Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych this past week shelved plans to sign a deal that would bring Ukraine closer to the EU, instead indicating intentions to build closer relations with Russia and other former Soviet republics. Ukrainians took to the streets in response. DW spoke with Kyryl Savin, an expert on Ukraine at the Heinrich Böll Foundation, about what this might mean, and reactions in Ukraine.
DW: While the police forcefully broke up a pro-EU demonstration in Kyiv Friday night (30.11.2013), many Ukrainians continue to support Yanokovych. Does this point to a split in the country?
Kyryl Savin: I don't really see that right now. In Kyiv, at least, the mood is distinctly pro-European. Many students even made the trip from eastern Ukraine so they could demonstrate in favor of EU integration. Also in the eastern and south-eastern regions, polls indicate that 40 to 45 percent of the population support EU integration. But these people were less active at the protests.
How did you perceive the Saturday night protests on the Maidan, Kyiv's central Independence Square? Was the police reaction more severe than in previous instances?
I was at Maidan both Friday, and the previous evening. It didn't look at all like violence had taken place there. There were more people there Friday than Thursday, I would estimate 50,000. Perhaps a few hundred or a thousand stayed there overnight. When I went to bed, I was more concerned about Sunday, when a large demonstration is planned.
Then I saw these horrible pictures and was shocked. It was brutal and senseless. It became clear to me then that the Maidan protests were going to end. Even the organizers said they'll be there till Sunday, then they'll disband. It's getting colder, and they could have gradually wound down to demonstrating once a week, or every 10 days … which makes the police behavior seem even more irrational. I'm convinced that Yanukovych knows about this, and made the decision himself.
Vitali Klitschko is the best-known Ukrainian politician in favor of EU accession. Is he also the most influential opposition politician within Ukraine?
That's a very ambivalent situation. On the one hand, recent polls show Klitschko ahead of Arseniy Yatsenyuk and Oleh Tyahnybok. On the other hand, I don't get the feeling that Klitschko is really the leader of the opposition. Last Sunday he missed the whole demonstration when his plane couldn't land in Kyiv due to fog. The day before that, he suddenly flew to Hamburg for an apparently important meeting. This discredits him, from my point of view. I rather think that Jazenjuk heads the opposition, although the people trust Klitschko more.
What are the reasons for failure to agree on a Ukraine-EU association agreement? Did the EU make mistakes, for example making the release of Yulia Tymoshenko a precondition for the agreement?
I think it's still too early to deeply analyze the events. But I don't think that the EU made many mistakes. The Tymoshenko question could have been deferred, and Yanokovych knew that. He could also have signed the agreement with Tymoshenko still behind bars. But this didn't happen.
It's Yanukoych's fault. The EU had proved itself to be very flexible over the last few days, basically postponing all its demands. It was a lost chance for Ukraine, in my view. Yanokovych will go down in history not as a great EU integrator, but rather as someone who didn't seize this historic opportunity.
In terms of Tymoshenko, I think the EU did make a mistake by giving the case so much attention. But in the end that isn't why the agreement failed.
Do you consider Ukraine to currently be a constitutional state?
No, I cannot say that it is today. What we've seen on the Maidan, and also the situation with Tymoshenko, are signs that Ukraine has big problems with the rule of law.
Do you believe that Ukraine will become closer to the EU regardless, over the long term?
Over the long term, yes, but probably only when there's a change of government in Kyiv. I don't see it happening under Yanokovych.
Kyryl Savin directs the Heinrich Böll Foundation's Kyiv office. Among other things, he worked at the German embassy in Kyiv, where he also studied international relations.