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Ukraine’s Yanukovych holds on to presidency in peace deal, but power and backing wanes

February 21, 2014 at 6:10 PM EDT
The Ukrainian Parliament tabled the impeachment of President Yanukovych, but protesters are still calling for him to step down immediately. Jeffrey Brown speaks with Adrian Karatnycky of the Atlantic Council to discuss the new changes in Ukraine’s power structure and the outlook for Yanukovych’s fragile political future.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: The potential breakthrough in Ukraine today was lauded by leaders of the opposition, but many protesters are still calling for the president to step down immediately.

Jeffrey Brown has more.

JEFFREY BROWN: And joining us once again to look at today’s peace deal is Adrian Karatnycky, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.

Welcome back.

So, do we know, first, what finally forced this agreement?

ADRIAN KARATNYCKY, The Atlantic Council: I think a panic on the part of Mr. Yanukovych that he was losing control and I think a sort of a sense that his backing is collapsing.

Yesterday, the Parliament had met, and a clear majority, including defectors from his ruling party, signaled that, you know, the bottom had fallen out of his base of support within the Ukrainian establishment, that part of it that had supported him. So I think he was almost forced into this kind of a step.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, we heard earlier in the program of some of the key elements here, earlier elections, limit on presidential powers. How definitive are these — are these strictures at this point?

ADRIAN KARATNYCKY: Well, today, the Parliament, with a vast majority, with a veto-proof majority, returned to the 2004 constitution, which basically gives the president the right to appoint the foreign minister and the defense minister.

But, for example, the militia, the head of the militia, the police, is appointed by the Parliament. The government is shaped in effect by a coalition of political parties that shape the majority, and then deal among themselves for the distribution of many of these posts. So, I think politics will be drifting away from Mr. Yanukovych’s purview.

He still for the moment, in this transition period until a new government is in place, has the capacity to create a lot of mischief and a lot of trouble, and potentially there’s still possibilities of violence. But fundamentally I think power is driving from Mr. Yanukovych. And even though there’s talk about an election no later than December, I believe Mr. Yanukovych will be gone in a matter of weeks, if not a matter of days.

JEFFREY BROWN: Of course, as we have heard, many of the demonstrators want him gone immediately. Right? So, there’s still a lot of concern about whether this agreement will hold for them, whether they will abide by it.

ADRIAN KARATNYCKY: Well, I think that they will.

I think there’s a lot of anger obviously after the terrible events of the last few days. But a bill was already tabled for Mr. Yanukovych’s impeachment. And given the fact that firm majorities and veto-proof majorities have emerged in the Parliament and the elite, including many of Mr. Yanukovych’s former backers, is — is working hand in glove with the opposition suggests that the signal’s being sent that his future is not very secure, even through institutional means.

So I think that there will be — you know, once a new prosecutor general is appointed, again, not someone that the president, the Parliament can remove and the Parliament approves, all these kinds of changes are going to put Mr. Yanukovych in peril. There will be normal functioning of institutions, meaning that once there’s a government, once there’s a normal prime minister, once there’s a normal prosecutor general, they will conduct investigators.

Local prosecutors can also conduct investigations for others who have died in the regions and try to trace back where the orders were given, which I think puts Mr. Yanukovych as the ultimate person in charge of the power structures and the police ministries and the militia ministries, puts him in peril under these investigations.

So I think he will feel very uncomfortable. Today, he left for Kharkov. His plane took off for Eastern Ukraine, where a congress that is trying to stir up some degree of federalism is going to be meeting tomorrow. And I believe he’s heading to Russia the next day. So I think he’s either bargaining for his future or looking for some ability to fight back with a few cards in his hands.

JEFFREY BROWN: But I want to also ask you — excuse me — I just want to ask you about the importance of the potential release of the former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko. Where does this play into all of this?

ADRIAN KARATNYCKY: Well, that’s another sign, because that was another veto-proof majority.

The president might not — it can be dragged out for at least 15 days. The president, if he doesn’t sign the bill, it goes back for a revote in the Parliament. And if the same 310 back it, that law is changed and she’s obligated then — the courts will be empowered to release her and obligated to release her, because the charges under which she was sentenced have been decriminalized.

So, once she enters into the fray, I think we will have a populist voice and I think it will — I think it will be a little bit destabilizing. But I think there’s kind of a maturity that is present there, a firmness. The chants today in the Maidan used — they used — the chants used to be (SPEAKING UKRAINIAN) which means “Con, be gone,” ex-con, since he served two terms in prison as a young man.

And the new chants are “Death to the prisoner.”  So there is a call for a capital penalty, even though Ukraine no longer has the death penalty. But there’s rage out there in the public. And I think he is aware of that. It’s been said that some of his valuables are being removed from his lavish residence north of Kiev, which has over 10,000 square — 100,000 square feet and these lavish ponds and lakes in which over $100 million has sunk. Valuables have been removed from his offices in the presidential administration.

JEFFREY BROWN: OK.

ADRIAN KARATNYCKY: And I don’t even know if he’s coming back.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Adrian Karatnycky of the Atlantic Council, thank you once again.

ADRIAN KARATNYCKY: Thank you.