Ukrainians taking to the streets to protest their government’s refusal to strike a trade deal with the European Union may be the first of several post-Soviet states facing the choice between Russia and Europe as Georgia and Moldova gear up for their place on the bargaining table.
Decades have passed since they each gained their sovereignty, but post-Soviet states west of the Eurasian divide continue to struggle between their European identities and the influence and benefits that can come from allying with Russia.
In this week’s spotlight, the Ukrainian government received an opportunity to accept a political and economic agreement unprecedented in its scope from those with other countries in the region. It also received an opportunity to endure equally potent trade sanctions from Russia if it signed the deal. President Viktor Yanukovich chose neither, dropping out of the deal.
The resulting turmoil depicts a nation desperately clinging to the early 2000s revolution that gave it the might to negotiate with the EU in the first place–and desperately fleeing from the long arm of Moscow. Thousands of protesters calling for Yanukovich’s resignation flooded Kiev and took over the large Independence Square in the city. Police threw tear gas and hand grenades to subdue the masses. Protesters symbolically toppled a statue of Vladimir Lenin, making brutally clear their message to their government: they no longer want to be under Russia’s influence.
Vladimir Putin has heard this message loud and clear, and he is not amused. Putin described the protests as “more like a pogrom than a revolution” in his first public statement addressing them, and he claimed they had “little to do” with the relationship between Ukraine and the EU. On the other side of this diplomatic tug of war, however, there are signs that the EU has not given up entirely on Ukraine, as an unnamed diplomat hinted to UPI that, should police brutality escalate, the EU could impose sanctions or freeze the government’s assets.
Meanwhile, the EU continues to build coalitions around Ukraine that could create a much friendlier environment for a similar deal to the one rejected in the future.
Across the Caucasus, in a city that not only lacks a statue of Lenin but boasts one of President Ronald Reagan, a country far more historically aggressive towards Moscow prepares to sit down at the table with European Union leaders. Georgia had long been, under President Mikheil Saakashvili, one of the most pro-American, pro-European post-Soviet states. It arrives at negotiations with the EU having almost immediately lost Saakashvili’s successor, the pro-Russia businessman Bidzina Ivanishvili–stable in that its instability, unlike Ukraine’s, has resulted in no previous leader jailed and a non-violent smooth transition of power.
Saakashvili remains pivotal to the ethos that makes a potential deal with Georgia far more likely than that with Ukraine. Himself a graduate of Columbia Law School, Saakashvili defined himself in the American media as the man who, while the 2008 Olympics were in high gear, strove to place every possible media spotlight on the fact that Russia was invading his country. The 2008 war in South Ossetia and Abkhazia ended at a stalemate to the disadvantage of the Georgian government, but Saakashvili’s proximity to the American media and political scene remained unprecedented for a Georgian leader.
Saakashvili, much like Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko, rose to power at the turn of the millennium as a child of the “colored revolutions”–Georgia’s, the Rose Revolution; Ukraine’s, the Orange Revolution. Both leaders railed against corruption and Russian influence, and some argue that both paid the price. Yushchenko was poisoned while campaigning during the Orange Revolution and saw his successor, Yulia Tymoshenko, thrown in jail. Georgia was invaded, Russia recognizing its breakaway regions as sovereign nations.
Though that was years ago, the smooth transitions from Saakashvili to power in the hands of Ivanishvili to new Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili have brought Georgia to Vilnius last week, where the nation is working on an agreement that would remove a number of barriers to trade with the EU. The agreement would ideally be signed sometime next year and not look completely unlike what Ukraine rejected this week. Gharibashvili called the move a “returning to the European family,” with little sign of Russian influence in the major way it was seen with Ukraine.
Much smaller but with just as much to lose, the tiny post-Soviet state of Moldova also reached an agreement with the EU. Prime Minister Iurie Leanca indicated with even more enthusiasm an interest in signing with the EU, even though Russia has signaled out Moldova more than Georgia, calling it a “grave mistake” to partner with the EU and threatening to cut the nation’s gas supply. Also unlike Georgia, a nation mostly favorable to the EU and unfavorable to Russia, Moldova has witnessed thousands of pro-Russia protesters take the streets for precisely the opposite reason of those in Ukraine, despite more than half of the country supporting the EU.
With Georgia and Moldova chipping at the walls that the Ukrainian government refused to break down–the walls the people of Ukraine now struggle to crumble–all hope is not lost for integrating one of the largest of the European post-Soviet states into the European Union. But the answer to how the Ukrainian story plays out is not entirely within the hands of that country alone. The decisions by other neighboring leaders can embolden or have a chilling effect on the integration process, and their direction may most directly impact that of the embattled country.