Tuesday, February 18, 2014, will go down in European history as a day of infamy. It was then that Viktor Yanukovych declared war on his own people.
In retrospect, his decision to kill and maim Ukrainians looks inevitable. In 2010, he arrogated to himself the powers of a sultan. Thereafter, he progressively dismantled all of Ukraine’s democratic institutions and undermined all its freedoms. Finally, he and his cronies systematically looted the country to the tune of more than $10 billion. Having consistently treated the Ukrainian people as second-class citizens whose sole function consisted in serving the needs of the ruling Regionnaires, Yanukovych finally took his disdain for the nation to its logical conclusion: he began to butcher them.
Yanukovych claims that he is Ukraine’s legitimate president, that the protesters reject the constitutional solutions that he, the supposed moderate, supports, and that they are responsible for the violence. Don’t believe him for a second.
Democratically elected leaders become illegitimate tyrants the moment they turn against the people who elected them. Yanukovych abandoned whatever minimal claims to legitimacy he may have had back in 2010. The amazing thing is that Ukrainians actually hoped against hope for three years before deciding that the man had to go.
For three years, the democratic opposition has been pleading with Yanukovych to adhere to Ukraine’s Constitution. To no avail. He’s violated it at whim. For three months now, ever since the protests in Kyiv began in late November, the protesters have pleaded with him to talk, to compromise, to acknowledge their existence and the legitimacy of their demands. To no avail. Yanukovych’s only response has been violence: beatings, killings, fire-bombings, and disappearances. The massive violence of February 18th is just the logical conclusion of the daily violence he’s engaged in since November.
In declaring war on Ukrainians, Yanukovych has sealed his own fate. He thinks he’s reestablishing control. In reality, the violence is an act of desperation that will only hasten his own downfall.
Regionnaire parliamentarians have begun fleeing the country and taking their hard currency with them. One of the most thuggish Regionnaires, Oleg Tsaryov, has publicly distanced himself from “Yanukovych’s decision” to engage in violence. More than half of Ukraine is already up in arms: government buildings have been seized, central authority has been rejected, and riot police have been disarmed. Even if Yanukovych succeeds in crushing the demonstrators on Kyiv’s Independence Square, the Euromaidan epicenter, opposition will simply go underground or morph into other forms.
What Yanukovych doesn’t understand—and has never understood—is that you can’t stop millions of people from wanting to live freely and in dignity.
It’s high time for the European Union to understand that as well. Do Europeans really believe in their vaunted European values? Do they care that Ukraine may be on the verge of becoming another Bosnia? Do they care that Yanukovych could be on his way to becoming another Slobodan Milosevic? If democracy and human rights mean anything to Europe, if they mean at least as much as access to Russian gas and ample supplies of beer and wine, then the European Union has to move from declarations of support and threats of sanction to actual sanctions. Immediately.