It’s Time for Ukraine’s Protesters to Bargain

The hundreds of thousands of protesters who poured into the streets of Kiev this weekend, tearing down a statue of Lenin, believe their country’s future is under threat from Russia. They are right. They also need to get off the streets.

Yes, the man they are marching against -- Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych -- runs a regime that has become increasingly corrupt. He paid a visit last week to his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, fueling speculation that the two were cutting a deal that would jeopardize Ukraine’s future as an independent, European-style democracy. Partly in response, demonstrators seized government buildings and threw up barricades around the city over the weekend. On Monday, riot police encircled the protesters, and legislators from Yanukovych’s party talked of bringing treason charges against opposition leaders.

Both sides need to compromise. Ukraine is a nation deeply divided between a pro-European West and a pro-Russian East, and the economic choices it faces have only inflamed that division: It can sign a trade agreement with either with the European Union or the Russian-dominated Eurasian Union. Any forced victory for one side would threaten a destabilizing conflict on Europe’s fault line.

Ukraine is also too economically fragile to survive more upheaval. The government is trying to find $10 billion to avoid a possible default, a weakness Putin exploited in pressuring Yanukovych not to sign a deal with the EU last month. The news that Putin may let the country twist in the wind until it volunteers to join the Eurasian Union drove the cost of insuring Ukraine’s debt to the highest level in four years.

Post-Soviet Ukraine has always lacked a political figure with the unifying and moral authority of, say, Nelson Mandela. Last week, however, three former Ukrainian presidents did their best to fill the void. In a joint open letter, Leonid Kravchuk, Leonid Kuchma and Viktor Yushchenko called on both sides to back down and instead negotiate.

Yanukovych said today that he liked the suggestion of roundtable talks and would meet the three ex-leaders on Tuesday. His opponents say they want key demands met first, fearing that talks would relieve pressure on the president to take action while committing him to nothing.

That is a genuine risk. Nevertheless, in this case, at this time -- and not just because of the Ukrainian winter -- sitting at a table talking is preferable to marching in the streets protesting. When EU foreign policy coordinator Catherine Ashton arrives in Kiev on Tuesday, she can play a useful role by encouraging the opposition to join the talks.

The largely leaderless protest movement should focus on bringing clear and achievable demands to the table: early parliamentary elections to replace a government that has used excessive force against its people, for example, and agreement from Yanukovych not to join Russia’s Eurasian Union until after it has been put to a vote in presidential elections scheduled for 2015.

This is not the Orange Revolution of 2004, which was triggered by the theft of presidential elections. This time, Ukrainians are protesting a policy choice -- Yanukovych’s decision not to sign the EU agreement.

The protesters are correct that this was an unfortunate choice that could, over the long term, do real damage to Ukraine’s economy and independence. At the same time, they should use constitutional means to challenge a legitimately elected president. To do otherwise is to risk undermining the very principles they are calling on their government to uphold.

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