Ukraine is in a state of crisis two days after the country’s democratically elected president was ousted following months of street protests that left at least 82 people dead. On Saturday, Ukraine’s Parliament voted to remove President Viktor Yanukovych, a move Yanukovych described as a coup. Earlier today, Ukraine’s new leaders announced the ousted president was wanted for mass murder of peaceful protesters. Russia condemned the move to oust Yanukovych and recalled its ambassador to Ukraine. Meanwhile, Europe has embraced the new government. European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton is traveling to Ukraine today to discuss measures to shore up Ukraine’s ailing economy. One of Yanukovych’s main rivals, former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, was released from custody. We speak to Timothy Snyder, professor of history at Yale University. His latest article for The New York Review of Books is “Fascism, Russia, and Ukraine.” We also speak to University of Rhode Island professor Nicolai Petro, who is in Odessa, Ukraine.
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: Ukraine is in a state of crisis two days after the country’s democratically elected president was ousted following months of street protests that left at least 82 people dead. On Saturday, Ukraine’s Parliament voted to remove President Viktor Yanukovych, a move Yanukovych described as a coup.
VIKTOR YANUKOVYCH: [translated] I am absolutely confident that this is an example, which our country and the whole world has seen, an example of a coup. I’m not going to leave Ukraine or go anywhere. I’m not going to resign. I’m a legitimately elected president. I was given guarantees by all international mediators who I worked with that they are giving me security guarantees. I will see how they will fulfill that role.
AMY GOODMAN: Viktor Yanukovych speaking Saturday. He has not been seen publicly since then. Earlier today, Ukraine’s new leaders announced the ousted president was wanted for mass murder of peaceful protesters. Meanwhile, one of Yanukovych’s main rivals, former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, was released from custody on Saturday. Russia condemned the move to oust Yanukovych and recalled its ambassador to Ukraine.
Meanwhile, Europe has embraced the new government. European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton is traveling to Ukraine today to discuss measures to shore up Ukraine’s ailing economy. On Sunday, Ukraine’s interim president, Oleksandr Turchynov, said he would focus on closer integration with the European Union.
OLEKSANDR TURCHYNOV: [translated] Another priority is returning to the European integration course, the fight for which Maidan started with. We must return to the family of European countries. We also understand the importance of our relations with Russia, to build relations with this country on a new, just, equal and goodwill basis which recognizes and takes into account the European choice of the country. I hope that it is this choice that will be confirmed in the presidential elections on the 25th of May of this year. We guarantee that they will fully subscribe to the highest European standards. They will be liberal and fair.
AMY GOODMAN: To talk more about the crisis in Ukraine, we’re joined by two guests. Timothy Snyder is professor of history at Yale University, author of Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin. His latest piece for The New York Review of Books is headlined “Fascism, Russia, and Ukraine.” He joins us from Vienna, Austria. And with us in the Ukrainian city of Odessa is Nicolai Petro, professor of politics at the University of Rhode Island. He has been in Odessa since July 2013 as a Fulbright research scholar.
Nicolai Petro, let’s begin with you in Ukraine. Do you agree with what the president, or now the former president, Yanukovych, said, that this is a coup?
NICOLAI PETRO: Yes, it’s pretty much a classical coup, because under the current constitution the president may be—may resign or be impeached, but only after the case is reviewed by the Constitutional Court and then voted by a three-fourth majority of the Parliament. And then, either case, either the prime minister or the speaker of the Parliament must become the president. Instead, that’s not what happened at all. There was an extraordinary session of Parliament, after—it was held after most members were told there would be no session and many had left town. And then, under the chairmanship of the radical party, Svoboda, this rump Parliament declared that the president had self-removed himself from the presidency.
AMY GOODMAN: And what are the forces that brought this about? And what’s happening right now in Ukraine? You’re not in Kiev; you’re in Odessa. What is even happening there?
NICOLAI PETRO: The situation here in Odessa is pretty quiet. I would say that what led up to this is a coalition of three distinct forces. One is the group that started at the end of November of last year, genuine civic frustration with the government’s decision to delay the signing of the EU Association Agreement. This was then seized upon by the parliamentary opposition, who joined belatedly and pressed the government for further concessions. And finally, the actual coup was accomplished thanks to the armed intervention of extreme nationalists, led by the right sector. And the fact that they were so instrumental in accomplishing this change of power has put them in the driver’s seat. From now on, whatever political decisions are arrived at will really be at the sufferance of the right sector.
AMY GOODMAN: Professor Timothy Snyder, would you agree with this assessment of what’s taking place in Ukraine right now?
TIMOTHY SNYDER: I think parts of it are exactly right. I think I would disagree with certain parts of it. For one thing, when it comes to the question of how these changes came about, it’s a little bit reductionist just to mention opposition politicians, the right wing in Europe. The movement—the protest movement at the Maidan included millions of people in Kiev and all around the country. It included people from all walks of life, both genders. It included people from—included Muslims. It included Jews. It included professionals. It included working-class people. And the main demand of the movement the entire time was something like normality, the rule of law. And the reason why this demand could bring together such people of different political orientations, such different regional backgrounds, is that they were faced up against someone, the previous president, Yanukovych, whose game was to monopolize both financial and political as well as violent power in one place. The constitution, the legitimacy of which is now contested, was violated by him multiple times, and most of the protesters agree to that.
The second thing that I would modify a bit would be this idea that what happened is a coup, where now somehow everything is determined by the right. The Parliament does not—is not represented. Nobody from the right sector is in Parliament. The people who are making the decisions in Parliament come from the conventional political parties. If you look at the people who are on top, who are they? The acting president is from the southeast. He’s a Russian speaker. He’s a Baptist pastor, by the way. The two candidates for president—Klitschko and Tymoshenko—are both Russian speakers. Klitschko studied in Kiev. Tymoshenko is from the southeast. Let’s look at the power ministries. If you were a right-wing revolutionary, this is the first thing you go for. Who now occupies the power ministries? The defense minister is a Russian speaker who is actually of Roma origin, of Gypsy origin. The interior minister is half-Russian, half-Armenian. And the minister of internal affairs is a Russian speaker from the far southeast, from Zaporizhia. So, it seems extremely unlikely to me that this government is something which could possibly have been dictated by nationalists from western Ukraine. This government, if anything, is tilted towards the south and towards the east.
AMY GOODMAN: Do you think this could lead to a split between East and West Ukraine, Professor Snyder?
TIMOTHY SNYDER: No, on the contrary. The one thing which could lead to a split—sorry, the one thing that could lead to a split between East and West Ukraine would be some kind of intervention from the outside. We have—we have good polling data, taken over the course of the last 20 years, from all regions of Ukraine. In no region of Ukraine do more than 4 percent of the population express a wish to leave the country. I’m pretty sure in most states of the United States the percentage would be much higher than that. The normal response is about 1 percent.
Ukraine is a diverse country, but diversity is supposed to be a good thing. It’s a multinational state in which both this revolution and the people who oppose this revolution have various kinds of ethnic identifications, various kinds of political commitments. The person who started the demonstrations in November was a Muslim. The first people who came were university students from Kiev. The next people who came were Red Army veterans. When the regime started to kill people, the first person who was killed was an Armenian. The second person who was killed was a Bielorussian. In the sniper massacre of last week, which is what led to the change of power, which is what directly led to the change of power, one of the people who was killed was a left-wing ecologist Russian speaker from Kharkiv, Yevhen Kotlyar. Another was a Pole. The people who took part in this protest represent the variety of the country. The people who oppose these protests also come from various parts of the country. This is an essentially political dispute.
And I think the good news is that once Yanukovych was removed, violence ceased, and now we are on a political track in which power is no longer in the hands of an interior minister who is killing people and instead is within the chambers of Parliament. Parliament has renewed the 2004 constitution, which makes the system a parliamentary system, and has called for elections in May. And in those elections, people from all over the country will be able to express themselves in a normal post-revolutionary way. And then we’ll see where things stand.
AMY GOODMAN: Last week, Democracy Now! spoke to Russia scholar Stephen Cohen, who said Ukraine is essentially two different countries.
STEPHEN COHEN: Ukraine is splitting apart down the middle, because Ukraine is not one country, contrary to what the American media, which speaks about the Ukraine and the Ukrainian people. Historically, ethnically, religiously, culturally, politically, economically, it’s two countries. One half wants to stay close to Russia; the other wants to go West. We now have reliable reports that the anti-government forces in the streets—and there are some very nasty people among them—are seizing weapons in western Ukrainian military bases. So we have clearly the possibility of a civil war.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s Stephen Cohen. Nicolai Petro, would you agree?
NICOLAI PETRO: Professor Cohen is right that there are very serious differences between the regions, and they go deep to the historical memory of not just what World War II was about, but what the end of the Russian Empire was about, what the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Poland, the parts of Ukraine that were under it, were about. Professor Snyder is, however, also correct on the fact that much of the country does not want to dissolve. There is a commitment to being Ukrainian. And it would be indeed to everyone’s advantage here if the country—if the Parliament really did reach out to the segments of the population that are not—that have been, effectively, disenfranchised by the last coup. And, however, I would tend to disagree, because the first steps, within 24 hours, that they’ve taken are exactly the opposite.
Let me give you an example. The repeal of the law allowing Russian to be used locally, that’s the main irritant in east-west relations within the Ukraine; the introduction of a resolution to outlaw the Communist Party of the Ukraine, which effectively is the only remaining opposition party in Parliament; the consolidation of the powers of the speaker of the Parliament and the acting president in a single individual, giving him greater powers than allowed under any Ukrainian constitution; of course, the call for the arrest of the president. Now we have, effectively, a Parliament that rules without any representation from the majority party, since most of the deputies of the east and the south of the country are afraid to set foot in Parliament. Meanwhile, all across the country, headquarters of parties are being sacked by their opponents. This is the stage which we have for the elections for May 25th. Will they be fair? There’s no money, according to the prime—the acting president and speaker. Vigilante militias routinely attack and disperse public gatherings they disapprove of. News broadcasts—yesterday Inter was interrupted by forces claiming to speak for the people. What do you think?
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going break and then come back to this discussion and talk about the significance of the release of the former prime minister, who was imprisoned and brought back in a wheelchair to Independence Square, where she made her re-emergence, this as the current president—the past president was fleeing Kiev. We’re talking to Nicolai Petro, professor of politics, University of Rhode Island, speaking to us from Odessa in Ukraine. We’re also speaking with Timothy Snyder, professor of history at Yale University. He’s today in Vienna, Austria. Stay with us.