Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Ukraine has one option

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Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych has two choices to end the growing violence and unrest in his divided country.

He can escalate the military crackdown, send in the tanks, arrest every protester and opponent, impose martial law and turn the lights out after dusk.

Or he can resign with his government, call new elections and invite observers to ensure the vote is fair and true. Mr. Yanukovych himself cannot run for office again. He has too much blood on his hands.

The disgraced president has reportedly agreed to a truce with the political opposition, but a tense standoff continued between riot police and protesters in Kyiv, while violence was breaking out in other cities.

The idea that he can restore his government's legitimacy through violence or in negotiations with the opposition, however, is a false hope.

Ukraine, a country divided along east-west and linguistic and cultural lines, could be facing civil war, or at least a period of sustained violence if the president does not reverse course and step down.

If Mr. Yanukovych fails to learn from history, actually from very recent history, he could face a Ukrainian Spring that would leave the country bankrupt and bereft, even more dependent on Russia. Even if he is successful in silencing every critic, his government today lacks the credibility and moral foundation to rule.

Canada, the United States and the European Union are considering sanctions against key Ukrainian officials, but it should be looking at stronger measures.

Freezing the bank accounts and denying travel visas to a few government leaders is unlikely to generate much of a response, particularly when Russia is standing by Ukraine's side, ready to do what's necessary to prop up the regime.

Russia, of course, blames western ambitions and the protesters for the troubles. Moscow wants the United States and the European Union to condemn the demonstrators and urge the opposition to work with the government.

The crisis erupted last fall when President Yanukovych rejected deeper association with the European Union in favour of closer ties with Russia, which offered Ukraine a $15-billion bailout to help pay down its debt.

That decision divided the western part of the country, where Ukrainian is the dominant language, from the eastern half, where Russian is the main language.

The larger western portion has long wanted to be more closely associated with the west and its liberal democratic traditions, while the Russified eastern half is more comfortable with deep ties to Moscow.

In that sense, Ukraine is really two nations under one flag, but its future direction is one that can be settled through civil dialogue and the ballot box.

So much blood has been spilled and so much emotion unleashed, however, it is unclear if an amnesty or conciliatory gesture would restore peace.

Despite the president's offer of a truce with the political opposition, the protesters have shown no signs of backing down, which they are unlikely to do unless something dramatic, or dramatically violent, happens.

The trend in violent protests in recent years is that the disaffected and alienated do not give up until their government falls or a leader is toppled.

President Yanukovych obviously hopes he can cling to power, but he must realize that only his resignation and new elections can reset the clock and give Ukraine the opportunity to renew and redefine its place in the world.

Canada and other western nations should remind him it is better that he leave on his own than be swept from office by the tides of history.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Gerald Flood, Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien and Paul Samyn.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 20, 2014 A10

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