Trapped in a power struggle between Russia and the EU, the current Euromaidan protests in Ukraine are forcing the nation to choose an identity at a time when it may not be ready to do so. For all the discussions of wide international scale, Ukraine has yet to face the problems within its own borders, though they have been there for decades.
The media have latched on to the impending decision between these two poles of the greater European continent with zeal, and have characteristically lost themselves in convenient narratives.
A particularly polemicizing article in The Economist reads like Cold War propaganda . The author writes that “‘disgust’…is now the proper Western attitude to [Ukrainian president] Yanukovych.” The government’s decision to postpone talks with the EU means that “Western leaders should deal with him as little as possible, and hold their noses when they do.” In a particularly stirring passage, the author writes of the “thousands of brave souls on the icy streets of Kiev” who are proof of “Ukrainian’s hope of joining the European family”. An earlier article calls Yanukovych a venal and self- interested gangster pygmy .
There’s a bit of demagoguery going on here.
What most media fail to realize is that the “European family” is not necessarily what the Ukraine wants, or needs– that perhaps Yanukovych has more than his own venal self-interest at heart.
Ukraine’s current territory consists of former sections of the Russian and Austro- Hungarian Empires and includes the Autonomous Republic of Crimea, formerly part of the Ottoman Empire. Ukraine has had sizable Jewish and Tatar populations and the people of Ukraine have historically spoken Ukrainian, Polish, Russian, German, Romanian, Hungarian, and Yiddish. Today, Ukraine has settled into a rough East-West delineation; Eastern Ukraine is traditionally more sympathetic to Russia after three and a half centuries of continued Russian dominance, while Western Ukraine recalls close ties to “Europe”, and longs to share in the European prosperity they felt was robbed of them during the Soviet era .
This legacy of division is clearly manifest in the ideological divergences of the Ukrainian citizenry.
Polls taken by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology show that western regions favor alignment with the European Union over a Customs Union with Russia (69 percent to 11 percent) . Central regions more narrowly support EU alliance at 43 percent to 27 percent. In the south and east, the numbers favor the Customs Union; the south shows 51 percent to 29 percent and the east shows 61 percent to 15 percent.
Significantly, opinions are also split along age divides; 52 percent of respondents aged 18-29 and 41 percent of 30-39 year olds favor a move toward the EU, while 41 percent of 50-59 year olds, 42 percent of 60-69 year olds, and 48 percent of respondents older that 70 favor entry into the Customs Union.
There is no unified Ukrainian zeitgeist demanding a move toward the EU, not even a significant majority align themselves with the EU. Ukraine is almost evenly divided about its ideological allegiances.
Taking into account economic considerations only further complicates Ukraine’s path.
The EU Association Agreement is part of the EU’s “Eastern Partnership” program which does not actually entail EU membership, or even visa-free travel to EU countries. It is a program to bring former Soviet states closer to EU standards by imposing a number of foreign and security policies and setting standards for justice, interior, environment, transportation, and education. There is speculation that local Ukrainian businesses will not be able to comply with many of these standards and will be replaced by international or European corporations.
A second part of the EU deal includes a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement, which, if ratified, would mean that the Customs Union of Belarus, Kazakhstan and Russia would cease free trade agreements with Ukraine, imperiling 25 percent of Ukraine’s exports . Additionally, Russia had threatened to cut off natural gas supplies to Ukraine if it were to sign the agreements, which in the middle of winter would mean certain death for many Ukrainians dependent on natural gas for heat.
Practically, Yanukovych’s decision to postpone agreements actually makes sense, and it is illogical for protestors to demand that Ukraine accept the European Agreement when the consequences of alienating Russia are so high, and when EU sanctions do not include immediate relief.
But if the protests are not clearly ideologically or economically consistent, what has motivated such a huge movement?
For the majority of protestors, the demonstrations find their roots in conflicts predating the European Agreement. They are an attempt to once again oust the government and finally find a way out of the cycle of corruption and ineffectiveness that has plagued Ukraine for decades .
In 2004, Ukrainians ousted their president, Viktor Yanukovych from power, on allegations of electoral fraud. The rival who subsequently assumed the presidency, Victor Yushchenko, revealed himself to be a fierce nationalist, but proved a miserable and ineffectual disappointment, primarily due to his constant bickering with prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko. When Tymoshenko, Yushchenko and Yanukovych ran for president in 2010, a cynical Ukraine narrowly reelected Viktor Yanukovych, whom they had ousted six years prior.
Tymoshenko, who lost by a three point margin and planned on running in 2015, was charged with abuse of power and embezzlement concerning a contract with a Russian gas company. She is now serving a seven year sentence after a verdict that was the EU saw as “justice being applied selectively under political motivation” . Her release is a condition of the EU Agreement and also one of three demands of the protestors.
The only other two demands are the resignation of Yanukovych’s government (again) and the arrest of all Berkut officers who indiscriminately assaulted protestors, the elderly, and children on December 1st.
But who is to say that Ukraine will escape the cycle of corruption and emerge as a unified people this time around? The Orange Revolution proved a wash in this respect. Instead of achieving self-determination, which requires a certain kind of unity, Ukraine remained trapped between Tymoshenko and Yushchenko. Just as it is now trapped between west/center and east/south. Between young and old. Between EU and Russia.
The first of these traps is no more: Yushchenko was poisoned, his face disfigured, and he soundly lost the 2010 elections, with only 5.45 percent of the vote. Tymoshenko has a significant chance of winning (if indeed she still runs) in 2015 if the protestors get their demands.
The second trap is a problem of lines being drawn in sand. But since those lines don’t show any sign of being redrawn, Ukraine’s historical disparities will continue to complicate unity.
The third trap will ebb and flow with time. The young who dream of Europe will slowly outnumber the old who feel a sympathetic attachment to their Russian heritage. And then a new cohort of youngsters will dream a different dream.
But the forced choice between the EU and Russia is what will sadly be the largest determinant of Ukraine’s identity, and one that has been unnecessarily rushed by the protests. As of December 15th, Kiev was accused of failing to show “clear commitment” to the EU deal, and has pursued closer economic ties with Moscow, with the hope that a trade agreement will be reached Tuesday on gas commerce. This does not signal a movement toward the Customs Union, but rather an acknowledgment of the harsh necessities of winter.
On December 17th parliament will consider a no-confidence vote. If the government is dissolved, Ukraine’s new government won’t be spared having to choose its allegiances, rather, the pressure to choose sides will mount considerably to avoid the blunders following the Orange Revolution.
U.S. Senator John McCain provided the most insightful commentary when he addressed protesters on the 15th, “People of Ukraine, this is your moment. This is about you, no one else. This is about the future you want for your country. This is about the future you deserve…”
But it isn’t, really. Ukraine has to choose sides, and it is not in fact about them and no one else, as far as the West is concerned, it is about “A future in Europe…with all of your neighbors. The free world is with you, America is with you, I am with you” .
Ukraine faces a deep identity crisis, which is burdened by its strategic location as a “buffer” between “East and West” . In its search for self-determination it will sadly have to make a difficult and outdated choice between faded Cold War titans.
But at least this winter, there will be gas in their stoves.
1 http://www.economist.com/news/leaders/21591589-viktor-yanukovych-has-made-his-choice-his-country- has-chosen-otherwise-goodbye-putin
2 http://www.economist.com/news/leaders/21590902-why-despite-appearance-defeat-europe-might-have- won-battle-ukraine-day
4 http://www.kyivpost.com/content/ukraine/poll-ukrainian-public-split-over-eu-customs-union- options-332470.html
5 http://rbth.co.uk/news/2013/08/21/ customs_union_may_withdraw_from_fta_with_ukraine_if_kyiv_signs_associati_29076.html
6 http://www.opendemocracy.net/od-russia/serhij-leschenko/yanukovych-luxury-residence-and-money- trail-that-leads-to-london
demand-leaders-resignation.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2013_Ukraine_protests http://www.economist.com/blogs/easternapproaches/2013/11/ukraine-and-eu-0