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Ukrainian sailors march in the Ukrainian Black Sea port of Sevastopol on Monday, Feb. 24, 2014. Ukraine’s acting government issued an arrest warrant Monday for President Viktor Yanukovych, accusing him of mass crimes against the protesters who stood up for months against his rule. (Darko Vojinovic/Associated Press)
Ukrainian sailors march in the Ukrainian Black Sea port of Sevastopol on Monday, Feb. 24, 2014. Ukraine’s acting government issued an arrest warrant Monday for President Viktor Yanukovych, accusing him of mass crimes against the protesters who stood up for months against his rule. (Darko Vojinovic/Associated Press)

Christopher Westdal

Today Ukrainians are heroes. Next they must tread carefully Add to ...

The buck stopped in Kiev Saturday. Whatever becomes of their state, Ukrainians took their national fate into their own hands. No one did this to or for them; they did it themselves.

A deal endorsed by their president, by the official leaders of the opposition, by the leading nations of Europe, by Canada and by governments around the world was thought to give Viktor Yanukovych at least ten more months in office. On the Maidan, that deal lasted ten minutes, about as long as it took for the protesters in Kiev’s central square to recite it. The people said no and threw Yanukovych out, however legally, that very day. Prediction is easy, pundits might note, except for the future.

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We may one day know but can now only wonder whether the German, Polish and French Foreign Ministers who negotiated the 10-month deal ever believed it would hold – or whether the Polish minister, promoting the pact to protesters, really believed they’d “all be dead” without it. The ministers were wrong, both times, but they did help Ukraine back away from the brink.

Success has a thousand fathers, but before any foreigners claim victory, let all note who sired this one: the fearless, constant protesters, including those prepared to fight and die – and, lest they be overlooked, the soldiers of Ukraine prepared to mutiny before they’d fire at their own people. President Yanukovych might have tried, but in the end, he could not crack down. His army wouldn’t shoot.

The scores who have died are keenly mourned, but this relatively peaceful overthrow of a tough government, one which Ukrainians elected but came to despise – not for its trade policy, but for its abuse and insult to their dignity – is a tribute to Ukrainian character.

The hard tests go on, though. The circumstances of the new leaders of Ukraine are daunting, their agenda a hornet’s nest.

They must sustain public order. The very last thing any patriotic Ukrainian needs now is anarchy, a fateful vacuum of power.

They must achieve and sustain consolidated, coherent leadership. Yulia Tymoschenko, for one, however inspiring or current, does not look fit for more than a figurehead role. Her ally, former Speaker Olexsander Tuchynov, whom MPs have named interim President, has historic work cut out. Personalities aside, the protestors were united by what they opposed. They now need broad unity deciding what they propose. Given the diversities and egos involved, that is easier said than done.

As he builds a coalition as inclusive as might be, Tuchynov and his partners must contend with potential threats to Ukraine’s national unity, with a so far formally defiant Yanukovych, holed up in the east, if he hasn’t fled the country yet, with who knows just what plans and support.

They will have to deal with Moscow’s reactions – and seek from the start to build the good relations they need with their big, close neighbour.

Their economy is a mess in deep distress. They need help now – and could well use more for some time to recover and build a better future for their people. Most of the work, though, they will have to do themselves. The EU is full and broke.

They ought tread very carefully in their quest for justice. Warrants have been issued for Yanukovych’s arrest. In prominent ranks are Ukrainians who want him to “feel the wrath of the people ... like Ceausescu and Gadaffi.” Their fury may rise as the venality, excess and corruption of President Yanukovych’s rule are exposed, such as the long-held secrets of the bizarre Xanadu he built on the banks of the Dnipro and the backs of the people.

Ukrainians will want to temper that anger, though, lest it poison the dawn of their new day. Vengeance is best left to the Lord. The new powers might rather be magnanimous in their victory, merciful with their compatriots even as they hold them to a fair measure of account, and focused more on all the good they might now get done rather than all the bad that’s gone before.

That is for the morrow, though. Today, let us salute the courage, the stamina and the discipline of the Ukrainian people and celebrate this moment of joy in their history. This is not a victory for east or west. This is a victory for them.

Christopher Westdal was Canada’s ambassador to Ukraine from 1996 to 1998 and ambassador to Russia from 2003 to 2006.

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