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Will concessions by the Ukrainian government lead to peaceful dialogue?

January 28, 2014 at 10:07 PM EST
In response to unwavering opposition, the Ukrainian government has started to make some significant concessions. Judy Woodruff gets analysis from the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, Steven Pifer of the Brookings Institution on whether the protesters now have the upper hand and how Russia perceives the unrest.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: To help us understand what these latest developments mean, I’m joined by Steven Pifer, former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine. He’s now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

Welcome back to the program.

So, so much happened today. The prime minister stepped down. The anti-protest laws have now been repealed. Does this represent a real change of heart on the part of the government?

STEVEN PIFER, former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine: Well, I think what you have seen now is President Yanukovych has realized that he’s in a very precarious situation, and so he’s starting to make some significant concessions.

One of the ironies is, had he made these offers, say, three weeks ago, this might have been a way out. But I think because of the events of the last 10 days, particularly the violence, the opposition is going to be demanding more.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, does the opposition now have the upper hand, because we also understand there’s some division? They’re not completely united, the opposition?

STEVEN PIFER: Well, certainly, I think the opposition has gained in strength over the last week.

The problem the opposition has is you have got the three opposition party leaders. But it’s not clear if they speak fully for the people who are out on the square protesting. And, in fact, after the first set of concessions offered by President Yanukovych on Saturday, when those leaders took those to the square and said, this is what’s on offer, they all said no, and they denied it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And what do we understand, what do we know about what the protesters want at this point?

STEVEN PIFER: Well, you have a group out there that’s pretty amorphous.

There’s some people out there — and, remember, the demonstrations began originally because they wanted to see Ukraine proceed down this pro-European path. But I think you have other people out there now, ones who are tired of corruption, they’re tired of economic stagnation, they’re tired of the authoritarian practice of the government.

So you have got a large group with some fairly diverse demands, which may make it more difficult for the opposition to come up with a coherent set of positions to put forward to the government.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So do they have the ability to translate what they’re doing on the street into changing the government?

STEVEN PIFER: That’s the challenge that they have there.

And there have been some offers now. I think there still is a sense on the part of the opposition that, for example, accepting the offer that was made on Saturday from Mr. Yatsenyuk, one of the heads of the opposition, to become prime minister, that that could be a trap.

And one of the things I think they will pushing for to say, well, if he gets that position, does he also have some real authority, so that he can actually influence policy? And that negotiation is continuing.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And we also see that the opposition — or at least the protests have spread to other parts of the country where Yanukovych was considered to be politically strong.

STEVEN PIFER: This has been one of the stunning things.

For most of the last two months, the actions took place in Kiev. But over the last week, it’s spread to Western Ukraine. And in the last three days, it’s spread to Eastern Ukraine, which is typically seen as the political home base for Mr. Yanukovych. And I think this is one of the things that has probably brought him to recognize that his situation now is a very risky one.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And what about the role of Russia, of Vladimir Putin? We know it wasn’t all that long ago that he extended an economic lifeline.

STEVEN PIFER: Right.

JUDY WOODRUFF: He was giving a loan to Ukraine, very much needed. But they haven’t said a great deal in the last few days. What is known about their position?

STEVEN PIFER: Well, there are a couple things going on.

First of all, I think Mr. Putin is on good behavior because he’s worried about having a good show for the Olympics. And that may impose some limitations on his actions. I think, 10 days ago, Mr. Putin was actually pretty pleased with events in Ukraine, because — particularly because of the thuggish behavior by the police, Ukraine was seen as actually moving away from European values. And you were probably seeing some Europeans say, gee, is Ukraine really ready to draw closer to us?

And also to the extent that you saw chaos and violence in the streets, and that was being broadcast on Russian television, I think subliminal message there in Russia was, we have calm stability here.

I think now, though, Mr. Putin may be a little bit concerned because events are moving to a point where it’s not sure that Mr. Yanukovych can control them. And the Russians may find that they’re — they don’t have a lot of leverage and that they are spectators for what’s going on.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, and the protesters themselves are aware of the Olympics and the pressure…

STEVEN PIFER: Exactly.

JUDY WOODRUFF: … that Putin is under to make it look as if everything is calm.

STEVEN PIFER: No, I think there’s an opportunity now for Ukraine to work some things out, perhaps with the Russian attention elsewhere for the next several weeks.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Steven Pifer, where do you see things going from here? What are you looking for?

STEVEN PIFER: Well, I hope what’s happened today — I think there’s room for greater optimism today than, say, three days ago.

I hope that you now see the beginning of a real political dialogue that can find a way to a peaceful settlement here that’s going to involve a measure of power-sharing with the opposition. I think Mr. Yanukovych is going to have to make further concessions. For example, is he prepared to share control over the Ministry of Interior, the guys who control the police, the guys who control the guys with guns?

That would be an important step. And I think, on the other side, for the opposition, they have got to be careful, and they can’t overreach too much. They have to at the end of the day leave a way out for Mr. Yanukovych, because, if he feels cornered, he could order large-scale violence. I think that would probably hasten his departure from office, but it could also do a lot of harm and a lot of violence to people.

JUDY WOODRUFF: These next few days could turn out to be crucial.

STEVEN PIFER: It will be interesting to watch.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Steven Pifer, we thank you.

STEVEN PIFER: Thank you for having me.