Tuesday saw the resignation of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych’s cabinet, alongside Prime Minister Mykola Azarov, as anti-government protests continued to swell. The same day, Ukraine’s parliament voted to overturn an unpopular anti-protest law.
The move reverses the momentum in a prolonged battle between Yanukovych and a fragmented opposition movement, in which the president’s victory looked inevitable. Two months into a wave of popular protests sparked by Yanukovych’s decision to scuttle an integration agreement with the European Union — which would have set Ukraine on the path to accession — in favor of rapprochement with Moscow, the opposition was fading, weakened by infighting among protest leaders and demoralized by the European Union’s reluctance to intervene. Yanukovych, who obtained a critical bailout package from Russia, was set to sit out the unrest.
So what changed? On January 16, Ukraine’s parliament passed draconian legislation to limit public demonstrations. Widespread outrage was compounded by another curious tactic: text messages sent to cell phones near Euromaidan Square, where protests have been concentrated, alerting their owners that “you are registered as a participant in a mass riot.” Such countermeasures did little to quell anti-government protests, and rallied the opposition’s troops instead. Protests have since spread across the country, reaching as far as the president’s stronghold in eastern Ukraine. Violence from both camps has intensified, and at least five people have died in clashes.
Yanukovych is, for the moment at least, in retreat. The opposition, smelling blood in the water, is pushing for further concessions: constitutional reforms and snap presidential elections. The president’s Party of Regions, which voted to annul anti-protest laws in coordination with opposition deputies, is squirming to end the crisis peacefully. As is Ukraine’s powerful oligarchy, including the country’s richest man Rinat Akhmeto, which is urging the use of dialogue, rather than violence. (The influential oligarchs may yet play a decisive role in Yanukovych’s political fate.) Ukraine’s military has vowed to remain neutral in the conflict.
Here, the likelihood of a neat resolution is slim. The conflict could escalate further — nationalist hardliners have already announced their break with the mainstream, moderate opposition — as the division between (at the risk of over-simplification) pro-Russia East and pro-E.U. West deepens. Even if Kiev can be maneuvered into holding snap elections — and Yanukovych is ousted from office — analysts warn of the risks of economic collapse, particularly if Russia withdraws its aid package. Anxious Brussels, which has long since passed on its chance to step in, will have to wait to see who rises from the ashes.