It is 2014, and post-Soviet Ukraine is on the brink of revolution. Rife with civil unrest and discontentment, its citizens are furious at their president, a man to whom Ukraine represents nothing more than a means for money and power. His name is Viktor Yanukovych. As tensions further escalate, he will be overthrown and his government will be razed, opening the doors to a young, progressive regime and its lofty aspirations. In January 2019, this fledgling authority will convict him of high treason, signifying the end of a post-Soviet age in Ukraine, and setting the tone for the country’s next generation of governance.
In 2010, Yanukovych’s inauguration brought a fresh wave of financial corruption to Ukraine. Even though more than a quarter of his populace lived below the poverty line, Yanukovych lived large. Starting immediately after taking office, he built himself a mind-bogglingly expensive mansion outside of Kiev; its front doors alone were valued at $64 thousand apiece. Dissatisfied, he continued by constructing a private zoo, then a pirate ship to sit in his backyard. With a yearly governmental income of $24 thousand, it’s obvious that much of Yanukovych’s wealth exchanged hands below the table.
The most damning example of his political dishonesty stems from his close relationship with Russia, a country antagonistic toward Ukraine. The collapse of the Soviet Union saw the two part ways ideologically; while Russia remained firmly rooted in its Soviet heritage, Ukraine drifted toward westernization and even “clearly confirmed… its willingness to be integrated with the European Union.” Commonly described as Vladimir Putin’s “puppet,” Yanukovych consistently shepherded Ukraine away from Europe. Eagerly, he obeyed Russian interests that longed to keep Ukraine dependent on Russia. His most infamous feat was in 2013, when he refused to sign an association agreement with the European Union that would acknowledge the need for closer relations between the two. Even widespread popular support and thousands of demonstrators chanting “Ukraine is Europe” couldn’t change his mind. Citing “pressure” from Russia, he ignored his own citizens.
Yanukovych represented a fatal link between modern Ukraine and the Soviet way of old. His pervasive corruption harkened back to the twilight hours of the Soviet Union. By then, people had learned that “you may as well grab what you can today, because everything might be taken away tomorrow.” Similarly, Yanukovych desperately grabbed for money, power, and influence, nourishing himself even at his country’s expense. As the contemporary figurehead of Ukraine, he symbolized not the progressive state that Ukraine wished to become, but rather the crooked past it sought to escape.
His presence sapped at Ukraine’s stability until February 2014, when protests regarding the EU association agreement exploded. Distraught over months of Yanukovych’s refusal to sign, demonstrations in Independence Square, Kiev, escalated to violence. In response, government snipers fired into the crowd, and casualties entered the hundreds. From this chaos emerged a coup that invaded and commandeered official buildings throughout the city.
Then, it was over. Yanukovych’s administration was gone, his staff departed for fear of injury. His lavish mansion lay abandoned with no guards, and he himself had taken refuge under Putin’s wing in Moscow.
In the days following his exodus, Yanukovych penned a now-infamous letter begging Putin for military intervention on his behalf:
An illegal seizure of power has led Ukraine to the cusp of civil war… Chaos and anarchy rule the country. I appeal to… Vladimir Putin, with a request to use the armed forces of Russia to restore legal authority, peace, order, and stability.
This invitation for invasion kickstarted the bloodiest European conflict in recent history. Russian soldiers, disguised as civilians, promptly crossed into Crimea and attacked Ukrainian troops in pursuit of annexation. Furthermore, the Russian government sponsored violent Crimean secession movements which sought to reestablish the territory under Russian rule. From these campaigns, Yanukovych was responsible for a staggering ten thousand casualties.
Meanwhile, in his absence, the Ukrainian government had shut down. One Russian official remarked that “[Yanukovych] has run away — his security and staff have run away.” To restore authority, an interim government was hastily assembled. Its goal? Change. Spearheaded by a new generation of Ukrainian politicians — many of whom suffered through the final hours of the Soviet Union — the new regime has experience in fields from management to technology to language; whereas two ministers spoke English before the revolution, now only two do not. These signs of progress embody the new administration’s attempts to eliminate the dishonesty and corruption that had previously been synonymous with Yanukovych’s rule. Their rejection of these fundamental Soviet values signifies an undeniable commitment to finding Ukraine a place in the west.
This budding government wasted little time and, in 2017, levied charges of high treason against Yanukovych for his “complicity with Russian authorities” and “deliberate actions committed to alter the state border of Ukraine.” Upon his eventual conviction in 2019, the regime ultimately came into its own. Ukraine was absolved of its tainted ex-President and was releasing it from its Soviet chokehold. With its freedom, the country will finally hold true to the European desires of its people, even in the face of certain opposition from Russia and continuing civil unrest.
As for Yanukovych, little will change. He was tried much like he governed — in absentia — after injuring his back and leg while playing tennis in Moscow. Sadly, he does not intend to serve his sentence.
Originally published February, 2019 in the Point of View