Ukraine: A Coup or a Revolution?

Democracy Now

The Ukraine
Protest in the Ukraine.  Photo:

HAVANA TIMES – Ukraine is in a state of crisis two days after the country’s democratically elected president was ousted following months of street protests that left at least 82 people dead. On Saturday, Ukraine’s Parliament voted to remove President Viktor Yanukovych, a move Yanukovych described as a coup.

Earlier today, Ukraine’s new leaders announced the ousted president was wanted for mass murder of peaceful protesters. Russia condemned the move to oust Yanukovych and recalled its ambassador to Ukraine. Meanwhile, Europe has embraced the new government. European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton is traveling to Ukraine today to discuss measures to shore up Ukraine’s ailing economy.

One of Yanukovych’s main rivals, former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, was released from custody. We speak to Timothy Snyder, professor of history at Yale University. His latest article for The New York Review of Books is “Fascism, Russia, and Ukraine.” We also speak to University of Rhode Island professor Nicolai Petro, who is in Odessa, Ukraine.


AMY GOODMAN: Ukraine is in a state of crisis two days after the country’s democratically elected president was ousted following months of street protests that left at least 82 people dead. On Saturday, Ukraine’s Parliament voted to remove President Viktor Yanukovych, a move Yanukovych described as a coup.

VIKTOR YANUKOVYCH: [translated] I am absolutely confident that this is an example, which our country and the whole world has seen, an example of a coup. I’m not going to leave Ukraine or go anywhere. I’m not going to resign. I’m a legitimately elected president. I was given guarantees by all international mediators who I worked with that they are giving me security guarantees. I will see how they will fulfill that role.

AMY GOODMAN: Viktor Yanukovych speaking Saturday. He has not been seen publicly since then. Earlier today, Ukraine’s new leaders announced the ousted president was wanted for mass murder of peaceful protesters. Meanwhile, one of Yanukovych’s main rivals, former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, was released from custody on Saturday. Russia condemned the move to oust Yanukovych and recalled its ambassador to Ukraine.

Meanwhile, Europe has embraced the new government. European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton is traveling to Ukraine today to discuss measures to shore up Ukraine’s ailing economy. On Sunday, Ukraine’s interim president, Oleksandr Turchynov, said he would focus on closer integration with the European Union.

OLEKSANDR TURCHYNOV: [translated] Another priority is returning to the European integration course, the fight for which Maidan started with. We must return to the family of European countries. We also understand the importance of our relations with Russia, to build relations with this country on a new, just, equal and goodwill basis which recognizes and takes into account the European choice of the country. I hope that it is this choice that will be confirmed in the presidential elections on the 25th of May of this year. We guarantee that they will fully subscribe to the highest European standards. They will be liberal and fair.

AMY GOODMAN: To talk more about the crisis in Ukraine, we’re joined by two guests. Timothy Snyder is professor of history at Yale University, author of Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin. His latest piece for The New York Review of Books is headlined “Fascism, Russia, and Ukraine.” He joins us from Vienna, Austria. And with us in the Ukrainian city of Odessa is Nicolai Petro, professor of politics at the University of Rhode Island. He has been in Odessa since July 2013 as a Fulbright research scholar.

Nicolai Petro, let’s begin with you in Ukraine. Do you agree with what the president, or now the former president, Yanukovych, said, that this is a coup?

NICOLAI PETRO: Yes, it’s pretty much a classical coup, because under the current constitution the president may be—may resign or be impeached, but only after the case is reviewed by the Constitutional Court and then voted by a three-fourth majority of the Parliament. And then, either case, either the prime minister or the speaker of the Parliament must become the president. Instead, that’s not what happened at all. There was an extraordinary session of Parliament, after—it was held after most members were told there would be no session and many had left town. And then, under the chairmanship of the radical party, Svoboda, this rump Parliament declared that the president had self-removed himself from the presidency.

AMY GOODMAN: And what are the forces that brought this about? And what’s happening right now in Ukraine? You’re not in Kiev; you’re in Odessa. What is even happening there?

NICOLAI PETRO: The situation here in Odessa is pretty quiet. I would say that what led up to this is a coalition of three distinct forces. One is the group that started at the end of November of last year, genuine civic frustration with the government’s decision to delay the signing of the EU Association Agreement. This was then seized upon by the parliamentary opposition, who joined belatedly and pressed the government for further concessions. And finally, the actual coup was accomplished thanks to the armed intervention of extreme nationalists, led by the right sector. And the fact that they were so instrumental in accomplishing this change of power has put them in the driver’s seat. From now on, whatever political decisions are arrived at will really be at the sufferance of the right sector.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Timothy Snyder, would you agree with this assessment of what’s taking place in Ukraine right now?

TIMOTHY SNYDER: I think parts of it are exactly right. I think I would disagree with certain parts of it. For one thing, when it comes to the question of how these changes came about, it’s a little bit reductionist just to mention opposition politicians, the right wing in Europe. The movement—the protest movement at the Maidan included millions of people in Kiev and all around the country. It included people from all walks of life, both genders. It included people from—included Muslims. It included Jews. It included professionals. It included working-class people. And the main demand of the movement the entire time was something like normality, the rule of law. And the reason why this demand could bring together such people of different political orientations, such different regional backgrounds, is that they were faced up against someone, the previous president, Yanukovych, whose game was to monopolize both financial and political as well as violent power in one place. The constitution, the legitimacy of which is now contested, was violated by him multiple times, and most of the protesters agree to that.

The second thing that I would modify a bit would be this idea that what happened is a coup, where now somehow everything is determined by the right. The Parliament does not—is not represented. Nobody from the right sector is in Parliament. The people who are making the decisions in Parliament come from the conventional political parties. If you look at the people who are on top, who are they? The acting president is from the southeast. He’s a Russian speaker. He’s a Baptist pastor, by the way. The two candidates for president—Klitschko and Tymoshenko—are both Russian speakers. Klitschko studied in Kiev. Tymoshenko is from the southeast. Let’s look at the power ministries. If you were a right-wing revolutionary, this is the first thing you go for. Who now occupies the power ministries? The defense minister is a Russian speaker who is actually of Roma origin, of Gypsy origin. The interior minister is half-Russian, half-Armenian. And the minister of internal affairs is a Russian speaker from the far southeast, from Zaporizhia. So, it seems extremely unlikely to me that this government is something which could possibly have been dictated by nationalists from western Ukraine. This government, if anything, is tilted towards the south and towards the east.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you think this could lead to a split between East and West Ukraine, Professor Snyder?

TIMOTHY SNYDER: No, on the contrary. The one thing which could lead to a split—sorry, the one thing that could lead to a split between East and West Ukraine would be some kind of intervention from the outside. We have—we have good polling data, taken over the course of the last 20 years, from all regions of Ukraine. In no region of Ukraine do more than 4 percent of the population express a wish to leave the country. I’m pretty sure in most states of the United States the percentage would be much higher than that. The normal response is about 1 percent.

Ukraine is a diverse country, but diversity is supposed to be a good thing. It’s a multinational state in which both this revolution and the people who oppose this revolution have various kinds of ethnic identifications, various kinds of political commitments. The person who started the demonstrations in November was a Muslim. The first people who came were university students from Kiev. The next people who came were Red Army veterans. When the regime started to kill people, the first person who was killed was an Armenian. The second person who was killed was a Bielorussian. In the sniper massacre of last week, which is what led to the change of power, which is what directly led to the change of power, one of the people who was killed was a left-wing ecologist Russian speaker from Kharkiv, Yevhen Kotlyar. Another was a Pole. The people who took part in this protest represent the variety of the country. The people who oppose these protests also come from various parts of the country. This is an essentially political dispute.

And I think the good news is that once Yanukovych was removed, violence ceased, and now we are on a political track in which power is no longer in the hands of an interior minister who is killing people and instead is within the chambers of Parliament. Parliament has renewed the 2004 constitution, which makes the system a parliamentary system, and has called for elections in May. And in those elections, people from all over the country will be able to express themselves in a normal post-revolutionary way. And then we’ll see where things stand.

AMY GOODMAN: Last week, Democracy Now! spoke to Russia scholar Stephen Cohen, who said Ukraine is essentially two different countries.

STEPHEN COHEN: Ukraine is splitting apart down the middle, because Ukraine is not one country, contrary to what the American media, which speaks about the Ukraine and the Ukrainian people. Historically, ethnically, religiously, culturally, politically, economically, it’s two countries. One half wants to stay close to Russia; the other wants to go West. We now have reliable reports that the anti-government forces in the streets—and there are some very nasty people among them—are seizing weapons in western Ukrainian military bases. So we have clearly the possibility of a civil war.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Stephen Cohen. Nicolai Petro, would you agree?

NICOLAI PETRO: Professor Cohen is right that there are very serious differences between the regions, and they go deep to the historical memory of not just what World War II was about, but what the end of the Russian Empire was about, what the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Poland, the parts of Ukraine that were under it, were about. Professor Snyder is, however, also correct on the fact that much of the country does not want to dissolve. There is a commitment to being Ukrainian. And it would be indeed to everyone’s advantage here if the country—if the Parliament really did reach out to the segments of the population that are not—that have been, effectively, disenfranchised by the last coup. And, however, I would tend to disagree, because the first steps, within 24 hours, that they’ve taken are exactly the opposite.

Let me give you an example. The repeal of the law allowing Russian to be used locally, that’s the main irritant in east-west relations within the Ukraine; the introduction of a resolution to outlaw the Communist Party of the Ukraine, which effectively is the only remaining opposition party in Parliament; the consolidation of the powers of the speaker of the Parliament and the acting president in a single individual, giving him greater powers than allowed under any Ukrainian constitution; of course, the call for the arrest of the president. Now we have, effectively, a Parliament that rules without any representation from the majority party, since most of the deputies of the east and the south of the country are afraid to set foot in Parliament. Meanwhile, all across the country, headquarters of parties are being sacked by their opponents. This is the stage which we have for the elections for May 25th. Will they be fair? There’s no money, according to the prime—the acting president and speaker. Vigilante militias routinely attack and disperse public gatherings they disapprove of. News broadcasts—yesterday Inter was interrupted by forces claiming to speak for the people. What do you think?

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going break and then come back to this discussion and talk about the significance of the release of the former prime minister, who was imprisoned and brought back in a wheelchair to Independence Square, where she made her re-emergence, this as the current president—the past president was fleeing Kiev. We’re talking to Nicolai Petro, professor of politics, University of Rhode Island, speaking to us from Odessa in Ukraine. We’re also speaking with Timothy Snyder, professor of history at Yale University. He’s today in Vienna, Austria. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: Yes, it is Democracy Now!’s 18th birthday. We are celebrating it through this month of February, 18 years of Democracy Now! since we first went on the air on about eight community radio stations, February 19th, 1996. We’re now broadcasting on over 1,200 public television and radio stations around the country and around the world. And if you want to send in your photo holding up why you need Democracy Now!, that’s what we’re showing during our breaks, and for folks listening on the radio, you can go to our website at, where we’re streaming the pictures. You can also send us video to tell us what Democracy Now! means to you. Check out All the details are there.

Well, I’m Amy Goodman. This is Democracy Now! And we’re talking about the crisis in the Ukraine. We’re still with Professor Timothy Snyder of Yale University. He is in Vienna, Austria. His latest piece for The New York Review of Books is titled “Fascism, Russia, and Ukraine.” And with us from Odessa, Ukraine, is Nicolai Petro, professor of politics at University of Rhode Island.

I want to turn to comments made by the former prime minister of Ukraine, Yulia Tymoshenko, following her release from jail on Saturday. She was addressing Maidan protesters in Kiev.

YULIA TYMOSHENKO: [translated] I know that all together we will be able to do it, and I personally will never allow anyone to let you down. I will never allow not a single politician, not a single official, to even touch nor even lay one of their fingers on your honor, on your life. Know that nothing in my life will be more important. May God give you good health. May you be happy in your country, and then all these sacrifices will not be in vain. Glory to Ukraine!

AMY GOODMAN: That’s the former Ukrainian prime minister, Yulia Tymoshenko. Timothy Snyder, the significance of her release, how long she was held in prison, what she represents?

TIMOTHY SNYDER: Well, she was a political prisoner. She was the head of the major opposition party to Yanukovych’s party. She lost the last presidential elections to Yanukovych by a relatively narrow margin. For many years, she and Yanukovych were the two dominant figures in Ukrainian political life. So, obviously, most human rights observers, most governments in the West have been calling for her release for quite a long time. It’s a good thing that she was released. It’s a step towards the return of the rule of law in Ukraine.

What it means in political terms, I think, is rather more complicated. She has not been a part of these revolutionary events. She came to them at the very end. And what she said to the protesters in the passage you played is rather curious and, in a way, pre-revolutionary and anachronistic. I think the sense of the Maidan is that there is this—there is a civil society. They’re self-organizing people who can stay and occupy a place in the middle of the winter for weeks upon end, which means soup kitchens. It means people cleaning up. It means people in hospitals. It means doctors. It means journalists. It means a movement in which millions of people took part. They’re not asking for someone to take care of them. In a way, that’s the old-style politics. And I think many people rightly associate Tymoshenko with Yanukovych and with politics of an old style. So it’s not clear to me that her return will be as significant politically as it might seem at the very beginning. This, of course, remains to be seen. I would stress, of course, that Tymoshenko, like everyone—virtually everyone else we’re talking about, is a Russian speaker from the southeast of the country, so, again there, it’s not a matter of west versus east.

AMY GOODMAN: Speaking on Sunday, National Security Adviser Susan Rice warned Russia against sending in troops to Ukraine.

SUSAN RICE: That would be a grave mistake. It’s not in the interest of Ukraine or of Russia or of Europe or the United States to see the country split. It’s in nobody’s interest to see violence return and the situation escalate. There is not an inherent contradiction, David, between a Ukraine that has long-standing historic and cultural ties to Russia and a modern Ukraine that wants to integrate more closely with Europe. These need not be mutually exclusive.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s National Security Adviser Susan Rice. Nicolai Petro, your response?

NICOLAI PETRO: Well, she’s right, but I don’t see what—the discussion of the armed forces seems cavalier. I mean, no one’s even thinking or talking about that. I’d like to chime in, if I may, on the Tymoshenko question that you asked, and agree with Professor Snyder’s assessment. At least in this area of Ukraine, the south, she seems to not have any resonance. And the perspective is that this is very much—her appearance is very much a blast from the past, if you will, sort of things that have—we’ve all gone through that before. And the hope is that there can be more dramatic changes. A little bit of a disconcerting element to this is her usage of the familiar Svoboda refrain now from World War II, “Hail to Ukraine,” which is becoming sort of the routine greeting for the revolutionaries now.

AMY GOODMAN: What is—right now the Olympics are ending. How does Putin see the situation? They’ve pulled the ambassador back from Ukraine, the Russian ambassador to Ukraine back. Professor Petro, what would you say Putin sees in what has taken place? Is he concerned this will happen next in Russia?

NICOLAI PETRO: Oh, no, no, I don’t think that at all. What I think is, when people watch what’s happening here in Ukraine, in the former Soviet Union, they’re saying, “There but for the grace of God, you know, go we.” This is a very—a cautionary tale, if you will, against chaos and corruption, as well, leading to these sorts of extremes. Whether—President Putin has already declared the government’s willingness to support Ukraine, to see the country prosper, and so far the only monetary—and it’s worth pointing out, the only monetary contribution on the table right now is the $15 billion that have been offered in bonds and, in addition, even more significantly, the reduction in the price of natural gas that Ukraine is buying from Russia right now. Whether or not Europe or the United States or the International Monetary Fund will come up with anything comparable is much to be hoped for, but right now there’s a lot of dithering on the part of the West.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Timothy Snyder, your assessment of what this means for Putin right now?

TIMOTHY SNYDER: Yeah, I would agree completely that he has no immediate reason to worry that this will repeat itself in Russia. Russia is not Ukraine. But in a way, the fact that Russia is not Ukraine has been the problem for Russian foreign policy. The Russian money which was offered to Ukraine was offered as an alternative to the trade deal with the European Union, but it seems very likely that there was a price. The major package of $15 billion, which was referred to, preceded—and I think it’s no coincidence—the laws on the Russian model, for example, forcing non-governmental civil society organizations to register themselves as foreign agents, laws which ban freedom of expression, laws which turn people who manifested on the streets into extremists, which of course paves the way for martial law and such things. The whole package of laws on the 16th of January was the result. That failed. That made the protests much more aggressive and much larger. Then, when the Russians finally did release $2 billion of that, it was just a matter of days before the sniper attacks last week, which led to the political change that we’re talking about. So, the Russians did put money on the table, but there was a price. The price was to try to make Ukraine more like Russia. That has now failed, it seems, so the Russians have something to contemplate.

With the European Union, it has to be much more complicated. The European Union is not a petrol state which can just offer money here and there where it wants, the way that—the way that Russian is. The European Union has to have guarantees that the money that’s spent will be in exchange for constitutional reform, in exchange for free elections—I completely agree about the significance of that, including the importance of the participation of electoral observers—and in exchange for thoroughgoing local reform which would make corruption—and I also agree about the significance of corruption in Ukraine—that will make corruption much less likely. Those discussions, however, are already underway. The European Union is about to announce its package. The IMF has already expressed its willingness. I completely agree that those things are essential.

Ukraine has been brought to a—by its president, to a state of near bankruptcy. Yanukovych literally sat on gold toilets in his ridiculously extravagant residence. This is a country which needs to have not only political change, but financial backing for that political exchange—for that political change. Otherwise, it’s not going to be able to happen. I would also stress that only financial backing of parliamentary democracy is the thing which can keep the extremes from making their way towards the center, but I think people in the West understand that now.

AMY GOODMAN: Nicolai Petro, there is an interesting picture in The New York Times today, the headline, “Fresh From Prison, a Former Prime Minister Returns to the Political Stage,” and it is a picture of Tymoshenko, and she is flanked by both the American ambassador, Geoffrey Pyatt, and the European Union’s Jan Tombinski. Talk about the United States in all of this. We have played the clips of Victoria Nuland talking about who she wants in government and not, top diplomatic official in charge of this area that includes Ukraine, that these—this taped conversation that somehow made it to YouTube. What about U.S.’s role? Of course, she was giving out cookies to the protesters on the front lines a while ago.

NICOLAI PETRO: Well, I must say that the United States, in my—from my perspective, tried to play a role in the reconciliation process but was not terribly effective, because it does not have the necessary leverage. That is in—the only country that has the leverage and the resources and knows the situation well is Russia. So, if there is a country with deep knowledge of this area, I would say it would be Russia, and I would hope that we would listen to the advice of our Russian partners in this.

But I do also believe there was an error in the assessment of one of the more significant, I think, and ultimately determinant groups in accomplishing the revolution. I clearly have to disagree with Professor Snyder. I ascribe a much greater role to the right sector, as they call themselves, the spearhead of the revolution. And given the hope of many in the West regarding this revolution, I think it’s especially important to note that this group is critical of party politics in principle. It is skeptical of what it calls imperial ambitions of both Moscow and the West to the Ukraine. The former are easier to understand. The latter try to sap the Ukrainian national spirit with all this talk of dialogue and compromise. So what they hope to see emerge out of this turmoil is a new Ukraine, as they put it, quote, “burnished by the flames of national revolution,” able to stand up in opposition to the democratizers and their local lackeys. And I think there has been a strong underestimation of the influence of this right nationalist movement, not in terms of numbers, but in terms of street cred, in terms of the vision that they can offer which can inspire young people, really, especially in the West, but throughout the country, in terms of, you know, maybe we don’t even need a parliamentary system; let’s just do something that is more decisive and dramatic and can actually maybe move the country forward in a way, because it’s been stagnating for 20 years now.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Petro, when you talk about the right, who exactly do you mean, for an American audience who knows very little about Ukraine?

NICOLAI PETRO: There is a parliamentary party now, which could be called a right-wing party, and that is the Svoboda party. They’re the ones who, as I mentioned, convened the extraordinary session of Parliament that led to the ouster of the president. Now, how to exactly describe them, I will leave that to Professor Snyder. But I would simply note that there was an EU Parliament resolution of December 13, 2012, that drew attention specifically to the Svoboda party and called it racist, anti-Semitic and xenophobic. Now, compared to Svoboda, the right sector, which has been active in all of the violence in the streets, is more radical, more militarily organized and more willing to use violence.

AMY GOODMAN: Final words, Professor Timothy Snyder, in understanding this, and who the right is and—both opposed to Russia and opposed to the West?

TIMOTHY SNYDER: Thanks. Yeah, I mean, as Professor Petro probably knows, that’s the subject of my specialization. And, of course, I share his concern. Svoboda takes its example from the history of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists, an interwar, extreme-right party which I would not hesitate to call fascist. The Pravi sector also refers to the same historical symbolism. Both of them speak of the necessity for a national revolution, especially Pravi sector. They are significant. They are less significant than the far right in Austria, where I am now. They’re less significant than the far right in France. They’re less significant than the far right in the Netherlands. But they matter.

And I think the crucial thing is to understand that they become more important when the system becomes a dictatorship. When the leader of the center-right—that’s Tymoshenko—is put in prison, then the far right of course is going to benefit as a protest party. When the situation is revolutionary, and these are the people who are willing to risk their lives, of course they’re going to become more important, which means that for all of us who are concerned about the return of normality, stability, the rule of law, it’s very important that this—that the revolutionary character of this situation pass now into a normal political process, where we can agree or disagree about who should rule and who shouldn’t rule, but where decisions are made in Parliament, where decisions are made in the ballot box, and where decisions are not made in the streets.

In Kiev today, the metros are running. In Kiev today, there is no looting. The place is remarkably peaceful. The presidential residences are being visited peacefully, rather than looter-sacked as in other revolutions, or even the United States when we have a weather problem. The country is in an orderly position. If we want to keep both extremes at bay—the extreme from the right, which I am indeed worried about, as well as extremists on the other side, with their support from Russia—the most important thing to do is to back parliamentary democracy, back early elections, do the small things that we in the West can do to make sure that that’s the outcome—a restoration of the rule of law, restoration of a parliamentary constitution, restoration of democracy. These are things that we can help achieve, and the Ukrainians themselves have already done the hard part. That’s where I would end.

AMY GOODMAN: Timothy Snyder, I want to thank you for being with us, professor of history at Yale University, speaking to us from Vienna, Austria. His book, Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin; his latest piece in The New York Review of Books, “Fascism, Russia, and Ukraine.” And Nicolai Petro, thanks for joining us from the Ukrainian city of Odessa. He’s a professor of politics at the University of Rhode Island.

2 thoughts on “Ukraine: A Coup or a Revolution?

  • The problem is that these former Soviet satellites have no democratic traditions. Political corruption is the norm. Post-Castro Cuba will also likely have to suffer through a transition period while adjusting to democracy.

  • yushenko and his group were completely corrupt. a symbol was his extravagent compound. will the alternative be better? we shall see.

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