Viktor Yanukovych, the president, who had tried to rig elections in 2004, this time played the part of a statesman on an historic mission.
The performance was to culminate on November 29th with the signing of an association agreement between Ukraine and European Union leaders.
The role appeared too much for Mr Yanukovych: a week before the summit, he rewrote the script.
He halted the talks with the EU, and turned to Russia instead, sparking mass protests from Ukrainians who feel their future is being gambled away.
Mr Yanukovych blamed his change of mind on Russia’s economic pressure and European stinginess.
He claimed that he had not expected Russia to carry through its threats to impose sanctions on Ukraine’s imports, even though Mr Putin never gave him reason to doubt the Kremlin’s resolve.
Mr Yanukovych evoked laughter with his attempt to justify his U-turn by the need to protect the nation’s vulnerable citizens—as he did with his “concern” for private business.
Petro Poroshenko, a businessman and a proponent of Ukraine’s European integration, whose exports of chocolates to Russia have been hit hard, says his business suffers more from being raided by Ukraine’s security and tax men than it does from Russia’s sanctions.
In fact, one of the main reasons why many oligarchs support Ukraine’s deal with the EU is because they see it as a protection against Mr Yanukovych.
Mr Yanukovych’s change of mind stunned the Europeans.
It should not have done.
His initial move towards Europe was not a strategic choice based on the long-term interests of his country, but one based on the short-term interests of Mr Yanukovych and his family, which, unlike Ukraine’s economy, seems to be thriving.
At a meeting with newspaper editors some time ago, Mr Yanukovych was asked which path Ukraine should choose.
His answer was apparently the path of money.
With Ukraine’s economy on the verge of bankruptcy and a presidential election looming in 2015, the need for funding has become acute.
Winning the election seems to be a question of life and death for Mr Yanukovych.
If he does not win, he may not only lose his wealth, but also swap places with Yulia Tymoshenko, a former prime minister and his arch rival who is now in jail.
Signing a deal with the EU may have offered Mr Yanukovych his best chance of defeating the opposition fairly, but he apparently preferred tried and tested methods, which include a mix of electoral bribery and a crackdown on dissent.
Unwilling to launch economic reforms, cut spending or tame the appetites of his cronies, Mr Yanukovych proceeded to trade the country’s most valuable asset: Ukraine’s geopolitical position.
“The talks with the EU were an auction. It was a position of a pimp who is offering Ukraine up for sale,” says Mr Poroshenko.
Mr Yanukovych let it be known that, if Europe wanted a modern, democratic Ukraine, it needed to pay.
His price was $160 billion by 2017.
European politicians were aghast at such blatant blackmail; Mr Putin seemed happy to haggle.
It is not clear what he and Mr Yanukovych agreed during their secret meeting in early November—the deal is said to include cheaper gas, credits and lucrative business contracts—but not, it is rumoured in Kiev, a requirement that Ukraine join a proposed new customs union with Russia.
Whatever the understanding, it has persuaded Mr Yanukovych to distance himself from the EU.
Though nothing is ever final in Ukraine, Mr Yanukovych’s favoured option seems to be to preserve the status quo and refrain from joining either camp while continuing to milk both—hence his new proposal of three-way talks.
A face-saving memorandum may yet be signed with the EU, but the collapse of the association agreement could be a blessing in disguise for the Europeans.
Teaming up with Mr Yanukovych, who would never have implemented it, would have only led to disappointment and recriminations, while helping Mr Yanukovych get re-elected.
Instead, the collapse brought pressure on Mr Yanukovych from educated middle-class Ukrainians who feel that their future has been hijacked and their dream stolen.
Haunted by the memories of 2004, Mr Yanukovych may try to crack down, but time is against him.
On November 24th tens of thousands of Ukrainians went to the streets in support of Ukraine’s European course.
More protests are planned after the EU summit.
Coming nine years after the Orange revolution, which failed to realise its promises, these protests are by a younger generation and aimed at both Mr Yanukovych and the entire political class.
For them the choice between the Soviet past and a European future is non-negotiable.
Source: The Economist Europe