A fragile calm was evident in Kiev yesterday morning, following days of violence in the capital that saw more than 100 people killed in clashes between protesters and security forces. In a dramatic day, parliamentary speaker Volodymyr Rybak resigned, citing ill health, and President Viktor Yanukovich fled to Kharkiv in the nation’s east, close to the border with Russia, where he has an ally in president Vladimir Putin. The opposition leader, Vitaly Klitschko, demanded Mr Yanukovich’s resignation, while police abandoned the streets, leaving it to civilians to guard the presidential palace and maintain order. With the nation on the verge of civil war, it is easy to see parallels with the Arab Spring uprisings.
The question is: what is the best way forward for Ukraine if it is to avoid the missteps we have seen in some of the Arab Spring nations?
Certainly, there are considerable ethnic and linguistic divides – some 30 per cent of the population do not regard Ukrainian as their first language – which will not help forge a unified sense of purpose, but the crisis is more about ordinary people seeking a better life in the face of crumbling state institutions and economic collapse.
Many Ukrainians had looked to membership of the European Union as a way out. They were angered by Mr Yanukovich’s autocratic style, especially after he reneged on talks with his western neighbours in favour of closer ties with Russia. For their part, many Russians still see Ukraine and Belarus – the two large former Soviet republics that physically separate Russia from the EU bloc – as satellite states.
This is not simply a political battle; it is an economic one. It’s not about embracing democracy instead of closer ties with Mr Putin, it is about improving the lot of all Ukrainian citizens.
The lesson that can be learnt from the Arab Spring nations is about what comes next. Getting any sort of transition right is crucial because if the concerns of all parties are not taken into account – and the opposition itself is far from united – the cycle of violence will continue. As yesterday’s events show, the situation is moving fast. The best hope for the immediate future may be a deal brokered by EU foreign ministers that calls for a government of national unity and constitutional reforms.
Whatever happens, the road ahead will not be easy, particularly as the country’s economic problems cannot be solved overnight.