2010-2014: The Yanukovych Presidency
Early Moves toward Moscow
March 2010: Yanukovych’s first foreign trip as head of state is to Brussels, where he stresses the priority of integrating Ukraine with the European Union, but also says he wants to strengthen ties with Russia at the same time. His “all things to all people” approach does not extend to NATO, however, and the new Ukrainian president snubs the Western alliance by not even dropping by its headquarters during his visit to Belgium.
The Verkhovna Rada passes a motion of no-confidence in the Tymoshenko government by 243 votes out of 450, and Tymoshenko resigns as premier. Ex-President Yushchenko warns that Tymoshenko’s leadership of the opposition will end in disaster, because every political force that has allied with Tymoshenko has “ended badly.”
April 2010: Russia and Ukraine sign the “Kharkiv Pact” – formally, the “Agreement between Ukraine and Russia on the Black Sea Fleet in Ukraine” – providing for the Russian lease on naval facilities in Crimea (agreed in 1997) to extend beyond 2017 to 2042. The pact contains a five-year renewal option, whereby, if the Russian government chooses to renew the lease, it will also provide Ukraine with heavily discounted natural gas – cutting the price Kyiv pays per 1,000 cubic meters by $100 to $230. Pro-Western forces in Ukraine decry the treaty as a betrayal of national interests.
May 2010: The Ukrainian prosecutor’s office reopens a 2004 criminal case against Tymoshenko alleging that she tried to bribe Supreme Court judges.
October 2010: The Constitutional Court of Ukraine overturns the 2004 amendments to the Ukrainian constitution limiting the powers of the president, ruling them unconstitutional. This sets the stage for the return of the presidential system and “power vertical” in Ukraine.
December 2010: The Prosecutor-General’s Office opens a criminal case against Tymoshenko, alleging she has misused funds received by the state under the auspices of the Kyoto Protocol. Tymoshenko is officially charged and ordered not to leave Kyiv while the investigation is ongoing. Two of the ministers from her last government are also charged with criminal offenses.
January 2011: New charges are opened against Tymoshenko alleging she used 1,000 medical vehicles for campaigning in the 2010 presidential election.
April 2011: A third criminal case is opened against Tymoshenko in connection the 2009 gas dispute with Russia, alleging she abused her power as prime minister, and Tymoshenko is charged in this third criminal case. Tymoshenko sues Dmytro Firtash and RosUkrEnergo in US District Court in Manhattan, accusing them of “defrauding Ukraine’s citizenry.”
June 2011: Tymoshenko’s trial for “abuse of office” starts in connection with the contracts for gas supplies concluded with Gazprom in 2009. She is charged with abuse of power and embezzlement. Viktor Yushchenko testifies against her in the trial, describing it as a “normal judicial process.” A number of foreign governments, including the US, UK, Germany, Italy, Spain and Russia, describe the proceedings as “selective justice” and “political persecution.” NATO, the EU and the European People’s Party make similar statements, along with major international human rights bodies and democracy promotion groups.
July 2011: The SBU opens a criminal investigation into alleged non-delivery of goods by United Energy Systems of Ukraine (UESU) in 1998 to Russia for $405.5 million.
October 2011: The court finds Tymoshenko guilty of abuse of power, sentences her to seven years in prison and orders her to pay the state $188 million. A 2001 criminal case on state funds embezzlement and tax evasion is then reopened against Tymoshenko, and she files an appeal with the Pechersk District Court in the “gas case.”
The Tymoshenko ‘Abuse of Power’ Case
The case against Yulia Tymoshenko hinged on two articles of the Criminal Code of Ukraine, namely, 364 (abuse of power) and 365 (administrative excess). The reason Western governments and human rights organizations found her conviction outrageous was that the prosecution had failed to establish the element of ‘personal benefit’ in Tymoshenko’s actions as prime minister, when she had instructed the head of Ukraine’s state-owned Naftogaz enterprise to sign an agreement with its Russian counterpart, Gazprom. Because the deal had the effect of eventually raising the price that Ukraine had to pay Russia for natural gas imports, many assumed she had acted to make money on the deal. But she had not. In fact, a credible interpretation of the affair was that – in concluding the deal with Russia, represented by her formal counterpart, Vladimir Putin – she had acted upon the assumption that she would succeed Viktor Yushchenko as president of Ukraine, and would normalize the gas import relationship with Russia quickly (something the Russian leadership also wanted). When she did not win the presidential election, she found herself at the mercy of her political enemies, and became the target of several prosecutions. The West deemed her conviction and imprisonment to be “politically motivated” because (a) she and Yanukovych were political rivals, and (b) there was never even any serious attempt on the part of the prosecution to prove that she had acted out of a desire for personal enrichment or advantage. That the Yanukovych authorities could maintain an ‘abuse of power’ conviction as due process made it seem to the outside world that Ukraine’s cultural differences with the West were formidable, to say the least.
November 2011: The Ukrainian tax police resume four criminal cases against Tymoshenko, who is charged with embezzlement and tax evasion.
December 2011: Tymoshenko is rearrested while in prison, after a Ukrainian court orders her indefinite arrest as part of an investigation of alleged tax evasion and theft of government funds from 1996-2000 by UESU. She loses her appeal against the abuse of power charges and lodges a complaint against the verdict at the European Court for Human Rights (EHCR), which is given priority treatment by the court. She also loses her appeal on the same day in the Pechersk District Court. Tymoshenko is then transferred to the Kachanivska penal colony in Kharkiv.
January 2012: Tymoshenko’s husband Oleksandr Tymoshenko is granted asylum in the Czech Republic, and Yulia Tymoshenko’s defense submits an appeal to the High Specialization Court for Civil and Criminal Cases regarding the “gas case” verdict.
April 2012: The General Prosecutor’s Office begins examining the possible involvement of Tymoshenko and former Prime Minister Pavlo Lazarenko in the murder of Donetsk businessman Oleksandr Momot, a prominent figure in the Industrial Union of Donbas, in 1996. A trial concerning the criminal investigation into alleged misappropriation of public funds by United Energy Systems of Ukraine starts in Kharkiv. Tymoshenko refuses to attend the trial, citing problems with her health. Tymoshenko is then moved against her will from Kachanivska prison to a hospital where she begins a hunger strike on 20 April to protest – according to her lawyer Serhiy Vlasenko – “what is happening in the country and what is happening to her in prison.”
May 2012: The Ukrainian government selects the American petroleum corporation Chevron as a partner for a project in western Ukraine to develop a shale-gas field using hydraulic fracturing (‘fracking’) technology. If successful, the project will reduce Ukraine’s dependence on Russian energy.
Tymoshenko ends the hunger strike and begins receiving treatment at the hospital after being diagnosed with a spinal disc herniation.
August 2012: The Supreme Court of Ukraine upholds the verdict against Tymoshenko on the abuse of power charge. On the same day, the High Specialized Court for Civil and Criminal Cases rejects her appeal in the “gas case.” International criticism is directed at Ukraine from a number of Western governments, PACE and the EU over the rulings. The EU shelves the EU Association Agreement and the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (DCFTA) over the affair, and makes their signature conditional upon Tymoshenko’s release from prison. PACE recognizes her as a political prisoner on the grounds that political and criminal responsibility should be kept separate.
October 2012: Ukrainian parliamentary elections deliver the largest number of seats to the Party of Regions (185), and in combination with the Communists (37) and MPs elected from single-mandate constituencies, a pro-Yanukovych government is formed, led by Donetsk native and former Finance Minister Mykola Azarov. Although Batkivshchyna claims the second largest number of seats (101), its share has declined by 55. Furthermore, the new Verkhovna Rada sees the advent of a reformed ultra-nationalist party, Svoboda (‘Freedom’), which enters the legislature with a vocal minority of 37 seats. In addition, the new Ukrainian Democratic Alliance for Reform party (going by the acronym UDAR, meaning ‘punch’ in Ukrainian) enters parliament, led by WBC heavyweight boxing champion Vitaliy Klitschko, who is a citizen of Germany and does not hold Ukrainian citizenship.
Svoboda appeared in the elections of 2012 as the new incarnation of the old Social-National Party of Ukraine (SNPU), which had begun as a movement in Lviv in 1991, registered as a party in 1995, and adopted the most radically anti-Russian stance of any party in Ukraine’s political spectrum. It did not admit non-Ukrainians, atheists or anyone who had ever been a member of the Communist Party. It based its ideology on the thoughts and writings of WWII-era OUN politician Yaroslav Stetsko.
The SNPU, and Svoboda after it, vocally advocated the rehabilitation of Ukrainian historical figures who had fought against the Soviet Union alongside Nazi Germany in World War II, in particular Stepan Bandera. They also favored granting veteran status to former anti-Soviet Ukrainian partisans and soldiers who were still alive, thereby assuring that such ancient retirees received pensions.
This policy had been favored by Viktor Yushchenko (considered a mainstream politician) during his presidency, but remained controversial, as it included former members of the SS Galicia Division, still anathema to many citizens of Ukraine in the 21st century.
The SNPU had never garnered more than two tenths of a percentage point in any national election in Ukraine. Its leader, Oleh Tyahnibok, had been an MP before, winning election to the Verkhovna Rada from a single-mandate constituency in western Ukraine. But at best, the party had been a fringe organization, alienating mainstream voters with the pagan, swastika-like, German Wolfsangel motif as its party symbol. By 2012, the party had been renamed, and the Wolfsangel had been replaced with a friendlier yellow hand with three fingers raised, signifying the Ukrainian trident symbol. In 2012, two years into the presidency of Viktor Yanukovych, the party managed to win more than 10% of the vote. The party’s manifesto contained certain eyebrow-raising tenets, such as the total abolition of Crimean autonomy and the designation of ethnic origin (Ukrainian, Russian, Jew, Tatar) in the identity papers of Ukrainian citizens – a nationalist version of the Soviet policy of including “nationality” in passports.
Svoboda quickly became the subject of various scandals that reached world headlines following its entry into the Verkhovna Rada in 2012. Most notable, perhaps, was the statement by pony-tailed MP Ihor Myroshnychenko that naturalized Ukrainian-American actress Mila Kunis was not a Ukrainian but a “zhydovka.” The word “zhyd” – although used in several central European countries to refer to Jews – is considered a pejorative in Russia (the equivalent of ‘yid’), and “zhydovka” is the feminine form. The image of the Svoboda party consequently became linked to anti-Semitism in the eyes of many outside observers.
Perhaps the most damning aspect of Svoboda was the fact that – as a party – it was a convenient bogey for the pro-Russian president and government, who could always point to Svoboda as a menace to the humanity and dignity of Ukraine’s millions of law-abiding ex-Soviet pensioners whenever they felt threatened by pro-Western nationalist forces in Ukraine, of whom Svoboda was undeniably a part. Furthermore, Svoboda’s policies did not always run counter to those of Moscow. For example, when the Yanukovych government began to look for sources of energy to replace Russian gas and thereby reduce Ukrainian dependence on Russia, Svoboda came out loudly against such plans on environmental grounds, and took its case to court. While it is perhaps unreasonable to suggest that Svoboda was actually a tool of Yanukovych, it is fair to say the party was in many ways useful to him. Parliamentary elections in the aftermath of the overthrow of Viktor Yanukovych did not return Svoboda to parliament as a party.
December 2012: The Batkivshchyna United Opposition nominates Tymoshenko as its candidate for the Ukrainian presidential elections scheduled for 2015.
January 2013: Tymoshenko is notified in prison that she is a suspect in the murder of businessman and lawyer Yevhen Shcherban, his wife and two other people in 1996.
The Ukrainian government approves a production-sharing agreement (PSA) with Western oil company Royal Dutch Shell to develop the Yuzivska shale-gas field in eastern Ukraine. The deal is worth an estimated $10 billion, and – if approved by Shell – will use controversial technology known as hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking.” The Kharkiv branch of Svoboda prepares to challenge the project in court, arguing that it threatens to contaminate soil and water. Svoboda argues that there are no public regulators or mechanisms for informing Ukrainian citizens on the issue. The party also warns publicly that “a foreign company and its Ukrainian partner” are taking over part of the country’s energy sector.
February 2013: The European Union issues a deadline for Ukraine to meet the criteria for entering into a political and trade agreement with the EU. Yanukovych says he believes that the outstanding issues, including reforms of the judiciary and electoral system, can be solved by November.
April 2013: Yanukovych frees from prison several political figures deemed by Brussels to be political prisoners, including former Minister of Internal Affairs Yuriy Lutsenko (a prominent member of Batkivshchyna imprisoned in 2010 for abuse of office), former Ecology Minister Heorhiy Filipchuk, and several others. Yulia Tymoshenko, however, remains behind bars along with several other high-profile people. The release of these figures is one of the EU’s demands for meeting the criteria for an agreement to deepen trade and investment relations between Kyiv and Brussels.
Kyiv’s overtures toward Brussels have irked the Kremlin, which wants Ukraine to join the Moscow-centered Eurasian Customs Union (a precursor to its planned ‘Eurasian Union’ consisting of the biggest ex-Soviet economies and other ex-Soviet states), foregoing closer association with the EU. Although opposed to NATO membership for Ukraine, Yanukovych has been consistent in his declared intention to integrate his country with the EU.
July 2013: In the first overt, high-profile sign of pressure on Ukraine from Moscow, the Russian government bans products from one of Ukraine’s largest confectionery companies, Roshen, owned by (and partially named after) former National Security and Defense Council Secretary Petro Poroshenko. Russia alleges that Roshen’s sweets contain carcinogens. In response, Roshen announces it will lay off 400 workers.
August 2013: Russia suddenly institutes a policy of stopping all Ukrainian imports at the Russia-Ukraine border for rigorous customs inspections. Kremlin economic adviser Sergei Glazyev announces that new Russian trade restrictions on Ukraine are a warning to Kyiv not to sign an association agreement with the EU. Russia accounts for a quarter of Ukrainian exports, and Ukraine’s main employers are beginning to make noise about the costs of Russian trade policy on their businesses and Ukraine’s economy. The giant steel plant Zaporizhstal pre-emptively halts exports to Russia, and its parent company, Metinvest (owned by Ukraine’s richest man, Rinat Akhmetov) complains about delays and damages to its goods when searched by Russian customs officials at the border. Russia’s embargoes on Ukrainian goods reduce Russo-Ukrainian trade by an estimated 25%.
September 2013: European leaders meet in Yalta, Crimea, in the same palace where Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin met to carve up Europe in the final year of WWII. As western European politicians encourage the Ukrainian elite to move closer to Brussels and away from Moscow, Sergey Glazyev finds himself the target of heated accusations. Petro Poroshenko, a former trade minister, gives Glazyev a sharp rebuke in front of everyone present, accusing him of forcing Ukraine toward the West with its heavy-handedness. “For the first time in our history more than 50% of people support European integration, and less than 30% of the people support closer ties with Russia,” says Poroshenko. “Thank you very much for that Mr Glazyev.”
October 2013: Gazprom CEO Alexei Miller announces publicly that Ukraine has failed to pay $882 million for gas deliveries due by October 1st. Miller describes the current situation as “a dire state of affairs” and says that the issue “has to be addressed and settled quickly.”
November 2013: A public opinion poll conducted by the Ukraine-based GfK market research company indicates that 45% of Ukrainians support signing the Association Agreement (AA) with the European Union. 14% support Ukraine joining the Moscow-sponsored Customs Union, while 15% believe Ukraine should not join any alliances. The remainder of respondents are undecided. 54% of Ukrainians who believe the country should sign the AA also hope that Ukraine subsequently becomes a member of the European Union. 8% do not support Ukraine joining the EU after signing the AA.
November 21: The Ukrainian government suspends work on the AA with the European Union and declares its intention to significantly improve trade and economic relations with Russia and CIS countries. Kyiv says that Ukraine’s economy would incur considerable losses if the association agreement with EU were to be signed.
The Ukraine-EU Association Agreement
The AA is a type of pact designed to more closely integrate the European Union with Ukraine and other ex-Soviet states. In November 2013, the pact addressed economic policy, legislation, labor rights, visa-free travel, information and personnel exchanges in the judicial sector, modernization of Ukraine’s energy infrastructure and access to the European Investment Bank (EIB). It also required Ukraine to gradually conform to the EU’s Common Security and Defense Policy. Yanukovych had consistently spoken in favor of such closer ties during his run for president in 2010, and even after becoming president. When his government suddenly suspended preparations to sign the AA, it sent ripples of shock through the EU member state governments. It also proved to be his political undoing.
The agreement would have required Ukraine to standardize its economy with the EU. For smaller ex-Soviet countries such as Georgia and Moldova – like the Baltic states before them – this process was economically feasible in the short to medium term. But in a country the size of Ukraine, such a process would require tens of billions of euros at a very minimum. The EU was offering know-how and political support, but little in the way of financial aid. Ukraine’s state coffers were now apparently empty, and without massive aid from the West, Yanukovych ultimately decided that his country would be unable to survive the extreme austerity necessary to fully comply with the AA’s terms.
The Russian regime also had concerns, since a free trade regime between Ukraine and the EU – operating concurrently with a relatively open border between Russia and Ukraine – would open the possibility of Western goods being dumped onto the Russian market, to the detriment of Russian business. Putin publicly warned that this was unacceptable to Moscow. In the week before November 21st, Yanukovych visited Moscow to meet with Putin and receive this message in person.
The AA had been initialed in March 2012, but as of November the same year, it had still not been signed. At the request of the Ukrainian opposition, EU leaders had already boycotted the UEFA 2012 soccer tournament’s Ukraine-hosted matches (the other co-host country being Poland) in protest. The continued incarceration of Yulia Tymoshenko was clearly a sticking point (the Ukrainian government occasionally insisting that no preconditions could be set for Ukraine signing the AA), and economic factors were clearly an issue as well. In February 2013, the Verkhovna Rada voted by 315 out of 349 to push ahead with implementing the EU Foreign Affairs Council’s recommendations for complying with the AA. But at the same time, Yanukovych was in Moscow, trying to figure out a way to satisfy the terms of both the AA and the Russia-led Customs Union of Belarus, Kazakhstan and Russia, without success. EU Commissioner José Manuel Barroso declared publicly that, ‘one country cannot at the same time be a member of a customs union and be in a deep common free-trade area with the European Union.’
As the November deadline approached, Yulia Tymoshenko made a public statement from prison, saying she was willing to ask the EU to drop the demand for her release if it meant Ukraine could sign the AA. But on November 21st, the government of Prime Minister Mykola Azarov abruptly suspended preparatory work on the AA. Five days later, the Ukrainian government admitted that its Russian counterpart had asked it to delay signing the AA in the hope of securing better terms. From this point onward, the domestic political situation in Ukraine spiraled further and further out of control until revolution caused regime change in late February 2014.
As news spread through Ukraine on November 21st that the government was hesitating over signing the AA on the November 29th deadline, a well-known journalist and blogger with the online Ukrainska Pravda (Ukrainian Truth) newspaper named Mustafa Nayyem issued a public call to protest on his Facebook page. Nayyem asked citizens to come out to Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square) in a show of opposition to the government’s weak will. The post read as follows:
Okay, let’s get serious. Who is ready to come out to Independence Square at midnight? ‘Likes’ don’t count. Only comments under this post with the words ‘I am ready.’ As soon as a thousand or more are gathered, we will organize.
An hour after publication, the number of comments had reached 600, and the number of people wanting to come out onto the Maidan had reached more than a thousand. Among those expressing readiness to come out were politicians Yuriy Lutsenko (former Minister of Internal Affairs in the Tymoshenko government) and Arsen Avakov (who would become Minister of Internal Affairs in the Yatsenyuk government), as well as journalists Olga Mustafirova (Novaya Gazeta) and Olena Bilozerska (a blogger who would later join a volunteer battalion fighting on the eastern front).
Later, the following message appeared:
We are meeting at 22:30 under the Independence Monument. Dress warmly, bring umbrellas, tea, coffee, a good mood and friends. Reposting is welcome!
The crowd on Maidan Nezalezhnosti reached 2,000 on the night of Thursday, November 21st, swelling in size periodically throughout the coming week but remaining peaceful. On the following Sunday, it reached perhaps 20,000. The core of 2,000 protesters would remain on the Maidan around the clock over the coming week, eventually setting up a permanent tent in which attendees could keep warm. Yulia Tymoshenko announced she would go on hunger strike on November 25th, but none of this proved enough to attract the serious attention of Yanukovych or his government.
Finally, on November 28th, Yanukovych arrived in Vilnius, Lithuania, for the European Partnership Summit, at which the AA was supposed to be signed. Leaders of other ex-Soviet states such as Georgia and Moldova but also Azerbaijan were there. But when Yanukovych arrived, he announced that his country would not be signing the AA. Other EU leaders such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite expressed their disappointment in civil terms. Yanukovych had already telephoned Grybauskaite a week earlier to explain that he was effectively being bullied and ‘blackmailed’ by the Kremlin. But he also expressed his sense of ‘humiliation’ that the amount being offered Ukraine for the integration project was much less than he had expected.
The crowd on Independence Square quickly grew to 10,000 on November 29th, as news that Yanukovych had failed to sign the AA circulated through Ukraine. The mob began to chant for the government’s resignation, although it remained peaceful. Finally, at 4 a.m. November 30th, the protesters were attacked by functionaries of Ukraine’s special ‘Berkut’ (Golden Eagle) riot police wielding truncheons. The force seemed at once disproportionate: the crowd may have interfered with traffic in the city centre from time time to time, but it was not yet a force that was seriously endangering public safety. An official statement by Ukraine’s deputy general prosecutor claimed that 79 people had been injured during the Berkut raid, including 7 policemen and 4 reporters. 10 people were hospitalized.
Yanukovych – who had publicly praised those demonstrating in favor of European integration on November 27th – expressed his ‘outrage’ at the police violence, but he also alleged that many of the protesters were actually conducting a political campaign. He demanded an investigation into the events as rumors swirled that paid government thugs in plain clothes (known as titushky, after a mixed martial artist named Vadym Titushko, who took part in attacks on journalists in May 2013) had instigated the violence on the Maidan on the night of November 29th.
Following the violence, the three main opposition parties – Batkivshchyna, Svoboda and UDAR set up ‘National Resistance Headquarters’ around the country. With the Maidan cleared by police, a demonstration of 10,000 appeared on nearby St. Michael’s Square in front of St. Michael’s Cathedral and Monastery, a central temple of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church – Kyiv Patriarchate. Still the demonstrations remained manageably small. The threat of disorder still felt negligible. Ambassadors from several EU countries began visiting the demonstrators, representing the first signs that Western governments were becoming interested in the Ukrainian protest movement, and this alone may have emboldened the anti-Yanukovych forces to step up their activity.
On December 1st, Kyiv witnessed perhaps the largest demonstration since independence. In defiance of a court order banning demonstrations on Maidan Nezalezhnosti and nearby European Square, half a million people suddenly appeared in the center. A seemingly endless mass of human bodies proceeded down Taras Shevchenko Boulevard, turning on Khreshchatyk (central Kyiv’s main thoroughfare) and heading toward the Maidan. The crowd was so large as to be unstoppable. Police stood at various points along the route, guarding public objects and monuments. But there could be no doubt that the opposition movement had entered a new phase. It was transforming into a revolution.
A three-and-a-half-minute video of the crowd in Kyiv on 1 December 2013
[To Be Continued!]