Ukraine’s tipping point

Killing of dozens of protesters on Thursday has led to unstoppable erosion of President Yanukovich’s power.

Two days ago I was cowering from police gunfire in central Kiev. Now, the police are nowhere to be seen. A funeral procession winds its way from Independence Square. Coffins are held aloft, faces stream with tears. If this is victory, it has come at a very heavy cost.

The old Ukrainian government has collapsed. President Viktor Yanukovich is on the run. There are shades of Baghdad and Tripoli as crowds of people gawp at the gaudy excess of the abandoned presidential residence, and revel in the vulgarity of it all.  The zoo…. the car collection…… the galleon in the lake….

Meanwhile, Yanukovich’s ministers and top aides have also fled, with a handful of body guards and fistfuls of cash. Heads of the security and police forces are queuing up to disassociate themselves from him.

It has got me thinking about how regimes collapse. What is the tipping point, when a steady erosion of authority becomes unstoppable? What makes officials decide they are safer abandoning the ship than trying to keep it afloat?

No two revolutions are exactly alike, but I would like to offer a theory as to the moment when Ukraine’s former government sealed its fate. It was about 9am on Thursday, when the police opened fire on the crowds of protestors who were running towards them on Institutskaya Street.

In the short-term there was no contest – the protestors had only wooden and flimsy metal shields to try and fend off bullets. They were cut down, and fell to the ground in agony. But those terrible moments of death were caught on camera. So too were the police marksmen who picked off their targets with cool precision.

Within hours, the pictures flashed across Ukraine and the rest of the world. People were horrified and revolted. The killings were indefensible. And so, in a strange irony, they may have also fatally undermined President Yanukovich. The protestors’ sense of outrage and righteousness was strengthened, even more than they had been by the previous clumsy attempts to crush their movement. 

There was no turning back now, they felt, not after so many had fallen in the cause. When opposition leaders announced a compromise deal with President Yanukovich on Friday evening, they were booed and heckled by the crowds in Independence Square.

But the killings also presented Kiev’s security forces with their moment of truth. Did they have the stomach for the further killings that would undoubtedly have followed if President Yanukovich had tried to suppress the protests? How much loyalty, really, did they feel for President Yanukovich? Enough to gun down yet more of their fellow citizens? Enough to live with the risk of shame and opprobrium in their own country for the rest of their lives?

Apparently no. Because on Saturday morning, the police had melted away, and Yanukovich was on the run.