Crisis in Ukraine: A personal view

Anti-government protests in Ukraine’s capital of Kiev erupted in late November in Ukraine, which is widely known for its 2004 pro-democracy “Orange Revolution” of successful, peaceful protests and general strikes against election fraud and corruption.

Even though the latest demonstrations have turned deadly, with at least three protesters reported killed by riot police, the protesters continue to turn out, to press for change, in the face of freezing temperatures, threats of arrest and more. Meanwhile, the international community is starting to push for sanctions against the Ukrainian government if its clampdown continues,and there’s talk about supplying financial aid to help Ukraine. On the other hand, Russia has warned the Ukrainian opposition to back off, and President Viktor Yanukovych has complained about “increasing radicalism.”

Yuriy Gorodnichenko and family at a rally

Yuriy Gorodnichenko and family at a rally for human rights in Ukraine.

Yuriy Gorodnichenko, a UC Berkeley associate professor of economics and a native of Ukraine, recently gave a public lecture on campus about what’s happening in his homeland. His talk was organized by Berkeley’s Institute of Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies (ISEEES), and cosponsored by the EU Center as part of its Rapid Response Forum – a series designed to present timely scholarly analysis on current affairs to the campus and broader public communities. Check both hyperlinked sites for upcoming events and other information..

UC Berkeley Public Affairs followed up with Gorodnichenko with the following Q&A.

What triggered the protests in Ukraine?

The protests started spontaneously after Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych and his government decided to postpone signing an association agreement with the European Union (EU), thus denying millions of people the prospect of building a just, peaceful and democratic society in the country. Many people felt that this association was going to work like an anchor pulling all forces in Ukraine towards political and economic progress.

But these hopes were dashed when Yanukovych and his party accepted a loan and reduced price for gas from the Russian government in exchange for not strengthening the links to the EU. What ultimately brought the most people into the streets were the brutal and violent methods authorities employed against the initial protests. These illustrated yet again the repressive nature of the Yanukovych regime and convinced broad segments of the population to stand up against it.

How have government arrests and imprisonment of protesters impacted demonstrations?

Mr. Yanukovych and his government thought that using force was going to put out the protest, but instead it took the protest to a completely different level. New anti-protest laws are totally deplorable and epitomize Yanukovych’s rule: intimidate rather than negotiate or persuade. Mr. Yanukovych is losing legitimacy even among his previous supporters and these new laws only made the protests stronger.

Although he just repealed these anti-protest laws that he recently enacted, Mr. Yanukovych has ignored laws that he signed granting amnesty to protesters.


Despite freezing cold and the threat of arrest or worse, protesters continue to demonstrate for change in Ukraine.

While EU aspirations continue to play a role, the protests are now about civil rights and freedoms. People do not want to live in fear of being abducted, tortured or imprisoned for speaking out their thoughts, for having a meeting, for wearing a helmet, for disagreeing with the government. They want to have a just and free society.

What might have satisfied protesters a few months ago (a return to negotiations with EU and resignation of those responsible for the abuse of force) is not enough now. The country needs to reload its government and political system. Mr. Yanukovych fails to recognize these demands or that escalated use of force will lead to greater resistance of the Ukrainian people.

How much of what is happening is about President Yanukovych, Ukrainian oligarchs, Russian President Vladimir Putin or Ukraine’s own ethnic divisions?

While Ukraine is divided linguistically, it is not divided in people’s aspiration to have a better, free country. In the past, Yanukovych appealed to his electoral base in the East and South of Ukraine (predominantly Russian speaking regions) by promising closer ties with Russia. But I believe his abuse of power, rampant corruption, excessive use of force, and reliance on criminals to intimidate ordinary folks turned millions of people away from him.

Yanukovych is rapidly losing legitimacy in the eyes of millions of people. This is reflected in the increasingly widespread protests, even in the Eastern parts of Ukraine that have traditionally been Yanukovych’s base of support.

The most important task now is to arrange a peaceful exit for Mr. Yanukovych. I cannot imagine that he will resign by himself, but he will if he feels isolated and powerless, if he does not have support of oligarchs, who are his main backers, and of Putin. Thus, efforts to ensure a peaceful solution to the conflict must focus on convincing oligarchs and Russia that it is in their best interests to have this peaceful solution. This is where the help of international community is needed most critically.

In the wake of developments in Egypt and Libya, there seems to be media and public fatigue and/or skepticism about large-scale protests to dramatically influence politics or to oust unpopular/dictatorial leaders. Is Ukraine different?

I can understand the fatigue, but these comparisons are not appropriate. Ukraine is culturally and institutionally different from countries in North Africa and Middle East. For example, military or religious forces have never played an important role in Ukrainian politics. Also, before Mr. Yanukovych was freely and democratically elected the president in 2010, Ukraine did not have a history of violence, coups or anything like that. In fact, Ukraine was one of the most free and democratic post-Soviet countries.

The Orange Revolution in 2004 was a very important step toward building a civic society. People understood that they have a voice and rights. That changed the fabric of Ukrainian society. Indeed, the public involvement with social issues now is larger than during the Orange Revolution.

These protests will be a powerful vaccine against authoritarianism and corruption. Many Ukrainians view themselves as Europeans and this gives me hope that current protests will lead to progress rather than more violence.

Ukraine map

Ukraine’s geography and its border with Russia tells part of the story of what’s happening there.

What’s at stake for the people of Ukraine?

Ukraine may end up having a civil war, a dictatorship, a bloody retribution to the current government, or a peaceful resolution. I hope the latter will be the case, but unfortunately I can’t rule out other scenarios.

And for Russia?

Ukraine and Russia have much in common culturally, historically and economically. Whatever happens in Ukraine is likely to have important implications for Russia. If peace and democracy prevail in Ukraine, sooner or later Russia will also become a free and democratic country. If it can work in Ukraine, why shouldn’t it work in Russia?

What’s at stake for Europe?

Twenty years ago Europe was divided into many political camps and the situation was dangerous and explosive. The fall of the Berlin Wall led to a wave of democratization in Eastern Europe, and Europe became a much safer place.

However, the legacy of the Soviet past still haunted the former Soviet Republics belonging to in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), and this is a source of tensions. The success of peaceful protesters in Ukraine could start a new wave of democratization in Europe and could be as important as the fall of the Berlin Wall.

What’s at stake for the United States?

Obviously, the U.S. and Europe are interested in a stable and strong Ukraine. Nobody wants to have another Syria or Yugoslavia, and everybody wants a peaceful resolution. I understand that U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry observed recently that the concessions made by President Yanukovych are not sufficient to reach peace. I can’t agree more. I hope Kerry’s remarks and, if necessary, further steps of the U.S. government will persuade Yanukovych to be more receptive to protesters’ demands.

You study political economies. From that standpoint, what are the best options for Ukraine, considering its unsteady financial footing?

Arseniy Yatsenyuk, an opposition leader, said Ukraine needs “a Marshall Plan, not martial law,” referring to the post-World War II U.S. aid program for Europe. There are many ways to arrange it.  Aid can come from the International Monetary Fund, World Bank, European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, or individual countries. This is entirely doable. I do not see a viable alternative to association with Europe.

injured protesters

Protesters have been injured, and three have been killed, since demonstrations began in late November.

You support the protests. Why?

I support the protests, but not violence. Mr. Yanukovych and his government have not made any genuine effort to bring reconciliation to the country. Instead, they have fueled the conflict and terror campaigns to instill fear in anybody who may show signs of dissent. I could not have imagined that Ukraine is going to have government-sponsored death squadrons that kidnap, torture and even murder activists, journalists, and just innocent people. But this is the new, utterly appalling reality created by Mr. Yanukovych. There has to be change and Mr. Yanukovych must leave.

If protests succeed in a peaceful way, it will open a unique opportunity for Ukraine to turn this dark page of our history and modernize. The history of other post-communist countries in the region shows that using force is likely to leave deep wounds and mistrust for decades to come.

How do you stay informed about what’s happening?

With the Internet, I can get information in real time. Plus, I have been spending hours on the phone with my family and friends in Ukraine.

Are you hopeful about resolution of this crisis?

Unfortunately, anything can happen, even the worst case scenarios. But the amazing unity of protesters from all parts of Ukraine and their tremendous efforts to keep it peaceful, despite all sorts of provocations, make me feel hopeful. The vast majority of people are not interested in having a bloodbath and the sanity of this majority must prevail.

Is there a particular story that you have heard from family, friends or others in Ukraine that makes you especially optimistic?

I can’t stop admiring the peaceful nature of the protests. Many of my friends are faculty in Ukrainian universities. At the height of the crisis, when it seemed that everything was going to hell, they created an “open university” at Maidan Square (or Independence Square as it was named after Ukraine broke from Russia in 1991), the center of protests in Kiev. They gave free lectures on economics and political science. Anybody interested could come. Lots of people showed up. People were not interested in violence. They were interested in learning something new. That was truly remarkable.