A Blow to the Heart of Ukrainian Democracy

Monday's grenade attack in Kiev has upended Ukrainian politics -- with unpredictable consequences.

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Kiev awoke from Ukraine’s traditional summer lull this Monday with a start — a right-wing demonstrator had thrown a grenade at National Guard officers during a rally next to the parliament building. With over a hundred officers injured and three killed, the attack in the heart of Kiev was far deadlier to the Ukrainian state than any military offensive in the east that day. The initial feeling of indignant shock among ordinary Ukrainians is now giving way to calls for decisive action against far-right radicals close to the Svoboda party.

But the consequences of the attack are not limited to “law and order” concerns. Monday’s explosion has, in many ways, heightened tensions along several critical fault lines in Ukrainian political life. By exacerbating splits within the ruling coalition of political parties, the attack may have a drastic and unpredictable effect on Ukrainian politics. It has provoked a sharp debate about how much leeway to give to extremist political forces. It has produced calls to limit Ukraine’s hard-won freedom of peaceful assembly. And it provides a difficult test for the country’s political leaders — will they be able to balance concerns about security with the imperative to safeguard political freedoms?

The rally at which the attack took place was organized by members of the right-wing Svoboda and populist Radical parties in protest of several proposed constitutional amendments. These legislative changes, passed in a first reading on August 31, would introduce the concept of “special terms of local government” for the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, most of which are ruled de facto by pro-Russian separatists, and extend the authority of local governments across the country.

The decentralization amendments became a hot topic from the moment they were unveiled by the presidential administration in July, given the widespread fear that Russia is trying to hijack the Ukrainian constitutional process. Opponents have alleged that the proposed changes would grant unprecedented powers to pro-Russian militants in Donetsk and Luhansk, thus giving Russia a legal foothold in Ukrainian politics.

President Poroshenko has responded that this is the only way to prove Ukraine’s commitment to the ceasefire agreement signed in Minsk this February, which required Ukraine to adopt a new constitution by the end of 2015. Passing the amendments, he insists, is the only way to keep the West’s support for Ukraine and ensure sanctions on Russia are maintained. Apparently sensing confusion among the public about the proposed amendments, the administration has recently pointed to opinion polls showing that a majority of Ukrainians favor decentralization.

None of these arguments have persuaded the far-right and populist parties, in or out of parliament, to give in. With local elections approaching in October, they have taken to labelling the amendments a “betrayal” of Ukrainian national interests under Russian pressure. This rhetoric resonates in particular with some of the desperate fighters still engaging pro-Russian separatists and Russian troops in the east, particularly those who have lost limbs or comrades in the war. The far right and populists have proven so skillful in fueling this anger that one of their followers has now responded by hurling a grenade in a densely crowded place.

Both moderate and conservative opinion leaders have reacted to the attacks with bitter outrage. Columnist Vitaliy Portnikov described the carnage as an act of “blood politics” indicating that Svoboda may have lost control over its extreme supporters. Svyatoslav Vakarchuk, a cult rock singer, publicly donated a hefty sum to the family of a deceased National Guard serviceman. Filaret, the Patriarch of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, has condemned the attack as an attempt to start a civil war. These gestures of indignation herald deeper changes in Ukraine’s public politics.

Firstly, there is now a growing realization that far-right groups who are willing to use violence for political purposes must be marginalized. After President Poroshenko promised to oversee the investigation of the attacks in a snap TV address, the Prosecutor’s Office announced four suspects in the case.

Unlike the clashes between the police and the Right Sector extremist group in Mukacheve (in the far west of the country) in July, the attack in Kiev appears to have been carefully planned. It will be much harder for far-right groups to explain away the explosion as a provoked response in the face of an overwhelming police presence. Anton Shekhovtsov, an expert on the Ukrainian far-right, notes that Svoboda’s leadership is not in full control over the party’s radical youth wing. There is little stopping the extremists from radicalizing even further, especially now that they have easy access to weapons from the war zone in the east. Having failed to co-opt the right-wing groups with official positions (Svoboda is no longer in the government and Right Sector is reluctant to join the official military structures), the Ukrainian government may try the stick: finally jailing the most radical leaders.

Secondly, the attack in Kiev threatens to upend mainstream Ukrainian politics. The debate over the proposed constitutional amendments has already started to split the president’s ruling coalition, which consists of the pro-presidential Poroshenko bloc, the Prime Minister’s “People’s Front,” and three minor parties. Even before the attack, these three refused to vote for the amendments, despite the fact that changes to the constitution were one of the key provisions in the coalition agreement signed by all five of its members last year. The amendments passed despite their opposition, as opposition legislators and independents provided the required votes.

Following the grenade explosion, the populist Radical party — one of the three minor members of the ruling coalition — announced its exit, claiming outrage at the coalition’s alignment with the parliamentary opposition, much of which consists of cronies of deposed president Yanukovych. The real intention, however, is clear: the Radicals want to carve out a piece of the anti-establishment electorate ahead of the October polls. Now that they have become the “first quitter,” the other two minor parties may follow to the exit. If the ruling coalition does fall apart, it could lead to snap parliamentary elections and heightened political tension — with a potential for further clashes between former allies.

Thirdly, the attack will put a serious strain on a crucial feature of Ukrainian political life since the Euromaidan revolution: street politics. Even in liberal circles, there are now voices calling for tightening security measures ahead of political rallies. Some politicians have called for the banning of the right-wing Svoboda party as a terrorist organization, a move that — beyond implications for political freedom — could actually reignite a party that has been steadily losing popular support. If the explosion goes unpunished, the large number of police casualties may also have a demoralizing impact on many policemen, who are already reluctant to act decisively during political rallies. The prospect of a government unable to mobilize its law enforcement agencies to protect political expression — even to ensure the public’s safety at peaceful assemblies — is certainly troubling for Ukraine’s democracy.

Ukraine’s post-Maidan political elites are still oscillating between their worst instinct — grabbing their share of the electoral pie at any price, even amid raging societal conflict — and a slow realization that their political survival depends on providing security, the public good that matters most in today’s Ukraine. In the face of their own predatory urges ahead of the election season, the parties that claim to be the true successors of the Euromaidan revolution now face the test of defending the revolution’s main achievement: the freedom of peaceful assembly.

In the photo, a police officer stands guard in front of the Ukrainian parliament in Kiev on Sept. 1, 2015, near the site of the grenade blast.

Photo credit: SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP/Getty Images

Correction, Sept. 2, 2015: The grenade attack happened on Monday, Aug. 31, not on Sunday as an earlier version of this story mistakenly stated.

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