After three months of relative tolerance toward protesters in Ukraine, President Viktor Yanukovych crossed a line Tuesday when riot police killed more than a dozen demonstrators in the capital, Kiev. The president also called out the Army to quell spreading protests in other cities.
Such violence by a state against its own people usually signals an end to a ruler’s legitimacy, even a ruler who has won an election, as Mr. Yanukovych has. A government’s legitimacy is based on the continuing consent of the governed, not a blast of police bullets against protesters. Legitimacy also rests on the government sharing the values of the people, which helps encourage them to comply with orders without coercion.
Popular consent for the regime began to erode last November when the president rejected a pact to join the European Union. He instead sought $15 billion from Russia to keep himself in power. The EU pact would have required Ukraine to fully embrace democratic values such as accountability and transparency. Instead, the government’s violence and its recent anti-free speech restrictions show it prefers to be unaccountable, opaque – and brutal.
Up until now, Europe and the United States have tried to helpYanukovych’s legitimacy rather than insist he step down. In January, President Obama hoped that talks between Ukraine’s officials and the political opposition would lead to “some sort of democratic process that creates a government with greater legitimacy and unity.”
After Tuesday, however, the tone in the West has changed. “Today, President Yanukovych has blood on his hands,” Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt said. A similar comment was made by Mr. Obama in 2011 when he said that Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, had “lost legitimacy” because of violence against his own people.
The EU and US are now weighing “targeted” sanctions against Ukrainian officials they can identify as behind Tuesday’s violence. But the Ukrainian government’s crackdown reflects a systemic problem that is not specific and isolated and thus can’t be addressed with sanctions against a few people.
Ukraine’s sovereignty has begun to slip away because of the government’s egregious human rights abuses against the protesters. The regime needs a regime-wide rebuke from the West or the United Nations in order to compel it to compromise with the opposition, release political prisoners, and end the violence. As with the Balkan wars of the 1990s, Europe cannot ignore this violent strife on its doorstep – and in a country whose people aspire to join the EU.
Legitimacy can be an elusive concept. Yet the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights clearly states, “The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government.” There was nothing elusive about the hail of bullets in Kiev’s Independence Square on Tuesday.
Both the international community and the people of Ukraine must now find a way to create a legitimate government for a country veering toward escalating violence.