Ukraine Crisis: Is a Third 'Maidan' in the Cards?
By Michael Bociurkiw
The move was as bold as it was unexpected.
Several thousand protesters, led by firebrand politician Mikheil Saakashvili and other opposition group members, occupied the heart of Kiev’s government quarter last Tuesday. Quickly setting-up tents, outdoor kitchens and even smuggling in sticks and shields normally used by riot police, the speed at which they settled in suggests law enforcement was either complicit or asleep at the switch.
The atmosphere aroused memories of the Euromaidan revolution in Kyiv of 2013/2014 in which hundreds of thousands of protesters occupied Kiev’s main square for several weeks, eventually forcing out the then corrupt President, Viktor Yanukovych.
Even though the protests have mostly fizzled, the question now is could the current unrest morph into a full-blown crisis for Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and become Ukraine’s third Maidan? Perhaps not.
However one thing is abundantly clear: another mass protest would become a very violent one. Pent up frustrations over the lack of the pace of reforms and the mass circulation of illegal arms create tinder dry conditions for a very dangerous showdown.
Alarm bells should be ringing throughout European capitals.
That possibility could explain why Ukrainian police have taken a relatively soft approach to the protesters - even allowing them to establish a tent city on one of the capital’s busiest streets and adjacent to the parliament. Memories are still very fresh from the previous Maidan protests when police open fired on peaceful civilians, killing at least 100.
What’s more, if the instability spreads, the chaos could be used by Russian President Vladimir Putin, who’s already supporting a violent occupation of eastern Ukraine, to intervene further in the former Soviet republic.
The protesters had three key demands: the creation of an anti-corruption court, the abolition of parliamentary immunity from prosecution, and an overhaul of Ukraine’s electoral legislation to an open-party list. New legislation on impeachment of the president was added later by tent city protesters but is not widely supported.
For parliamentarians the move to strip themselves of immunity from criminal prosecution is a huge deal. To many Ukrainians, the parliament is controlled by oligarchs or their proxies. Whenever Parliament is in session the areas now occupied by the protesters transform into veritable luxury car parking lots. In fact many admit to running for Parliament in order to gain immunity - and presumably - to continue breaking the law and plundering the state treasury with impunity.
Last Thursday legislators voted to send a bill to limit their immunity from prosecution to the Constitutional Court. While the move was cheered by protesters the court is hobbled by the lack of judges with no less than five vacancies. A constitutional amendment on that magnitude could be a long time in coming.
While the parliament did pass crucial healthcare reform laws on Thursday there is still plenty of work to be done to meet opposition leaders’ -and indeed popular - demands. With presidential elections just 20 months away, Poroshenko should push for the electoral reform legislation that was not only a key demand of the Euromaidan protests but which which would make it tougher for corrupt candidates to win office.
Time is no longer on Poroshenko’s side: his brand has been fraying around the edges for months. Last year he was exposed with an offshore trust in the Panama Papers - creating the perception of a man of the Davos elite than as a Euromaidan reformer.
A recent poll placed his ratings below that of former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, the wealthy fashionista who is desperate for a political come back. Creating an odd alliance, she accompanied Saakashvili across the Ukrainian border when he snuck back into the country Sept. 10, a few weeks after being stripped of his Ukrainian citizenship by Poroshenko. Together, the two could make a formidable political force.
Even many Ukrainians journalists have turned against Poroshenko, accusing his administration of harassing them and moving slowly on such cases as journalist Pavel Sheremet, killed in a car bomb in central Kiev in 2014.
Poroshenko is not only losing favour with his traditional political base. There’s growing displeasure among international donors for the “start-stop’ progress on reforms, especially establishing the anti-corruption court. During his visit to North America in September Poroshenko could only muster a smirk and a wink when asked during an interview how quickly he could implement a special trial court or chamber.
To be fair Ukraine is in the midst of a struggle for survival as it tries to resist relentless Russian aggression and interference. But Ukrainian leaders cannot use that battle as a pass to ignore the need for crucial reforms. The Euromaidan revolution wasn't only about closer integration with Europe - it was about eradicating corruption and poor governance, and instituting European norms.
The last thing the country needs right now is another violent revolution that would surely be manipulated by Russia to destabilize its neighbour even further.