Crisis in Ukraine
Not the same movie
The situation in Ukraine is volatile and dangerous. The West must act
SAME places. Same slogans.
Same icy weather. Same villain: Viktor Yanukovych, Ukraine's thuggish president.
The protesters in Kiev want him out, just as the Orange revolutionaries of 2004 wanted an election that had been rigged in his favour to be annulled.
Outsiders may be tempted to think that the current turmoil is simply a rerun of the previous bout, and is likewise destined to end peacefully.
But the latest stand-off is far more volatile—and much too dangerous for the West to watch blithely as it develops.
The biggest change is in leadership, on all sides.
In 2004 the Orange brigades had clear leaders, a definite aim and formidable discipline.
Partly because, in office, those leaders thoroughly discredited themselves, today's crowds lack all these assets.
The protests were sparked by Mr Yanukovych's decision to reject a trade deal with the European Union, which most Ukrainians supported; but the anger goes much wider, embracing the country's entire corrupt, dysfunctional governing class.
The opposition politicians who are trying to surf this legitimate fury have less control over the protesters than social media do, and could not disperse them even if they wanted to.
The regime is dangerously different, too.
In 2004 the wily outgoing president, Leonid Kuchma, ultimately brokered a solution.
Mr Yanukovych, by contrast, is loth to compromise, seeing politics as a winner-takes-all, life-and-death struggle—much like his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, who helped to cause the crisis by cajoling him to reject the EU.
For Mr Putin the Orange revolution was a humiliation, which he wrongly believed had been orchestrated by the West;
since 2004 he has himself become more ruthless, both geopolitically and towards dissent.
The United States, meanwhile, which leant on Mr Kuchma in 2004, has lost interest.
The upshot of all this is violence.
The crushing of a protest camp on November 30th was more brutal than anything done during the Orange revolution, which resembled a month-long rock festival as much as a political upheaval.
This time protesters have blockaded streets and occupied municipal buildings; riot police have beaten demonstrators and journalists; agents provocateurs have tried to discredit the crowd and so excuse the repression.
The security services, which wavered in 2004, have been tamed by Mr Yanukovych.
To minimise scruples, he has borrowed the old Russian trick of busing goons to Kiev from elsewhere.
The violence could get much worse.
The fire this time
Even by the standards of eastern Europe, Ukraine's history is appallingly bloodstained.
The memory of its 20th-century horrors has helped to defuse internal tensions since the country became independent in 1991.
But it remains a fragile polity, divided between Russian- and Ukrainian-speakers, manipulated by Moscow and now threatened by a teetering economy, an ominous budget deficit and huge debts.
Nationalism, once confined to pockets of western Ukraine, has spread.
Irreconcilable forces are tussling for control of the capital.
Perhaps the protests will fizzle out in the slush.
But equally this nation of 46m people, bordering on four EU countries, could combust.
The person best-placed to avoid that outcome is Mr Yanukovych.
His record—nobbling courts and the media, persecuting opponents, coddling cronies—justifies the protesters' call for a snap presidential vote.
The same goes for parliamentary elections: the Rada, Ukraine's parliament, is a nest of scoundrels and oligarchs' placemen, who should be replaced.
Mr Yanukovych is unlikely to allow either sort of election, but even he must see that his country is becoming ungovernable.
This week his government survived a no-confidence vote.
He should sack it anyway and, as a minimal political concession, bring the main opposition parties into a new coalition.
And the West should ensure that any further violence has a high price.
By coincidence the OSCE, an international forum, was holding a powwow in Kiev on December 5th and 6th.
The EU's envoys should be at the barricades, facing down the skull-crackers—not in support of any politician but in the cause of peaceful protest.
And the Europeans should make clear to Mr Yanukovych and his henchmen that, in the event of an escalation, they will be punished where it hurts—through travel bans, and asset and bank-account freezes.
The country may be almost bankrupt, but its ruling clique is not.
America should do the same.
But the onus is on the EU. Having helped to precipitate this crisis, it cannot walk away from it.
Even Mr Putin, who likes his neighbours weak, should recognise that his meddling, and Ukraine's own pathologies, have brought it to the brink of tragedy.