COMMENT: The “Soft Coup” and the Euromaidan Reformers — what went wrong?

COMMENT: The “Soft Coup” and the Euromaidan Reformers — what went wrong?
By Robert Homans in Washington DC July 16, 2020

In my recent article entitled “A Soft Coup” I laid partial blame on the Euromaidan Reformers for not mounting any opposition to what I described as the “Soft Coup” that began on March 4, when President Volodymyr Zelenskiy replaced almost his entire government. Given their strong commitment to Ukraine’s identity, the rule of law and the support of free enterprise, none of which seem to be important to those who are likely coup plotters, why were the Euromaidan Reformers essentially absent?  

What went wrong?

I believe that went wrong was that the underlying system in Ukraine, what I have referred to as the “Old Rotten System”, is still intact and no material change in Ukraine is possible until it is dismantled. By his recent actions, Zelenskiy seems to want to strengthen the Old Rotten System, not dismantle it and he, and through him the other coup plotters, controls all the levers necessary to dismantle it.   

The Old Rotten System consists of the following: corrupt courts; a general prosecutor beholden to the president; a powerful interior ministry; and, the SBU, Ukraine’s intelligence service, responsible for domestic and international intelligence, as well as investigating “economic crimes”. 

Ukraine has many smart and committed reformers but, try as they might, in the six and a half years since the end of Euromaidan they haven’t been able to dismantle the Old Rotten System. They may have had the chance to do so at the end of Euromaidan, just after former president Viktor Yanukovich departed Ukraine.    

How did this happen? Starting at the beginning of Euromaidan, the Reformers became marginalised and, since then, they have not attained positions of authority required to break down the Old Rotten System.

The deal with Yanukovich 

On the night of February 21, 2014, the four representatives of the opposition, those individuals whom I have collectively referred to as the “Old Opposition”, came down to Independence Square from the presidential administration building where they, along with four observers from the EU including Radek Sikorski the Polish foreign minister, Laurent Fabius the French foreign minister and Germany’s then foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier had been meeting with Yanukovich, in order to find a way to end the crisis. The four individuals making up the Old Opposition were Arsiny Yatsanyuk, Oleh Tyahnybok the head of the Svoboda Party, Oleksandr Turchynov head of the Fatherland Party when Yulia Tymoshenko was in jail, and Vitaliy Klitschko, mayor of Kyiv.    None of the Euromaidan Protestors, also referred to as Euromaidan Reformers, were present.   

At this meeting a tentative agreement to end the crisis was reached. The elements of the agreement were as follows:

  • Presidential elections no later than December 2014, moving them up by three months
  • Parliamentary elections to take place as scheduled, in 2017
  • Investigation into the violence conducted jointly by the Yanukovich administration, the Old Opposition and the Council of Europe (but not the Protestors)
  • Amnesty for all Protestors arrested after February 17, but not before
  • Evacuation of all buildings occupied by the Protestors
  • Surrender of all illegal weapons
  • New electoral law
  • New Central Election Commission

As the Old Opposition was leaving Yanukovich’s office, one of the EU observers apparently said to Klitschko, “if you [the Protestors] don’t accept this deal, you will all be dead within 48 hours.” Later, one of the EU observers characterised the meeting between Yanukovich and the Old Opposition as similar to a get-together at a men’s club, with everyone sitting around a table smoking cigars and drinking cognac. All four members of the Old Opposition, plus Yanukovich, had come up through the same political system in Ukraine, had been colleagues in prior governments, and had known each other for years.

That night, 50,000 people were on Independence Square, mourning the deaths the day before of over 100 Protestors, called the “Heavenly 100”, by snipers likely acting under orders from someone in Yanukovich’s government. Coffins, many of them open, were carried through the crowd, on the shoulders of the Protestors.   

As the Old Opposition were presenting the deal from the stage, a 26-year-old protestor named Volodymyr Parasyuk leapt on stage, took a microphone and said “If Yanukovich isn’t gone by 10am tomorrow [February 22] fighting will resume.” Yanukovich left his Mezhihirya estate by helicopter at around 4am on February 22. The agreement, negotiated earlier between Yanukovich and the Old Opposition, with EU observers present, was null and void.

Later, in an interview with Ukrainska Pravda Parasyuk said the following (English translation): “We fought against the regime. Now the main goal is for Europe to tighten control over Ukraine, for civil society to take control of it.

“Now there are a lot of leaders, new, smart people, young people, professionals and they need power. Because this is a new generation, they have a completely different way of thinking, they don't think in stereotypes.

“We need to change the system in general in the state that has taken root. People who stand on the Maidan do not believe that those politicians will be able to do it, that's all.”

Over the following six and a half years, what Parasyuk described, “we need to change the system in general in the state that has taken root. People who stand on the Maidan do not believe that those politicians will be able to do it, that's all”, never happened, especially “new leaders” wanting to implement the values of the Euromaidan Protestors.   

Up until last year’s presidential election the Old Opposition stayed in power, but the Old Rotten System wasn’t dismantled. Then, in last year’s presidential election 73% of Ukraine’s voters said a change was needed but, since the election of Zelenskiy the changes that have taken place were not what they likely voted for, and not what Parasyuk described as being necessary.   

Why were the Euromaidan Protestors marginalised? To answer this question, it’s necessary to go back to the beginning of Euromaidan.

Who were the Protestors? 

In a 2014 article in World Affairs Journal, the late Nadia Diuk described the Protestors this way, “The student organisers’ rejection of political party symbols was the first sign that this was not a second coming of the Orange Revolution. This generation of young Ukrainians is more hardheaded and clear-sighted about the future than their predecessors. Even though the opposition political leaders put themselves at the head of the movement, there was a distinct sense that they had not planned for such an uprising and were catching up with the people already on the streets.”    

It is important to remember that the original Protestors, those who were beaten up on Independence Square on the night of November 30/December 1, 2013, were students as Nadia Diuk stated. The following day, 1 million Ukrainians came to Independence Square, from all strata and corners of Ukrainian society, including elderly pensioners.   

In March 2016 I met with someone with intimate knowledge of the relationship between the Protestors and the Old Opposition, and I wrote the following, “There was never any agreement between the Protestors and the “Old Opposition” that allowed the Old Opposition “to put themselves at the head of the movement”. There was an agreement between the Protestors and the Old Opposition, that the Old Opposition could use the platform provided by Euromaidan (the main stage on Independence Square), in return for support from the opposition deputies in parliament, those who were part of factions controlled by members of the Old Opposition. At the time the Protestors had no parliamentary representation, and wouldn’t until parliamentary elections held in October 2014. As part of the agreement the Old Opposition agreed not to use the platform for its own political ends. The Old Opposition violated this part of the agreement again and again.”

The Old Opposition’s violation of the bargain they made with the Protestors was the start of their marginalisation. This may partly explain why, over the past several years, it has become consistently difficult for the Euromaidan Protestors to come to an agreement among each other, most recently to form a united opposition to what I have called the “Soft Coup” that is going on in Ukraine today. There must have been deep disagreements about making a deal with the Old Opposition, disagreements have that never been resolved.

There were no identifiable leaders of Euromaidan, in the classical sense of the term, and those who were leaders wanted to remain anonymous out of concern for their lives. Western officials prefer identifying leaders, relying on them as counterparties. By default, it is likely that Western officials, looking for a counterparty, concluded that the Old Opposition spoke for the Euromaidan Protestors. Instead, the Protestors saw the Old Opposition as products of the same political system that produced Yanukovich and, as a result never trusted them.  

As Euromaidan continued, there was a succession of interventions by Western governments with the Old Opposition, almost none of which involved the Protestors, culminating with the meeting with Yanukovich on February 21, at which no Euromaidan Protestor was present.  

Here are some examples:

December 5, 2013 — On the visit to Kyiv by then US assistant secretary of state Victoria Nuland the New York Times wrote the following, only four days after the start of Euromaidan: “The meeting with Ms. Nuland effectively drew a new reality for the protest leaders. They [the protest leaders] include a pro-Western businessman, Petro Poroshenko, and the leaders of the three main opposition parties in parliament: Arseniy P. Yatsenyuk of the Fatherland coalition; the champion boxer Vitali Klitschko of the Udar ("Punch") Party; and, Oleg Tyagnybok, the leader of the nationalist Svoboda Party. Also in attendance were Yuri V. Lutsenko, a former interior minister and field commander of the 2004 Orange Revolution (and, later, prosecutor general under President Poroshenko), and Evgenia Tymoshenko, the daughter of Ukraine’s jailed former prime minister, Yulia V. Tymoshenko. Geoffrey R. Pyatt, the American ambassador accompanied Ms. Nuland. Ms. Nuland’s strong message in support of a constitutional solution has forced the protest leaders to confront the likelihood that they will be unable to oust Mr. Yanukovich. They could, however, still achieve another of their top goals with the resignation of Prime Minister Mykola Azarov and his government.” Two and a half months later, ousting Yanukovich was exactly what the Protestors did.

In negotiating with the “Old Opposition” Nuland was negotiating with people who had worked for years in the same Old Rotten System as Yanukovich. They were products of the Old Rotten System. Yatsenyuk had served in Yanukovich’s cabinet, as had Poroshenko. The Old Opposition had very limited means to get the Protestors to agree to any terms that they may have negotiated with Nuland. Having broken their original agreement, over the use of the stage, the Protestors never again trusted the Old Opposition to act on their behalf.

Four days later, on December 9, 2013 there was a “roundtable discussion involving Yanukovich” and all three of his predecessors, attempting to reach a deal but with no Protestors present. That discussion went nowhere or, as Arsiniy Yatsenyuk, one of the members of the Old Opposition observed, “it’s tough to put a round table into a square hole.”

January 20, 2014 — During the evening of January 20, just after parliament passed a series of anti-assembly laws with an illegal show of hands, designed to absolve deputies from actually having their votes recorded, Arsiniy Yatsenyuk came to Independence Square. His purpose was to ask the crowd, around 50,000 people at the time, if they wanted to authorise him to have talks with the government with the objective of ending the protests. He asked those in favour to hold up their smart phones. Only around 5% raised their phones.

January 23, 2014 — During January 23, members of the Old Opposition concluded a temporary ceasefire with the government. During the evening Klitschko and Tyahnybok came to Grushevskogo Street, the site of some of the initial fighting just days before, to brief the Protestors on the discussions they were having with the government, including repeal of the anti-assembly laws, passed by parliament a week earlier, and the release of prisoners. They were met with shouts of "prisoner in yolku, Golden Eagle in the oven", "Shame!", "Freedom or Death", "Liars", "Klitschko to the barricades”, "Revolution" and "Klitschko, say, what to do?". “Golden Eagle” is the English translation of Berkut, Yanukovich’s notorious anti-riot police.

February 7, 2014 — The “bugged telephone call”. This was a call, made over an insecure mobile phone, between US ambassador Pyatt and Nuland about who should become the next prime minister, the former prime minister Azarov having resigned on January 28. The call was hacked, likely by the Russians, and the recording posted on social media.  

On the call, Nuland and Pyatt referred to Yatsenuk as “Yatsu” and Klitschko as “Klitch”, not to mention Nuland stating on one occasion, “fuck the EU”. This is what I wrote, just after this call was made public: “Among other subjects, what everyone heard on the call were two American diplomats talking about three Ukrainian politicians, especially Yatsenyuk and Klitschko, and their governing abilities (or lack thereof). In the case of Ukraine, ignorance of the fact that that the three politicians who were discussed in the telephone conversation between Nuland and Pyatt do not reflect the aspirations of the Protestors on the Square.” I doubt that the Euromaidan Protestors ever had any illusions about Yatsenyuk wanting to dismantle the Old Rotten System, which proved to be the case during his term as prime minister from February 2014, at the end of Euromaidan, until April 2016.

Two weeks after the bugged telephone call came the meeting between the Old Opposition, the four EU observers and Yanukovich, without any of the Protestors present. Looking back, it is hard to believe that none of the Western interlocutors seemed to grasp the fact that the Old Opposition never, at any time, spoke for the Protestors.

The aftermath

On February 23, 2014, after Yanukovich fled Ukraine, parliament confirmed Yulia Tymoshenko’s placeholder, Oleksandr Turchynev, as interim president and he, in turn, appointed Yatsenyuk as prime minister. The period between the end of Euromaidan and the presidential election, scheduled for late May 2014, could have been the opportunity to begin dismantling the Old Rotten System. Poroshenko was elected president in May 2014 with a large majority.   

During the presidential campaign a deal between Poroshenko and Klitschko, both at the time running for president, was brokered by Dmytro Firtash, one of Yanukovich’s major financial backers. As a result, Klitschko dropped out of the race, essentially leaving the field open for Poroshenko and making it less likely that he’d have to face Tymoshenko in a runoff. What was Firtash’s payoff?

Although many reformers went into parliament as a result of the parliamentary elections in October 2014, they were disbursed among various factions and their influence diluted. Others went into ministries and, although they were able to enact significant reforms, the underlying elements of the Old Rotten System continued to remain intact. In October 2014 Arsen Avakov became interior minister, a post he continues to hold today.   

Former president Poroshenko became very adept at determining just how much reform would satisfy Western supporters, such as establishing the Anti-Corruption Court and the National Anti-Corruption Bureau (NABU), an agency that had investigative power but no ability to prosecute cases, but he was never interested in reforming the Office of Prosecutor General, and he did nothing to reform the court system, the structure of the interior ministry or the SBU, the main pillars of the Old Rotten System.

It remains to be seen if the former Euromaidan Protestors can put their differences aside and form an effective political movement to stand up against what is going on in Ukraine today. Hopefully, it’s not too late. If they can, based on their votes last year I think most Ukrainians would support them.

Robert Homans is a financial sector expert who has lived and worked in Ukraine for over 15 years. You can follow him on Twitter at @rhomansjr