Ukraine’s Opposition Leaders Shun President’s Peace Deal

Viktor Yanukovych's grip on power slip as his oligarchs, worried about risking their business interests in the West, defect

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Brendan Hoffman / Getty Images

A Ukrainian protester burns tires during clashes with police in Kiev on Jan. 25, 2014

More than two months into the popular revolt in Ukraine, the barricades of ice and barbed wire still stand in the center of Kiev. The barrel fires smolder. And at dawn on Sunday, protesters camped out on Independence Square still broke into their hourly rendition of the national anthem, “Ukraine Has Not Yet Died.” Nor, clearly, has the violent uprising against President Viktor Yanukovych. The power-sharing agreement he offered his opponents on Saturday night, following a week of rioting in the center of his capital, was rejected within hours by the opposition leaders.

“No deal,” tweeted one of them, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, who was offered the post of Prime Minister in a bid to appease the protesters. “We’re finishing what we started. The people decide our leaders, not you,” he wrote to the embattled President.

Even a week ago, it would have been hard to imagine the President ceding so much ground. But his position has grown increasingly desperate in the past few days as his grip on power keeps slipping. Not only have the protests spread to more than a dozen cities across the country — on Saturday, for instance, demonstrators seized the government headquarters in the region of Vinnitsa — but dissent within the President’s ranks have reached a breaking point.

The crucial shift, like so many in Ukrainian politics, seems to have occurred within the ranks of the country’s oligarchs. These tycoons control most of the national banking system, its industries, its mass media and a large portion of the lawmakers in parliament. During the current political crisis, most of them have stayed on the fence, trying not to antagonize the ruling circle of President Yanukovych, the political clan known in Ukraine as the Family. But as the clashes between protesters and police intensified over the past week, so has the pressure on the oligarchs to defect.

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“They began to face the risk of becoming investors in a civil war,” says Volodymyr Tsybulko, a political analyst in the country’s capital, Kiev. In the past two weeks, as police began using force against the demonstrators, the U.S. and E.U. began threatening financial sanctions against the officials involved. This sent a worrying signal to the oligarchs. “All of them take loans from the West. They have business interests in the West. They cannot risk tainting their reputations in Western markets,” says Vadim Karasyov, director of the Institute of Global Strategies, a political-consulting firm in Kiev.

Their dissent began to show at first in subtle ways. News coverage on major television networks, which are mostly controlled by the oligarchs, began to take an increasingly critical stance against the President. Then the fan clubs of Ukraine’s football teams, which are also owned by the oligarchs, armed themselves with clubs and baseball bats to face down police in the streets. “These guys are organized, experienced fighters,” says Tsybulko. “And if the football clubs wanted, they could ask them to stand down. Instead they are the on the front lines.”

Still, the wealthiest and most powerful oligarch, the metals magnate Rinat Akhmetov, tried to stay out of the fight. For more than a decade, he has been one of the President’s key financial backers, and his fortunes are closely interlinked with that of the Family. But on Saturday, his corporation issued a statement that sought to tie the President’s hands. The only way out of the crisis, the statement said, is through “constructive negotiations,” while any attempts to “repress the standoff in the streets” would be unacceptable. “No resolution can be found through the use of force.”

That left President Yanukovych with little choice but to negotiate. “The truncheon had to be taken off the table,” says Karasyov. Hours later, Yanukovych offered the protest leaders a list of concessions. He said he would let his rivals lead a new government, grant a mass amnesty to the protesters and introduce constitutional reforms granting more power to the parliament. But the offer, generous as it seemed, came too late.

(MORE: Can Vitali Klitschko, Ukraine’s Revolutionary Heavyweight, Be Its Next President?)

Politically, the opposition leaders had little choice but to reject it. Their clout among the demonstrators had already been flagging for days. One of them, the former world boxing champion Vitali Klitschko, argued last week that negotiations with the President were the only way to avoid more bloodshed and a possible civil war. In response, the crowd of protesters denounced him as a traitor, and one even sprayed Klitschko in the face with a fire extinguisher.

So on Saturday, when the President offered him the post of Deputy Prime Minister in exchange for ending the protests, Klitschko could hardly have accepted without seeming like a sellout. “This was a poisoned offer by Yanukovych to divide our protest movement,” he told a German newspaper that night. “We will keep on negotiating and continue to demand early elections.”

But granting that concession would likely spell the end of Yanukovych’s career. According to the most recent opinion polls, which were conducted in December, the incumbent would lose a presidential race against any one of the opposition leaders, including Klitschko and Yatsenyuk. Since that survey was taken, the deaths of several protesters amid the violent clashes in Kiev have only undermined his authority further. So if he continues to negotiate, it would likely be over the terms of his own political exit.