Skip to main content

Is Ukraine becoming a dictatorship?

By Orysia Lutsevych, analyst at Chatham House, special for CNN
January 23, 2014 -- Updated 1635 GMT (0035 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Clashes escalate between protesters and police after controversial new laws adopted
  • Lutsevych: Action could seriously undermine chances for free and fair presidential elections
  • Protests against President Viktor Yanukovych's policy U-turn away from EU integration
  • Lutsevych: "What can be seen in Ukraine is an attempt to create dictatorial rule, preserve power of Yanukovych"

Editor's note: Orysia Lutsevych is a research fellow at the Russia and Eurasia Program at London-based think tank Chatham House and is the author of Civil Society and Democracy in Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine. You can follow her on Twitter here @Orysiaua.

London (CNN) -- The past few days in Ukraine have been marked by an escalation of street protests and ongoing clashes with riot police in the center of Kiev, as Ukrainians respond to new repressive laws adopted last week.

The legislation seriously undermines the freedom of assembly, media, privacy and civil society.

These laws constitute a crackdown on major democratic freedoms and offer a path to dictatorship. They criminalize defamation, introduce a label of "foreign agents" for foreign funded NGOs, enact jail terms for wearing masks and hard hats during the protest, and restrict the work of non-registered news agencies. In short they could seriously undermine the chances for free and fair presidential elections when they are held.

The protests erupted two months ago against pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych's foreign policy U-turn away from EU integration. Since then, his strategy has been to suppress and intimidate the media and political activists.

Ukraine opposition: We're ready to attack
Ukraine protests turn deadly
Ukrainians rally against new law
Beaten journalist: I have lots of enemies

In December, prominent journalist Tatiana Chornovol was attacked and badly beaten. The Ukrainian president's office condemned the attack and ordered an investigation. Since then, four protesters have died amid ongoing clashes with police and dozens have been arrested -- and a Ukrainian Catholic Church spokesman told the National Catholic Reporter that the church's website had been compromised by cyber attacks via neighboring Russia.

Instead of dialogue and compromise, President Yanukovych has chosen the hard line towards establishing dictatorial rule. His ruling Party of Regions, in cooperation with the Communist Party, passed the repressive laws, and the Ministry of Interior issued a decree allowing riot police to use force and weapons against the protesters. The Kiev court prohibited any demonstrations until March 8.

Statements about the "foreign instigated" nature of the protests and the language of an "external enemy" have started to appear in the ruling party rhetoric.

Yanukovych has also fired his long-standing head of presidential administration, Serhiy Liovochkin, who is believed to take a moderate position in proposing dialogue with the opposition and protesters. As of today his post is vacant. The expectations are that it could be filled by a hardliner.

Groups of thugs and aggressive young men who support the government have further destabilized the situation.

On Tuesday more than 500 of them were roaming the streets of Kiev. Any attempts by citizens to call in police forces to address this security issues were ignored. Such further escalations could be the plan of the elites to introduce marshal law and forbid any demonstrations.

What can be seen in Ukraine is an attempt to create a criminal dictatorial rule in order to preserve the power of Yanukovych, as the chances of his political survival or a victory in free and fair elections in 2015 are slipping away. It is a dangerous strategy, which will be futile for three main reasons.

First, the civic protest is strong and is spreading to the east and south of Ukraine. Each aggressive move on the side of the regime sparks more and more people on the streets. Independent opinion polls show that 50% of the population support the protest and 25% cent are ready to participate in it actively.

Second, the charisma of Yanukovych is hardly matching the profile of the dictator. His recent addresses to the nation and pre-recorded closed meetings with Ukrainian media show his lack of confidence and evasion of talking about political crisis. Much less is he ready to face any open rally of his supporters. His popularity levels are at a record low. Even before the start of the protest they were only 14%, compared to 42% in 2010.

Finally, Ukraine's economic model is not viable to support a dictatorship. The macroeconomic situation remains very fragile and the investment climate had deteriorated even before the political crisis.

The coffers of the state are drained as illegal raids pushed businesses into a shadow economy. The $15 billion infusion from Russia will only help so much and these disbursements will be tied to conditionality, such as state asset sales. Earlier this month the World Bank pointed to endemic corruption, weak governance, limited access to finance and a lack of competition as serious obstacles to growth.

All this dooms Yanukovych's aspirations for a dictatorial rule. He should face the reality of irreversible change and prevent a further escalation. The alternative is an unpredictable collapse of his rule, as the nation will reject a tight grip on freedom and democracy.

READ: Clashes turn deadly for first time

READ: Ukraine unrest explained

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Orysia Lutsevych.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 1244 GMT (2044 HKT)
The EU announces it will pay for temporary storage of butter, skimmed milk powder and certain cheeses
August 23, 2014 -- Updated 1343 GMT (2143 HKT)
A shopkeeper's mutilated body, relatives' anguish, homes destroyed ... this is Donetsk.
August 23, 2014 -- Updated 1338 GMT (2138 HKT)
Photojournalist Jonathan Alpeyrie explains how he captured rare images of a rebel funeral, and was arrested for his efforts.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 1112 GMT (1912 HKT)
A 20-minute drive from Kiev takes you to a neighborhood that feels more like Beverly Hills than central Ukraine.
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1658 GMT (0058 HKT)
Photos illustrate the ongoing crisis in Ukraine as fighting continues to flare in the region.
August 7, 2014 -- Updated 1234 GMT (2034 HKT)
Western leaders stepped up sanctions, but the Russian President shows no sign of backing down.
August 4, 2014 -- Updated 1155 GMT (1955 HKT)
Despite mortar fire echoing in the distance, the international team combed through the wreckage of MH17.
July 31, 2014 -- Updated 1108 GMT (1908 HKT)
The road isn't easy -- past shelling and eerie separatist checkpoints. But where it leads is harder still.
July 31, 2014 -- Updated 1631 GMT (0031 HKT)
Future imports, exports between the EU and Russia are now banned -- but existing contracts continue.
August 5, 2014 -- Updated 0026 GMT (0826 HKT)
The Cold War aerial games of chicken portrayed in "Top Gun" are happening in real life again nearly 30 years later.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1510 GMT (2310 HKT)
More Russian aggression in Ukraine. More U.S. and European sanctions imposed on Moscow.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1206 GMT (2006 HKT)
Air accident investigators normally reach crash sites soon after a plane has gone down, what does the delay in reaching MH17 mean?
July 31, 2014 -- Updated 0001 GMT (0801 HKT)
Deadly violence, ongoing tensions and the deliberate downing of a passenger airplane. Why should Americans worry?
July 18, 2014 -- Updated 1642 GMT (0042 HKT)
The shooting down of MH17 may finally alert Washington and Europe to the danger of the conflict in Ukraine.
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 2304 GMT (0704 HKT)
The United States and its allies are angrier at Russia now over Ukraine, but will they do anything more about it?
The U.S. releases satellite images it says shows the Russian military has fired across its border with Ukraine.
July 20, 2014 -- Updated 1540 GMT (2340 HKT)
Some contend that larger weapons have come into Ukraine from Russia.
August 1, 2014 -- Updated 2037 GMT (0437 HKT)
Information about Ukraine, the second-largest European country in area after Russia.
July 27, 2014 -- Updated 1725 GMT (0125 HKT)
Ukraine's Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin on securing the MH17 crash site and negotiating with the separatists.
Learn more about the victims, ongoing investigation and the Russia-Ukraine conflict.
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 0700 GMT (1500 HKT)
When passengers boarded Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 last week, they couldn't have known they were about to fly over a battlefield.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 0925 GMT (1725 HKT)
The downing Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 put the pro-Russia rebels operating in Ukraine's eastern region center stage.
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 0121 GMT (0921 HKT)
Increased fighting around the MH17 crash scene blocks international investigators. CNN's Kyung Lah reports.
July 22, 2014 -- Updated 1600 GMT (0000 HKT)
In the tangled aftermath of the disaster, two narratives emerge -- one from most of the world subscribes to, and another from Russia.
ADVERTISEMENT