Ukraine's crisis: A sign of democracy in ascension?

Political negotiations stalled today as opposition leaders rejected an amnesty bill and the Ukrainian president called in sick. Just the same, some see positive signs in the tumult.

Darko Bandic/AP
A protester armed with a metal stick stands next to a burning tire on a barricade in Kiev, Ukraine, on Thursday. Efforts to find a resolution to Ukraine's political crisis stalled today, as embattled President Viktor Yanukovych announced he is on sick leave and opposition leaders rejected an amnesty bill passed yesterday by the parliament.

Efforts to resolve Ukraine's ongoing political crisis stalled again today, as President Viktor Yanukovych called in sick and opposition leaders rejected a proposed amnesty bill for protesters seeking the president's ouster.

But despite ongoing violence and the stalemate over amnesty, there is still a sentiment here on both sides that the political crisis is a sign not of Ukrainian democracy's endangerment, but of its burgeoning strength.

Ukraine’s opposition leaders on Thursday rejected the amnesty bill, a day after it was passed in a special parliamentary session, saying it would only inflame tensions with protesters further. The amnesty, said boxer and opposition leader Vitali Klitschko, would be contingent on the rest of the protesters leaving Kiev’s Independence Square, or Maidan, and occupied government buildings.

Thousands built tent camps on the Maidan in late November to demonstrate against President Yanukovych’s backtracking on a trade and political agreement with the European Union. Since then, the protest movements have spread across the country, with more than 10 regional government centers occupied by demonstrators.

The situation turned violent last week, when protestors battled riot police, and several dozen from both sides were injured. Three people died in the clashes, and on Wednesday, Ukrainian media reported that a fourth protester had died amid new fighting in central Kiev.

“We are at a certain standstill," says Andriy Shevchenko, a lawmaker from the opposition party Fatherland. He estimates that more than 300 demonstrators have been detained during the past several weeks of protests. While some have been released, still thousands more face criminal charges related to the protests, which the amnesty bill would not address, he said.

The bill has been submitted to Yanukovych, who has 30 days to sign the bill into law.

Yanukovych announced on Thursday that he was on sick leave, sparking speculation that he was looking for an excuse to avoid further discussions with opposition leaders, reports the Associated Press. He has not indicated when he might return, though his press office noted that he remained in charge of the country.

'Destined for democracy'

The amnesty bill was the latest attempt to defuse Ukraine’s political crisis, which has tested the former Soviet republic’s developing democracy. Both sides accuse each other of non-cooperation.

But some experts and observers see a positive light amongst the chaos of the political situation: that the debate – even if accompanied by violence – shows a growing sense of Ukrainian democracy.

“What we see now might look like a mess, and obviously we have terrible news everyday about people being kidnapped, murdered, and injured,” says Mr. Shevchenko of Fatherland. “But if you ask me about the future, I’m sure Ukraine will come out of this a better country. I think as a nation, we’ve seen ourselves in a way we could never have imagined us to be.”

Civil society now understands that it has the ability to influence politics, as the protests have shown, says Taras Berezovets, a political consultant with Berta Communications in Kiev.

“For the last 22 years, democracy in Ukraine has been growing stronger,” says Sergey Gaiday, head of social engineering agency “Maidan is the realization of the right to protest and the right to oppose authorities. Ukraine is destined for democracy and freedoms. The question is, at what price?”

Still, no one sees the situation resolving itself overnight. And many still feel more violent incidents could be around the corner. Part of the problem is that the opposition lacks clear leadership, and this has caused the situation to drag on, Mr. Berezovets says.

“The opposition is dealing with this like it’s just a political crisis, while it’s already become a civil conflict with victims already,” he says, referring to the protestors who have been killed or injured, as well as the dozens more who have gone missing over the past several weeks.

Democratic, antidemocratic

Indeed, the threat of violence is palpable in central Kiev, as young men wielding baseball bats and sticks roam the street, and both pro- and antigovernment demonstrators claim the mantle of democracy.

“Is compromise and dialogue not democracy?” says Alexander Zinchenko, a “commander” in the “anti-Maidan” protest camps, which support Yanukovych. The camps were set up shortly after the Maidan tent camps went up in late November.

Mr. Zinchenko, a Kiev native, says the president has been nothing but a democrat by continuing to offer the opposition compromises. “The terrorists on Maidan just keep rejecting his offers.”

But Maidan protesters are equally convinced it is Yanukovych who is the anti-democratic one.

“Yanukovych’s dialogue method is to only offer ultimatums,” says Maxim, a student from Zhytomyr standing among thousands on the Maidan in temperatures that hovered near 2 degrees F. on Thursday.

Maxim, who didn’t want to give his last name for fear that he could be arrested, says he is prepared to keep coming back to the square for as long as it takes to make progress on ousting the current government.

The way ahead

Still, Maxim says the antigovernment protesters are frustrated with the slow progress of opposition leaders.

“We don’t see concrete steps toward a resolution," he says, "and people understand that there are conflicts among the three leaders,” referring to Mr. Klitschko, Fatherland's de-facto leader Arseniy Yatsenyuk, and Oleh Tyahnybok, leader of the nationalist Svoboda party.

One possible resolution being floated among lawmakers and opposition activists is a proposal to change the constitution in order to revert back to a parliamentary republic.

That was Ukraine's governmental system as part of negotiations after the 2004 Orange Revolution between President Viktor Yushchenko and then Prime Minister Yanukovych, and was meant to reduce presidential powers, including the ability to appoint the prime minister. At the time, the move was seen as a compromise between the new pro-Western Yushchenko presidency and the supporters of Yanukovych, who had been defeated by Yushchenko in a re-election that was the main outcome of Ukraine's first mass protest movement.

In 2010, Yanukovych was elected president in an election that international observes declares was free and fair and quickly pushed for the Constitutional Court to reverse the 2004 decision to restore power back to the presidency. Reverting to a parliamentary republic would again strip the president of the ability to appoint the prime minister.

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