The unrest in central Kiev should be a signal to Russia and the West that current attempts to manage the Ukrainian conflict are being met with skepticism and disapproval in Ukrainian society.
Ukrainian protesters clash with police after a vote to give greater powers to the east, outside the Parliament, Kiev, Ukraine, Monday, Aug. 31, 2015. Photo: AP
On August 31, after a vote in the Ukrainian parliament Verkhovna Rada on the draft law "On Amendments to the Constitution of Ukraine," clashes broke out between police and protesters. Among the protesters who were against the adoption of the draft law by Ukrainian lawmakers were members of Oleg Tyagnybok's radical nationalist Svoboda party.
During the violent confrontation, a grenade was thrown from the side of the protesters. As a result, one officer was killed and about a hundred people were injured with varying degrees of severity. The suspect was arrested, along with dozens of the most active troublemakers. A criminal investigation has been launched.
The reasons behind the incident
The events were a continuation of the controversial process that has been labeled as constitutional reform. Controversy over this reform has gripped the whole of Ukrainian society over the past few months.
The process is fraught with difficulties, primarily because of the internal antagonisms within Ukraine. The military operations in the east of the country are not the most favorable background against which to carry out such a radical transformation as constitutional change.
Because of this, Ukrainian society is very wary of any novelty that could worsen the already dire domestic situation.
Public concerns are compounded by the fact that there is no consensus on this critical matter even inside the country's political elite. The viewpoints are numerous and diverse, ranging from full support for the document to the complete rejection of the idea of constitutional reform, especially where it pertains to the status of the Donbas territories, which are temporarily beyond the control of official Kiev.
In the run-up to the local elections slated for October this year, politicians and political forces on all sides are finding it hard to resist the temptation to exploit the debate about reform for their own purposes. That, in turn, is doing nothing to improve stability and public harmony.
Hence the statement by Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko at an emergency meeting with law enforcement chiefs: "Culpability should not lie solely with the perpetrators, the ones who pulled the pin and threw the grenade... but also with the organizers, including the political forces and ringleaders behind it... It was an anti-Ukrainian act, for which all the organizers without exception must bear strict liability," he said in a televised address to the Ukrainian people.
Thus, it is fair to cite the breakdown in communication between the authorities and society over the lack of consensus on the reforms among Ukraine's political elite as one the main causes of the incident on August 31.
Deeper divisions within Ukrainian society
As practice shows, any serious reform should be organically interwoven into a single strategic plan of nationwide transformation. Citizens in a democratic society have a right to know about this transformation so that they can make informed conclusions. Only in such circumstances can government and society properly interpret what needs to be done, and act with synergy.
In the case of Ukraine, the situation is complicated by at least two circumstances other than the aforementioned lack of communication.
First, the lack of concrete results from the Minsk agreements, particularly with respect to the withdrawal of heavy weapons and the proposed ceasefire.
Second, optimism in Ukrainian society has been severely undermined by Europe's attempts in recent years to solve the problems by putting pressure only on one side and focusing on what is easiest to implement, ignoring the issues of primary importance for Ukraine itself.
As a result, Kiev finds itself caught between two fires. On the one hand, the Ukrainian authorities have no right to ignore the opinions and demands of their European partners; on the other, they cannot ignore the prevalent mood back home. In this regard, it is imperative to consider the role played by Ukrainian civil society in the processes taking place in Ukraine as we speak. Practice shows that both Russia and the West underestimate the extent to which it has strengthened and increased its influence inside the state over the past 18 months.
This misunderstanding is particularly costly to Moscow. The anti-Ukrainian campaign unleashed by the Kremlin seemed to rely on assessments of the personal, professional and moral qualities of the Ukrainian authorities at the time. The latent sentiments of society, which subsequently became the trigger for self-mobilization, were not taken into account. That turned out to be a strategic mistake, which led to the consequences we are observing in the Donbas.
Such underestimation is also typical for Ukraine's European partners and the United States. The attempts at any cost to get official Kiev to implement the provisions of the Minsk documents to the letter, without taking into account the public mood inside the country, could play (and is already playing) a less than constructive role and lead to a further destabilization of the internal political situation.
Consequences and prospects
What happened on August 31 outside the Verkhovna Rada is unlikely to snowball into wider protests. And as paradoxical as it may sound, the spilled blood and death of a National Guard soldier will be the safety lock that prevents the worst-case scenario: an escalation of the internal tensions. The events of February 2014 in the center of Kiev, still all too fresh in the public mind, coupled with the situation in the Donbas, will compel potential initiators and participants of mass demonstrations to act more prudently.
Recommended: "From Maidan to Mukachevo: Evolution of the Ukraine crisis"
At the same time, the incident should be a signal to politicians both inside and outside the country that the steps they take to resolve the conflict are not always perceived unambiguously in society. Hence the need for additional efforts to diffuse social tensions in a timely manner and prevent such incidents in future. A possible consequence of these events could be political "reformatting" to the extent that some current players might disappear from Ukraine's political map.
For the current Ukrainian authorities, including the president, government and parliament, the main short-term task is to establish a proper dialogue with society. For the president, the mission is complicated by the possible reconfiguration of the parliamentary coalition in October, which could create new problems in the voting on other reform bills.
That the situation could head in this direction is evidenced by the results of voting on constitutional reform. Opposition Bloc, which consists mainly of former members of the Party of Regions, unanimously supported the proposed draft law, while the ranks of the pro-presidential coalition were split, which, in turn, was one of the causes of the turmoil outside the parliament building.
Given that the Kremlin's view of Russian-Ukrainian relations regrettably still proceeds from the principle "the worse, the better," Moscow will not squander this latest opportunity to demonstrate to the West the "incapacity" of the current Ukrainian government and its inability to cope with the emerging difficulties.
Washington’s and Ukraine's European partners must bear in mind that the politicized and mobilized sections of Ukrainian society, faced with a de facto state of war, are prone to react rather abruptly and drastically to steps that they believe threaten the gains of the Maidan movement. Future decisions must, therefore, take into account these specifics in order to implement them more effectively and avert an unnecessary escalation.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.