people that has once felt freedom and recognizes its civil and political rights will not tolerate shooting in the streets.

Finally, the fifth lesson lies in the instability of Ukraine’s ruling party, which immediately fell apart after Yanukovych’s capitulation. A significant portion of the Party of Regions caucus was under the control of major oligarchs, who had for a long time been threatening Yanukovych with pulling their people out of the party, which would result in the party losing its majority in parliament. Few expected the Party of Regions to collapse so quickly, though. On February 23, the ruling party accused the president of betraying the country and causing the bloodshed, and on February 24, the leader of the Party of Regions caucus said the party was prepared to vote in favor of sending Yanukovych to the international criminal court. A considerable number of deputies crossed over to Yulia Tymoshenko’s Batkivshchyna party, which has become the major attraction for Ukrainian political forces.

The structure of the ruling party (in an authoritarian system) implies the existence of a strong decision-making center. As soon as this center disappears, the whole political infrastructure of the party collapses. This is another lesson of which Russia should take note, particularly with regard to how United Russia might be at risk in the case of political catastrophe.

Ukraine is entering one of the most difficult periods in its history. Presidential and parliamentary elections should play the main stabilizing role: elections would give legitimacy to the winners of the revolution and create favorable conditions for forming political coalitions. The likelihood of receiving external financial aid, without which the country will face an inevitable default and a social catastrophe, remains the key question. Russia, the United States, and the European Union should forget their geopolitical squabbles and join forces to support the recovery process in Ukraine. As for the Russian political authorities, they should study carefully the lessons provided by the recent events in Ukraine.