Maidan’s Ashes, Ukrainian Phoenix—A Net Assessment of the Regime Change in Ukraine Since the Start of 2014

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 11 Issue: 184

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, left, with Vitali Klitschko. (Source: AFP)

The pro-Europe Maidan revolution in February and Russia’s intervention in Donbas in April triggered two parallel processes of regime change in Ukraine. The world has focused on political transformation in Kyiv and in Ukraine writ large. But far less awareness exists of the nature of regime change in the Russian-occupied territory, where the Kremlin is experimenting with a more radical version of Putinism (see EDM, August 1, 13, 15).

Viktor Yanukovych’s Party of Regions—long dominant in the central government and in Ukraine’s east—has been removed from power by Western-oriented forces in Kyiv and by Russian forces in Donbas at roughly the same time. Such parallelism may seem ironic but cannot be surprising. That political force had practiced a “dual-vector” policy of balance between Russia and the West, a stance that became equally unacceptable to the Western-oriented Maidan coalition and to Russia’s proxies in Donbas.

The internal political conflict jolted the Ukrainian state from its chronic dysfunction into temporary paralysis from January through April. The Kremlin exploited that momentary opportunity to seize Crimea and parts of Donbas (eastern Ukrainian region including the provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk) from Ukraine. However, Russia’s war of aggression inspired national and political cohesion among large parts of Ukrainian society, to levels not seen in two decades of independent statehood. This enabled the Maidan’s revolutionary coalition to transition into government. Power shifts from radical to mainstream groups within the coalition facilitated this process.

On May 25, Petro Poroshenko was elected president with 55 percent of the votes cast in the first round. Although the voter turnout was relatively lower in the country’s east, Poroshenko won by a landslide across regional and linguistic or ideological lines, to become the first national-consensus president of Ukraine (see EDM, May 30).

Ukraine’s internal political consolidation, albeit tentative, helped to contain Russia’s military advances in Donbas, and thwarted the Kremlin’s “Novorossiya” (“New Russia”—a historical name for lands occupying mainly southeastern Ukraine) project in the other provinces of Ukraine’s south and east. Those provinces and the largest cities therein were traditionally the Party of Regions’ strongholds. Local “oligarchs” and parts of the administrative-economic nomenklatura, long associated with the Party of Regions, closed ranks with the new government in Kyiv to stabilize the situation in Kharkiv, Mikolayiv, and in the Ukrainian-controlled parts of Donetsk province. The situation in the east and south dictated such alliances between the new authorities and entrenched holdovers at the province (oblast) level. In Dnipropetrovsk, the pro-Maidan “oligarch” Ihor Kolomoysky took over as governor, and extended his sphere of influence to the Odesa province. Those formal and informal arrangements enabled the administration and the economy to operate, and the police and security forces to counteract Russia’s subversive activities in the would-be “Novorossiya” (see EDM, March 6, May 22, September 8).

It would have been unrealistic to expect the new government and new president to launch substantive economic and social reforms promptly upon taking power. Ukraine faced risks of state collapse in the late winter–early spring of 2014, and has found itself de facto at war with Russia from April to date (the armistice has yet to take hold, and if it does it may not last). To establish fully legitimate authorities after the regime change, Ukraine had to conduct a presidential election in May (see above) and will hold parliamentary elections on October 26. The government can count on a bare arithmetical majority in the incumbent parliament, thanks to the cooperation of some deputies from the Party of Regions. But that party as such has broken up into several groups, and most of those deputies decline to join a constitutional majority under the present government.

The broad coalition that originated on the Maidan has basically held together thus far, notwithstanding the diversity of political parties, social groups, and sectional interests within it. This broad range of forces includes: liberal intelligentsia and students (who had initiated the Maidan in late November–early December 2013 with a specifically pro-Europe agenda); sections of the actual and the aspiring middle classes (driving force of the 2004–2005, ill-fated “Orange Revolution”), exasperated after another decade of corruption and misgovernment; incumbent “oligarchs” squeezed by the Yanukovych “Family” (upstart businessmen in Yanukovych’s entourage); the three political parties of the parliamentary opposition (Batkivshchyna, UDAR, Svoboda) that took over the government on February 22 under Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk; various civil-society groups, mostly of liberal persuasions, that tend to distrust authority as such, including the new government; and radical-right paramilitary groups that ultimately forced through the regime change on February 22, among which the Right Sector is the most publicized and also the most overrated.

Internal tensions, inevitable in such a multicolored coalition, erupt with some regularity but are, as a rule, successfully contained. The halt to the Ukraine–European Union association process in late 2013 was the emergency that brought the pro-Europe Maidan coalition together. Russia’s war against Ukraine is the current emergency that holds this governing coalition together.

The balance of forces within the coalition, however, has shifted somewhat, reflecting the transition from revolution to governance, the necessities of defensive war, and the parliamentary election campaign. Thus, Prime Minister Yatsenyuk’s team has split off from Yulia Tymoshenko’s Batkivshchyna party; Vitali Klitschko’s UDAR became a close ally of President Poroshenko; and the violence-prone politicians of Oleh Tyahnybok’s Svoboda Party lost much of the disproportionate share of power they had initially enjoyed. The upcoming parliamentary elections can be expected to produce a pro-reform, pro-Western constitutional majority, and probably result in reconfiguring the governing coalition.