Four days after President Viktor Yanukovych was ousted from power — despite a concession deal reached with opposition leaders, which was subsequently rejected by the protesters massing at Kiev’s Maidan Square — Ukraine’s political landscape is looking very different. Cluttered, even. An interim government has been formed, which wasted no time in cleaning house after three months of anti-government protests, which turned deadly last week. With former parliamentary speaker Oleksandr Turchynov at its helm, Ukraine’s transitional leadership has announced it hopes to send the former president to The Hague to face mass murder charges. Yanukovych is on the run, with speculation mounting that he is hiding somewhere in Crimea, long a presidential bastion of support. Ukraine’s parliament also voted to send two top Yanukovych allies — former interior minister Vitali Zakharchenko and former prosecutor general Viktor Pshonka — to the international criminal court.
VISUAL CONTEXT: Division in Ukraine
On Wednesday, Turchynov, now head of Ukraine’s armed forced, dismissed the country’s infamous Berkut riot police for allegedly stoking the violence that left at least 82 dead in last week’s protests. On Thursday, he is expected to announce the country’s new unity government, and notably a new prime minister, which will run Ukraine until emergency presidential elections are held on May 25. Here we explore the major players:
Who is Olexander Turchynov?
The political evolution of Ukraine’s new interim leader is intertwined with that of Yanukovych’s chief rival, former premier Julia Timoshenko, who was jailed on what many analysts view as politically motivated charges in 2011. Timoshenko’s sentencing proved a key factor behind the unraveling of Yanukovych’s government: her provisional release to seek medical treatment abroad was a precondition of landmark trade deals with the European Union. Yanukovych’s refusal to release the former prime minister, even temporarily, foreshadowed his eventual rejection of the E.U. deals — a move that would unleash heated protests in Kiev, which eventually spread to other major cities in Ukraine.
Turchynov is considered to be Timoshenko’s right-hand man, and co-founded her Batkivshchyna (“Fatherland”) party. That close relationship has detractors concerned that Turchynov is merely prepping the stage for Timoshenko’s return to power. Turchynov himself enjoys less popularity in Kiev, where he is distrusted by many of the Maidan protestors (whom he told to “go home” after Yanukovych’s ouster Saturday).
So where is Timoshenko?
Ukraine’s parliament voted to free Timoshenko Saturday, the same day it moved to remove Yanukovych from power. The wheelchair-bound former premier — who has been suffering from severe back pain throughout her imprisonment – greeted thousands of protesters at Maidan this weekend, telling them “You are all heros. This is your victory.” Timoshenko has withdrawn her name for consideration for the prime minister, presumably setting her sights instead on the presidency in May. Though she has a sizeable support base, some skeptics are calling for her to step down and allow a new generation of leaders to emerge
What about the opposition figures who led the protests at Maidan?
The opposition leaders — former boxing champion Vitaly Klitschko and head of the second-largest opposition group in parliament, after Fatherland, former economy minister Arseny Yatsenyuk (who led Fatherland in Timoshenko’s absence) and far-right nationalist Oleg Tyahnibok — are being increasingly nudged out of the picture after the deal they reached with Yanukovych Friday was booed down by protesters. The most resilient figure looks to be Klitschko who, unlike his fellow oppo leaders, stayed in Maidan Friday night to apologize to the hostile crowd for shaking hands with the president. With Timoshenko back, however, Klitschko may grapple to maintain his momentum as a driving force behind Ukraine’s protest movement. Yatsenyuk is reportedly vying for the premiership.
Will Ukraine’s new unity government include Yanukovych’s supporters?
Not likely. Along with Zarharchenko and Pshonka, Ukraine’s parliament has dismissed Yanukovych’s foreign minister Leonid Kozhara, his education minister Dmytro Tabachnyk, and his health minister, Raisa Bohatyriova. Though E.U. foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton is urging Ukraine’s new leaders to include representatives from the former president’s cabinet, the make-up of the interim government so far leaves little room for the former ruling party. Timoshenko’s Fatherland Party is set to dominate, having already been appointed key positions like acting interior minister, central bank governor and parliamentary speaker. That said, there may be room for those members of Yanukovych’s Party of Regions who were quick to jump ship and voted to oust their former leader.
So who will run for president in May?
Klitschko has confirmed that he will run; Timoshenko is expected to make a presidential bid as well. Amid the current political jockeying in Kiev, as other figures scramble for key positions in the new government, campaigning for the emergency election officially kicked off on Tuesday.
Does this mean the crisis is over?
No. Ukraine’s interim government faces a daunting set of challenges: ease separatist tensions in the south and east of Ukraine, where many residents are loyal to Moscow, and calm political infighting in Kiev; meet the country’s pressing financial imperatives (Kiev has reportedly requested as much as $35 billion from Western states to forestall a major financial crisis); restore stability and repair Ukraine’s flailing institutions, notably corrupt security forces and judiciary; and avoid an all out conflagration with Russia. In other words, the real struggle has just begun.
Speaking of Russia, what is Moscow’s stance on the new government?
One need look no further than western Russia, where President Vladimir Putin gathered troops Wednesday to test their combat readiness, for an indication of the Kremlin’s alarm and resolve. After all, Moscow has a lot of stake here – economic and political influence in the region, a buffer between Russia and Western Europe, critical navy outposts in Crimea, a Russia-led trading union, and most importantly, the legacy of a dominant Russian empire from which Ukraine was ‘accidentally’ removed. Correspondingly, the rhetoric from Moscow has focused on delegitimizing Yanukovych’s fall from grace, with Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev calling the Ukrainian leader’s ouster an “armed uprising” and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov condemning the “nationalist and neo-facscist” sentiment prevailing in western Ukraine.
Saber rattling aside, however, it’s unlikely that Putin will risk regional stability and his cherished Eurasian customs union for a military confrontation with Kiev. Equally unpalatable is cooperation with Ukraine’s new government. Look instead for more indirect pressure to come from Moscow in line with its recent suspension of a $15 billion bailout package (i.e., imposing bans on Ukrainian imports) as it lets Kiev – and the European Union – struggle with restoring political and economic stability to Ukraine.