UKRAINE FEBRUARY 22, 2014
What a day. The city of Kiev barely went to sleep last night, and, walking around the scorched Maidan, you could see that the day's agreement had brought not peace, but a ceasefire. There were almost no women left in the shanty town protesters had set up in the heart of the city. The few that were left carried around hot tea and prepared the infirmaries: the men were preparing, marching in formation, reinforcing the barricades. The ultra-nationalists had issued an ultimatum, saying that if Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovich doesn't resign by 10 am, there would be fresh violence.
In the morning, I scurried to a neighboring grocery store to stock up in case the shooting started again. But nothing happened.
Instead, Yanukovich set out for Kharkiv, in the country's Russian-speaking east to meet with regional governors, trying to play for time and find support among his base, but instead making that fatal error: leaving the capital at its most critical hour. Soon, a cheer went up from the stage on the Maidan with one announcement: "Yanukovich has resigned!" The Russian media has been telling its citizens that these were radicals trying to seize power, but today you could see how patently untrue it was. Old people with canes hobbled through the square, young women laid flowers before the many shrines to the revolution's fallen. People brought their young children, who will one day remember the day they walked through the soot-caked encampment as an important moment. People cried with joy. Hordes of Kievans poured into Yanukovich's abandoned palace outside the city, to find what their tax money had built: monogrammed golf clubs and steam rooms, a garage full of vintage cars, peacocks, fake Roman ruins, a boxing ring, a mini-galleon, and, of course, karaoke. They also found singed and drowned documents, many of them detailing the crooked ways Yanukovich funneled money into building the thing, and which activists and journalists to be on the look-out for.
Things moved fast today—Yanukovich denying his resignation; the security forces switching sides; the parliament ousting him and setting new elections; his political allies, and perhaps Yanukovich himself, fleeing the country; members of his party in parliament fleeing the party; his jailed political rival Yulia Tymoshenko being popped out of a prison hospital and boarding a plane for Kiev—but it all moved peacefully, joyously, and seemingly in the right direction. This was no longer a referendum on the EU or Russia, who stood helplessly by as Ukrainians finally determined their own fate without them; this was not about the east or west of the country. Today was about getting rid of a man who had stolen a lot of their money and killed a lot of their countrymen.
There will, inevitably, be a hangover. I won't try to predict what's going to happen in Ukraine in the coming weeks and months, but here are some of the moving pieces to watch.
East and West: There is a huge element of anti-colonialism in this revolt. Most of the crowd in the Maidan speaks Ukrainian and the tents are marked with the names of cities of the Ukrainian-speaking West. For at least the last century, speaking Ukrainian was an inherently political act, one that showed one's cultural and spiritual independence from Russian political and linguistic dominance. (This is in part why Tymoshenko, who had to learn the language, now speaks exclusively in Ukrainian in public.) The Russian-speaking east of the country doesn't share this sense of oppression. They feel closer to Russia, and don't mind the Russian embrace. They also have most of the country's industry. For the last week, there has been talk of the country splitting, or, worse, civil war. While I think civil war is highly unlikely, the East-West divide is going to be one to watch: will the Russian-speaking East go along with the change, or not?
The Crimea: The home of the Russian Black Sea Fleet, the Crimean peninsula has long been a subject of contention between Ukraine and Russia, with the latter deliberating whether it should have been kept by the Russian Federation in the 1991 split. Russia has been fanning those fires, handing out Russian passports to local residents, and there are reports that pro-Russian separatism is on the rise. And, given the number of Russian speakers in the area, these tensions could escalate. Watch, for example, these Russians yelling at local activists who tried to set up their own Maidan in the Crimean city of Kerchi.
Russia: What will Russia do? Sending in troops is highly unlikely, unless they feel the need to "rescue" Russian citizens in a restive Crimea—much like they did with Ossetians and Abkhazians during the 2008 Russian-Georgian War. There are also economic measures Russia could take to give force to its rather vocal displeasure. Yesterday, it already froze the second tranche of a promised loan to Ukraine. Now that its ally Yanukovich is gone, it's unlikely that tranche will ever get unfrozen. Before Yanukovich, when Ukraine was ruled by a pro-Western coalition, Russia often cut off the flow of gas to the country in order to exert political pressure. This tool remains in the toolkit.
Europe: Tymoshenko is already saying that Ukraine will join the EU imminently. Will the EU let the economically troubled country in to reward it for its choice? Or will it continue to string Ukraine along, much as it's done for the last decade?
Tymoshenko: Tymoshenko has also declared that she will run in the country's newly announced presidential elections in May. Tymoshenko today is a newly freed political prisoner, but she is a rapacious and utterly, clumsily cynical politician with her own dark history of—and appetite for—corruption. Should she cruise to victory on this wave of revolutionary fervor, will she be any better than Yanukovich? As the outgoing prime minister, she ran against him in 2010, and lost, in part because Ukrainians had so tired of her take-no-prisoners approach to politics.
Demobilization: The so-called self-defense groups patrolling and ruling the Maidan these last few months are now highly organized groups of men who have tasted victory—and their own power. What do you do after you take up a baseball bat and topple a president? Go back to your day job? The new interim Interior Ministry head said he promised the groups posts inside the Ministry, but the devil will absolutely be in the details: there are a lot of these guys, and some of them really are extremists. Will there be room for all of them? If not, what will happen to the rest?
The nationalists: There is undeniably a faction of ultra-nationalists on the Maidan, and, when the violence started, they formed the core of the anti-government forces. They say they want to form a political party and run for parliament, but they too have tasted victory and blood: will a seat in the Rada be enough?