Ukraine Turmoil Pits Russia-Friendly President Against Pro-Western Protesters

Mass protests in Kiev continue, calling on Ukraine's President to sign a pact with the European Union. But he seems to be in Russia's camp

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Students attend a rally in support of E.U. integration in Kiev on Nov. 26, 2013

After a week of protesting in the freezing cold, student Irina Bondar has completely lost her voice, but not her determination. “I am ready for any eventuality, even death. These are not empty words — I’ve clashed with riot police many times,” she whispers, her face betraying the pain. Ironically, she is responsible for dispensing hot tea to a few thousand young protesters who are trying to force Ukraine’s President Viktor Yanukovych to sign a trade agreement with Brussels, which would pave the way for Ukraine’s eventual accession to the E.U.

On Sunday, at least 100,000 supporters of the agreement filled two central squares in Kiev, evoking a déjà vu of the Orange Revolution — a massive upheaval triggered by rigged elections — that kicked off around the same time nine years ago. There were clashes, with tear gas sprayed by both the riot police and radical protesters who repeatedly attempted to break into government buildings. The protest continued day and night throughout the week, with at least a few thousand people, mostly students, permanently occupying a patch of the city’s main square under the kitschy independence column. Political speeches alternated with live music and DJ sets. Periodically, the entire crowd would start jumping wildly to the chant “Who’s not jumping is a Russian.”

Only a month ago, the President was adamant there was no alternative to the agreement, which he was scheduled to sign on Nov. 29 in Vilnius, during the summit of Eastern Partnership — the E.U.’s grand project aimed at closer integration with ex-USSR countries, save, of course, for Russia. But last week Yanukovych made a spectacular U-turn when his party refused to uphold a law allowing for the release of his main rival, former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, from prison. It had been the last condition set by the E.U., whose leaders believe that Tymoshenko’s imprisonment is politically motivated.

In a TV interview aired on Wednesday, Yanukovych explained that the country’s economy wasn’t ready for the shock of opening its market to duty-free Western products, as envisaged by the agreement, while at the same time facing Russia’s wrath for refusing to stay in Moscow’s fold. Earlier this year, Russia banned the import of Ukrainian sweets and candies in an apparent show of what other Ukrainian industries might face, should the country move in the European direction. E.U. officials have made poorly veiled hints at Russia’s bullying as the reason for Ukraine’s sudden change of mind. But this explanation is only too convenient for the Ukrainian President, who has his very personal reasons not to sign.

“I’d say Putin’s contribution to this decision is 5%, while Yanukovych is responsible for the other 95%,” says former Ukrainian Forbes editor Vladimir Fedorin. “The main factor is the presidential election in 2015, which Yanukovych is bound to lose if it is fair and monitored by throngs of European observers.”

Polls show the increasingly unpopular Yanukovych is losing the runoff to at least three opposition leaders. But one of them is Tymoshenko, who is in prison. Boxing champion Vitali Klitschko’s presidential hopes have been derailed at least temporarily because of his own lack of foresight.

He failed to register as a Ukrainian tax resident after years spent in Germany, providing Yanukovych’s party with a perfect excuse to pass a law banning nonresidents from running for office. The last rival left is Tymoshenko’s ally Arseny Yatsenyuk, who lacks both the charisma and the popularity of the former two. He makes a much more convenient opponent for Yanukovych, whose friends have seized control of the country’s most influential media outlets. “Or more specifically,” elaborates media entrepreneur Leonid Tsodikov, “the friends of his son, a dentist who has grown into a fully fledged oligarch.”

Although Yanukovych made his intention not to sign the E.U. agreement quite clear, the intrigue has not entirely evaporated. Enthused by the scale of the protest in Kiev, the E.U. has postponed the deadline for Ukraine to make up its mind until the actual date of the summit. It also seems likely that the demand to release Tymoshenko may be dropped, especially after she has personally called on the E.U. to do so, saying she was ready to sacrifice her freedom for the sake of the country’s European future. Most curiously, Yanukovych said he would still go to Vilnius, which suggests some kind of bargaining was under way.

The protest is likely to reach another peak on Thursday and Friday — the day of the Vilnius summit. What happens next is hard to predict. “It might be a peaceful standoff, it might be bloodshed, or everyone might simply go home. Everything depends on what people will be willing to do on the day,” says one of the protest leaders, Yehor Sobolev. Bondar, the raspy-voiced student, is doggedly determined: “I will stay here until the end, whatever this end might be.”