Broad Issues Galvanize Ukraine Protesters' Stand

The political unrest in Ukraine is spreading. Steve Inskeep talks to Steven Pifer, senior analyst at the Brookings Institution and former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine, about the issues behind the upheaval in Ukraine.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

We're also following the upheaval in Ukraine. The confrontation between demonstrators and the government has intensified. Anti-government protests that started in the capital have spread to other cities with protestors taking over some government buildings and clashing with security forces. The government has made some concessions this week, like rescinding a harsh anti-protest law, and talks with the opposition continue. The prime minister, in fact, stepped down today. All of this has been described as a protest against the elected president who rejected a trade deal with the European Union. He was under pressure from Russia. But there may be more going on, here. We spoke earlier with Steven Pifer, a senior analyst at the Brookings Institution and a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine.

STEVEN PIFER: Back in November, when the protests began, the focus was Europe and the desire of protestors to have Ukraine move closer towards the European Union. But since then, it's broadened, and you see now people out on the streets who are having more of a general opposition to Mr. Yanukovych's policies, the corruption. On January 16th, the Ukrainian parliament passed a number of laws, which are clearly anti-democratic, and that's caused a major backlash.

INSKEEP: OK. You mentioned corruption. You mentioned democracy. Let's take them one at a time: What is the problem with corruption in Ukraine?

PIFER: Well, Ukraine has always had problem with corruption, but there's a general perception among the public in Ukraine that in the last four years under President Yanukovych, the problem has become much worse, including corruption by people that are fairly close to the president.

INSKEEP: What is it that people close to the president are at least alleged to be doing?

PIFER: We have very close connections between people in business and people in the government. The concept of conflict of interest is not well-known or well-applied in Ukraine. And you see people, for example, the president's son, who was a dentist, is now becoming a very wealthy businessman from what people suspect are trading on his connections with the government.

INSKEEP: He's not doing dental work and becoming...

PIFER: Not at all doing dental work. He's doing banks and other industries.

INSKEEP: Now, let's remember that President Yanukovych, as much as he has been protested against, was democratically elected. But you did mention Ukraine's parliament changing the rules of Ukraine's democracy. Is it still a democracy?

PIFER: It's moved well away from democracy in the last three to four years under Mr. Yanukovych. And again, a specific trigger for what I think you've seen in the last 10 days were laws that were jammed through the Ukrainian parliament on January 16th. And they basically were intended to criminalize almost everything the demonstrators are doing.

INSKEEP: OK. And what did the new rules do?

PIFER: They criminalize now wearing helmets. They criminalize wearing masks. They now criminalize slander. It's basically designed to apply more severe penalties to everything that the (unintelligible) have been doing for the last two months.

INSKEEP: One other thing, Ambassador Pifer, and this is something that Americans have asked in quite a few countries around the world: Is there anyone the United States can support here, particularly given that some of the opposition leaders used to be running the country and were thrown out of office in an election? People didn't like how they did.

PIFER: No. My sense that the place where the United States should be, and I think the European Union should be, is basically on the side of trying to find a peaceful resolution to this crisis. The Ukraine right now is on the verge of spinning out of control, and the situation could get very ugly, very quickly. I think the United States and Europe have some leverage. They should be pressing the Ukrainian government very hard to negotiate seriously in good faith, and they should also be working with the opposition and encouraging the opposition not to overreach.

American influence here is probably limited, but there are things that the United States could do. Last week, the United States announced the first visa sanctions against government officials connected to use of force. It may be time to broaden that and target visa and financial sanctions against the inner circle around Mr. Yanukovych to make the point that they need to be pushing the president to find a peaceful solution to this crisis, otherwise, they could lose their ability to travel to the West, and they may lose their ability to bank in the West.

INSKEEP: Steven Pifer is a former U.S. ambassador to the Ukraine. Thanks very much.

PIFER: Thank you for having me.

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