Inside the News: Ukraine Protests
Posted on Tuesday, January 07, 2014
As events develop around the globe, Hobart and William Smith Colleges will share the insight of faculty experts through a series of interviews conducted by Andrew Wickenden ’09.
When Ukraine's President, Viktor Yanukovych, refused an association with the European Union (EU) in November, protests erupted in the Kiev, Ukraine's capital city of roughly 2.75 million. As the New Yorker reported in December, the deal Yanukovych rejected was "essentially a free-trade contract with the multi-national bloc to Ukraine's west-right over the border, but a million psychic miles away. The result of years of negotiation, the agreement represented a confirmation, especially for Ukraine's educated youth, that theirs was a normal country-part of Europe, not some ‘Little Russia' appendage of the hegemon to the north." Protesters, numbering 200,000 at the height of the demonstrations, have congregated in Kiev's Independence Square, known as the Maidan, since late November, even after they were met with riot police and beatings. They toppled a statue of Lenin, a remnant of life under Soviet rule, and have been supported by visits from U.S. Senators John McCain and Chris Murphy. Meanwhile, as Reuters reported, Yanukovych met with Russia's President Vladimir Putin and came away with $15 billion "economic lifeline...to help Ukraine stave off economic crisis though Moscow will hope it keeps Kiev in its political and economic orbit."
As tension runs high in Ukraine and Yanukovych faces demands to resign, David Ost, professor of political science with expertise in Eastern European politics and labor relations, lends his insight.
What is the political and economic context of Yanukovych's decision to reject the EU in favor of aid from Russia?
Ukraine is split politically and demographically: Kiev and western Ukraine are very pro-EU; Eastern Ukraine is pro-Russia. So Ukraine is stuck between the EU and Russia. Russia wants Ukraine to be part of a new free train zone (which includes Armenia, Belarus, and other parts of former Soviet Union), while the EU has been trying to arrange a deal with Ukraine but is still playing games. The EU has always been very reluctant about Ukraine; Poland is one of leading proponents of getting Ukraine in, while France, Britain, and Germany are wary of letting Ukraine in -- because it's poor, large, and internally divided. It would cost the EU heavily to give it the aid it needs, and most EU citizens would certainly oppose the free movement of Ukrainian laborers into their countries, especially during this time of crisis. So right now the EU is offering Ukraine a mostly symbolic tie, without tangible immediate economic benefits. The reality is that Russia can offer Ukraine concrete benefits in the short term, probably on gas prices. Even the free trade zone might be better economically in the short term.
The other part of the picture is that Putin is playing a hard hand. Yanukovych would want to sign onto a Russian accord and improve ties with the EU. Both Russia and the EU want Ukraine to choose. It's hard to see any solution that satisfies everyone.
The New Yorker reports that among American commentators, the consensus is that "Yanukovych's decision was a matter of traditional power politics. Europe and Russia had fought over Ukraine, and Russia won." However, in Kiev "the villainy belongs solely to Yanukovych, whose government they regard as something like a cross between a Mafia family and a Soviet puppet regime. Yanukovych, as they see it, simply decided to sell his country to Russia, for his own financial benefit and for the benefit of the relatives and cronies with whom he runs the country." With Ukraine relying on Russia's support, who benefits most?
Some blame this deal entirely on Yanukovych being pro-Russian. He comes from the eastern part of Ukraine and has long favored closer ties with Russia. But again, Russia offers more concrete economic benefits in the short- and medium-term, with the EU a desirable long-term project. On the other hand, closer Russian ties right now could be a step towards Russia essentially reincorporating Ukraine. Overall, Yanukovych hasn't been playing such a bad hand. He seems to be searching for some kind of dialogue. He doesn't want to be a part of Russia, whose top ministers often talk about Ukraine and Russia as inseparable. But Russia can provide some economic assistance, and is more willing to do that now than the EU is. As far as I can tell, the American perception of this issue is that Russia is a bully and the Ukrainian people just want to be free, but that doesn't tell us much.
After failed attempts at dispersing the crowd-by force and with a failed attempt at a rival rally (many of whose participants, the Guardian reported, "admitted privately that they had been paid to attend")-what are Yanukovych's options for dealing with protesters? What are the protesters' options?
Yanukovych has had some formal roundtable negotiations, but only with other elites of other parties. He tried force and repression first, then backed off. Part of his problem is that the mass social opposition has been joined by the main oppositional party, which raises the profile of the demonstrations. His strategy now seems to be to not do anything; let the people protest. The protests might peter out over time, or there may be a symbolic concession, a face saving arrangement between Russia and EU to allow Ukraine to cooperate with both.
The protesters have passion and mobilization, and many wish to force him out, though others are wary of that because it doesn't set a good precedent. New elections are scheduled in a little over a year anyway, so they could wait and try to convert anger into political organizing. The protesters in Kiev don't have many concrete demands, but they don't want this closer arrangement with Russia. They want to "get into Europe," though that's not really on the table. They want to travel freely to EU countries, which right now they can't. They don't like corruption and stagnation and would like to be part of "rich, prosperous Europe."
There's no real solution until more is worked out with Russia and EU. Unfortunately the standoff here seems to have whetted the appetite of each of them. Russia has this friend in Yanukovych and eastern Ukraine and can provide real economics benefits; the EU has friends in Kiev and western Ukraine. The protesters appear willing to sacrifice economics for identity; the defenders of Yanukovych have the better short-term economic argument, and also have a different identity. This is a country that has been split since before independence, and that's not going away soon no matter how this particular battle ends.