In the West, we are taught that compromises are part of democracy. So when people hear about President Yanukovych’s recent concessions to the demonstrators, the first reaction of most will be it is time for the demonstrators to be conciliatory too, and the offer of being allowed to form a government sounds really good. Indeed, it was this path Poland travelled to democracy in 1989. So a brief explanation of the analogy with Poland in 1989 is limited and why Yanukovych’s offer remains unacceptable.
In late 1988, after strikes earlier that spring, the Polish government reached out to the old Solidarity leadership to negotiate the opposition’s way into politics. Poland was in an economic crisis, and the government knew it had to introduce radical measures ending the socialist economy but that it did not have the legitimacy to do that. The Solidarity opposition understood this and was very concerned that if they were given too much power. So the original deal was such that the Polish United Worker’s Party (PUWP) was supposed to be guaranteed to remain in power following free and fair elections. That arrangement fell through when the PUWP’s candidates lost so resoundingly in the June 1989 that they could not form a government, and it was only at that point that Adam Michnik suggested the way forward could be “your president, our prime minister.”
That is not where Ukraine is now. Like Poland in 1989, Ukraine is not just in a political crisis it is in an economic crisis, and for precisely the same reason that the Polish Solidarity leadership was so reluctant to take power in 1989 the Ukrainian opposition has wisely rejected Yanukovych’s offer. Yet, unlike Poland in 1989, Yanukovych’s offer cannot provide the basis of a way forward. He does not have the same answer to Ukraine’s economic crisis that the opposition does, Yanukovych has shown himself quite happy to accept terms from Vladimir Putin that will end Ukraine’s economic and military independence, while the opposition supports association with Europe. Were the Ukrainian opposition to take Yanukovych’s offer, and even if Yanukovych were to allow the opposition to implement their plan, which will create short-term economic difficulties for many people, Yanukovych and his allies would adopt populist rhetoric to appeal to people hurt by the reforms expected by the European Union to curry favor for his policies that would end Ukraine’s independence. Further, Yanukovych has only been chastened by protests, not at the ballot box. He has not offered new elections, let alone significant changes in the electoral laws that would reverse rules passed in 2010 to give advantage to Yanukovych’s Party of Regions and make it much more difficult to engage in electoral fraud.
Finally, the Polish leader General Wojciech Jaruzelski was a Polish patriot eager to maintain as much Polish sovereignty as was possible given Soviet domination. Yanukovych is not. He is a hugely corrupt politician, who as said above is more concerned in his own well-being than he is in Ukrainian sovereignty. Anything short of his resignation will leave him room to attempt to manipulate the situation to his advantage, and will perpetuate what the current corrupt system, which might be described as the Soviet system with a capitalist face. That is not what the people at the Euromaidan want, they want real democratic change, and fortunately they are not so in awe of their allies in the political opposition that they would accept it were the opposition to compromise with Yanukovych.