With as many as 500,000 Ukrainians taking to the streets in recent days to protest over their government's failure to sign an Association Agreement with the European Union, President Viktor Yanukovych must find himself wondering whether he is facing a second Orange Revolution.
Twelve days on, there's no let up in the demonstrations, and cracks are appearing in the edifice of governmental power. Two members of parliament have already resigned -- along with the head of the presidential administration (though Yanukovych refused to accept the resignation) -- and some powerful oligarchs appear ready to similarly jump ship from what's beginning to look like an imperiled regime.
Yanukovych is right to wonder whether it's 2004 all over again, not least because the opposition, riding a wave of popular anger sparked by the jettisoning of the EU deal, is calling for him and his entourage to resign. Yes, the protests have occurred mainly in the central and western regions -- the most pro-EU and anti-Yanukovych parts of Ukraine -- but there have also been more modest anti-government demonstrations in the Russophone south and east (the Donbas), Yanukovych's bastions.
More important, there have been no rallies -- apart from some lackluster, stage-managed ones -- in support of Yanukovych, even on his home turf. Russia has shown no inclination to come to his rescue, though Vladimir Putin has bizarrely likened the demonstrations to a pogrom, adding that they were not spontaneous but organized well in advance to shape Ukraine's 2015 presidential election.
Exactly nine years ago, in November 2004, multitudes of Ukrainians thronged the streets to denounce Yanukovych's fraudulent "victory" in the presidential elections. They sent him packing then. Now, it looks like they may do so again.
Having proclaimed Ukraine's European destiny for close to two years, and having raised popular hopes that the Soviet legacy would finally be shed with the signing of the EU agreement, Yanukovych scuppered the deal at the last minute, creating public outrage, and pretty much guaranteeing the current anti-regime rallies. Demonstrators have now adopted a European identity, waving EU flags while chanting "Ukraine Is Europe!"
No less worrisome for Yanukovych, the protests have spread at an alarming rate. Students from several universities have declared strikes, while smaller anti-regime rallies have also taken place across the country. Several members of Yanukovych's Party of Regions have handed in their papers; some have declared their solidarity with the demonstrators; others have called on Yanukovych to resign. Riot police in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv have refused to crack down on demonstrators, while militiamen in Kiev ran from the scene of the mass demonstrations. Several western Ukrainian provinces have officially declared general strikes.
In sum, popular mobilization continues, while the regime appears to be cracking.
Yanukovych now faces a dilemma. If he does nothing in the face of the massive demonstrations in the capital and other major cities, he risks a repeat of the Orange Revolution that drove him from power. If he decides to unleash the army and police, there is no guarantee that the forces of coercion could reestablish control.
Moreover, it's unclear that the army would be willing or even able to crush the protesters. It's underpaid, underfed, untested and certainly has no experience acting as a police force. The militia is just as unreliable; will these recently drafted provincial boys be willing to crack heads? Some will, but many -- when faced with the popular anger of regular Ukrainians -- may not.