Ukraine’s parliament has repealed controversial legislation that all but outlawed public dissent, and Prime Minister Mykola Azarov has offered his resignation. But the concessions seem unlikely to satisfy the emboldened opposition, and the indications are that president Viktor Yanukovych’s days in office are numbered. If he is forced out—either by resigning or in snap elections—the likely outcomes include freedom for his imprisoned nemesis Yulia Tymoshenko, closer relations with Europe and a breach with Russian president Vladimir Putin.
The immediate sequence of events that led to this moment began in November when the public was outraged by Yanukovych’s decision to ditch an agreement to move closer to the European Union and instead embrace an economic alliance with Russia, including a $15 billion bailout. Then tempers really boiled over with the Jan. 16 passage of a law banning many forms of protest.
Since then, there have been increasing signs that Yanukovych has lost control: The public has defied the protest laws and stayed in the streets despite the threat of gunfire and other perils that so far have cost the lives of five people. Neither Yanukovych nor his forces have shown the desire nor the stomach to simply mow down protesters. Instead, Yanukovych on Jan. 25 offered the prime ministership to opposition leader Arseniy Yatsenyuk, a leader of Tymoshenko’s political party, but Yatsenyuk refused; the next day, serious unrest began in east Ukraine, Yanukovych’s political heartland.
Taken together, these developments are a clear sign that Yanukovych is knocked back on his heels and has few options but to agree to early exit from office, although if he agrees to early elections he would at least have a shot at staying on.
In a note to clients, Eurasia Group analyst Alex Brideau said that Yanukovych is unlikely to finish his term, which ends next year, although he could last a few more months. “Given the current situation, it is likely Yanukovych would lose a free and fair early presidential election,” Brideau said.
If Yanukovych goes, the EU deal is likelier to go through and Ukraine is likely to pull back from its embrace of Putin. Yanukovych himself could face the same type of judicial prosecution that he once meted out against Tymoshenko, who is serving a seven-year prison sentence for abuse of power.