Is Ukraine on the verge of civil war? Or is the Putin-backed Yanukovych government’s attempted crackdown on a strong and resilient opposition of many thousands of protesters and countless other sympathizers more like the Jaruzelski communist government’s imposition of martial law against Solidarity in 1981 or the Soviets’ invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 or the Red Army’s massacre of Hungarians in 1956? History moved slowly, but by 1989-1991 it was clear which side in the end had prevailed, and it wasn’t the Soviets.
History now is moving faster. Emboldened by Putin’s instructions, Yanukovych on Tuesday attempted to rid central Kiev of its opposition encampments. The brutality backfired, literally as they say, as the determined and resourceful opposition reverted to an uncanny scorched earth policy to stay put. Had it been just these “terrorists” he was up against, Yanukovych might have continued his assault through Wednesday. Instead, late in the days he announced he’d reached a truce of sorts with the opposition. The standoff in central Kiev continues.
At least two factors contributed to the unexpected timeout. One was simply the fact that three leading foreign ministers from the EU were on their way to Kiev to meet today with Yanukevych. The other was the growing number of reports that in at least a half dozen provincial cities west of Kiev opposition sympathizers had taken over central government offices and police headquarters along with healthy amounts of arms and ammunition. At some level Yanukovych knows that he’s facing a revolution (just as many in the opposition have been saying), and that unlike Communist-era strongmen he has no ideological underpinning to fall back on that might justify his continued rule. He’s at best a deeply corrupt oligarch and the object of widespread and deeply felt loathing. His situation is not helped by the fact that he is not authentically Ukrainian, having had to learn the language only when began his presidential run. Nor will anyone ever mistake him for a Russian. He’s in a kind of limbo, undefined. In a genuine civil war it’s brother against brother. In this case, it’s brother against pretender — and puppet-oppressor.
Yanukovych's precarious standing was driven home, moreover, by one of the three EU foreign ministers even before their meeting with him. As the New York Times reported last night (emphasis added):
“Yanukovych claims to be the victim of the radicals of the Maidan, and that he did not want such violence. We accept that the opposition made a mistake,” said Poland’s foreign minister, Radoslaw Sikorski, who is traveling to Kiev to see the Ukrainian president on Thursday morning, along with the with French and German foreign ministers. But, added Mr. Sikorski, who will also meet Mr. Yanukovych’s opponents in an effort to mediate a political settlement, the “president’s credibility with everyone is now zero.”
While the first part of Sikorski’s remarks can be regarded as diplomatic nicety, the concluding part is coldly dismissive. The fact that Yanukovych will go ahead and sit down today with a man who insulted him like that speaks volumes. He might be hoping that the German and French foreign ministers will bail him out.
The conventional wisdom today is that Ukraine is badly divided, between the clearly nationalistic west and center, and the quite Russianized east and south. Superficially, that might make sense. The problem, as with Yanukovych himself, is that it’s never quite clear how to characterize the latter regions. If primarily Russian speaking, they haven’t been revanchist or hostile to rule from Kiev. They’re just sort of there, or so it seems from a distance. But consider. During the Kiev protests we’ve heard countless times as locals fall into a singing of the Ukrainian national anthem. Has anyone from the Yanukovych camp ever thought to do so, assuming they even know the hymn?
In 1977 I spent three months in Kiev. One fellow I got to know was a Russian-speaking thirtysomething adjunct at the Academy of Sciences, where he was in charge of visiting scholars from Germany. What disgruntlement he felt with life under Soviet rule seemed to come down to the fact that certain party types had seen to it that he would never be allowed to travel to East Germany. He still hoped he might someday travel there. That seemed to be the extent of his dreams.
Until the time he took me on a summer picnic, in a nicely isolated forest clearing. Over a big watermelon we got to talking about bigger questions, and soon enough I learned that under his apparent Russian-ness there lurked a real Ukrainian. Next thing I knew he was fervently reciting the great 19th century Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko, who in “My Testament” (1845) wrote:
When I die, bury me
On a grave mound
Amid the wide-wide steppe
In my beloved Ukraine,
In a place from where the wide-tilled fields
And the Dnipro and its steep banks
Can be seen and
Its roaring rapids heard.
When it carries off
The enemy’s blood from Ukraine
To the deep blue sea… I’ll leave
The tilled fields and mountains—
I’ll leave everything behind and ascend
To pray to God
Himself… but till then
I don’t know God.
Bury me and arise, break your chains
And sprinkle your freedom
With the enemy’s evil blood.
And don’t forget to remember me
In the great family,
In a family new and free,
With a kind and quiet word.
It was rather stunning and revealing that beneath this soft-spoken Russianized Ukrainian friend was an intense nationalist and patriot, and he insisted that every Russian-speaking Ukrainian he knew and didn’t know felt the same way. In those days those were forbidden thoughts, this equating of national freedom with the absence of evil Russian blood. I suspect not much has really changed since then and that a Moscow-backed stooge like Yanukovych knows who and what he’s up against.