The ouster of president Viktor Yanukovych has ended an era of heavy-handed political rule in Ukraine, but it has ushered in a period of considerable instability. It would be distinctly optimistic to believe that the ending of Yanukovych’s rule will lead to a Ukrainian liberal democracy.
Among the mobs that occupied Independence Square (pictured) and eventually turned the political tide against Yanukovych were liberals, libertarians and those who were just dismayed with the poverty and inequalities that have characterised Ukraine since the dismantling of the USSR more than two decades ago. But that mob also included neo-Nazis, chauvinist nationalists and others whose political credo does not include pluralism or tolerance.
The interim government is being run from the Parliament, in which a majority of members voted Yanukovych from power. That there remains doubt as to whether they had the constitutional power to do so is now beside the point, as the deposed president has fled, presumably to safety in the ethnic Russian-dominated south of the country, of which he is a native.
Historically divided between numerous competing ethnic groups, Ukraine again appears to be splitting along ethnic lines, with ethnic Russians in the south and east favouring Yanukovych and ethnic Ukrainians in the north and west favouring a range of parties and minor leaders. Wealth and industrialisation tend to be concentrated in the Russian-speaking areas.
Russia will want to ensure that ethnic Russians remain protected. If the Russian-dominated areas launch their own counter-coup against the Parliament, or attempt to split from the rest of the country, Russia can be expected to at least provide logistical support, an economic blockade and perhaps, as a final resort, military intervention.
Assuming Ukraine can remain geographically united, at least for the time being, the next question will be the formation of a new government, with a new president perhaps being appointed by the parliament. There has been sufficient unity in parliament to oust Yanukovych, but once the unity of the struggle and the euphoria of the victory recedes, parliament is likely to become more factionaised.
Somewhat like the “Arab Spring”, hopes for a stable post-Yanukovych liberal democracy would appear to be at odds with political reality. With numerous self-serving factional leaders positioning themselves for power, a composite parliamentary government is unlikely to be stable. This is especially so is there is a push for right-wing extremists to seize power.
One of the difficulties of an unconstitutional change of political leadership, too, is the established precedent of changing government through mob rule. No matter who consolidates in power now, objectors can simply go to the streets and occupy government buildings.
If a new government, facing such occupation, fires on the mobs, it will be as delegitimised as Yanokovych. Yet if a new government does not exercise authority it will lose control of state institutions and collapse. Ukraine is thus now entering uncharted political waters.
Watching closely is its large and long dominant neighbour, Russia. Ukraine has been within the Russian political orbit for two-and-a-half centuries. The ouster of Yanukovych has altered Ukraine’s political orientation, but it has not altered its geographic proximity.
*Professor Damien Kingsbury is director of the Centre for Citizenship, Development and Human Rights at Deakin University