For the past three weeks, Kiev has been rocked by protests. Even this evening, with temperatures falling well below freezing, there appears to be no let up in events. Crowds keep swelling and smiling, the acrid smell of warmth-giving bonfires continues to fill the air and nationalist music endlessly echoes from building to building across the vast square.
A lot has been written – and will continue to be written – about the protests and the extent to which they reflect Ukrainian public opinion.
Many clumsy comparisons have been drawn between other citizen-led uprisings over the past twenty five years and what is going on in Kiev. But this isn’t the same as the Polish Solidarnosc or Czechoslovakian Charter 77 movement of the 1980s. Each of those movements were inspired by the rejection of outside control and the overbearing state, whereas the events in Kiev are more driven by anger at economic malaise, a thirst for accountability amongst the political classes, and an end to crony capitalism.
There are two roughly comparable cases that square with events in Ukraine today: the 2003 Georgian Rose Revolution and the ousting of former Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic in 2000.
In the case of the Rose Revolution, Georgians were no longer willing to accept a leader in Eduard Shevardnadze who rigged elections, ignored civil society and tolerated the existence of a corrupt elite. In Serbia, the non-violent OTPOR movement forced Milosevic from office for the effectively same reasons as Shevardnadze, plus harnessing outrage at the country’s economic isolation following the 1990s Balkan wars.
Where the cases of Serbia and Georgia differ with the situation in Ukraine, however, is that both countries enjoyed overwhelming support from their citizens – north, south, east and west. This isn’t yet the case in Ukraine.
While on Independence Square, the plethora of EU and NATO flags would suggest the battle for the country’s soul is won, it is a misleading focal point that belies a broader unease amongst the Ukrainian people about the direction their country should take.
Ukraine is a country that is divided almost entirely down the middle.
At the 2010 Presidential election, the country’s Western provinces backed the Western-aligned Yulia Tymoshenko while those in the east plumped for the incumbent President Viktor Yanukovych. The language divide is similarly pronounced with the areas east of the River Dnieper being largely Russophone and the West predominantly Ukrainian-speaking.
An analysis of the situation in Ukraine that glosses over the fears of those in East Ukrainian industrial cities like Donetsk or the southern port city of Sevastopol about what closer Western links would mean for the jobs and those of many of their family members sending financial remittances in Russia is an incomplete one.
It is clear, from the visits to Kiev of Western luminaries like U.S. Senator Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) and EU High Representative for Foreign Policy Catherine Ashton, that the United States and European Union are keen to ensure Ukraine adopts a pro-Western orientation. I wholeheartedly support their position.
Two days ago, on December 17th, Yushchenko and Putin announced the terms of a deal that would see Ukraine receive a total of $15 billion in loans and cheaper natural gas. The European Union, in turn, has offered no immediate support other than a free trade deal that will not stave off Ukraine’s impending bankruptcy.
In short, the inducements the West have been able to Ukraine have not yet, however, been able to match those of the Russian Federation. Any offer the West is makes to Ukraine must speak to the whole country – not just those in Independence Square.
While European and American financial resources continue to be squeezed by the aftershocks of the 2008 financial crisis, the lack of immediate financial inducements offered to Ukraine risk driving the country permanently back into Moscow’s sphere of influence and further away from Western Europe.
With each passing moment, Ukraine is moving closer and closer to Russia. At the same time, achieving the dreams and aspirations of the brave protestors on Independence Square is becoming a more remote prospect.
Winning power struggles in the post-Soviet world has never been a one way process. It has always required the West to offer inducements – financial and political – to help shape geopolitical orientations.
The post-1990 pathway to NATO membership offered to central and Eastern European states saw them join the European Union in 2004, while the financial support provided to Georgia since the 2008 Russian invasion has seen the country become Eurasia’s strongest supporters of transatlantic links. Without such inducements, the geopolitical realignments seen in Europe in the past twenty five years would not have occurred.
In the case of Ukraine, an urgent meeting of representatives of the U.S. and EU member state governments is needed in order to devise a plan to keep the wolves from Ukraine’s door – including external debt restructuring and immediate market access for industrial goods. In time, clear pathway for visa free facilitation should be provided.
On a pig-headed economic level, a failure on the past of the West to counter Russia’s offer would hand Moscow effective control of the entire Black Sea region as well as the country’s important minerals, chemicals, and defence production sectors. That, if nothing else, should convince Western leaders of the need for action.
Looking across Independence Square, it’s clear the door remains open for closer Western links – regardless of whatever tawdry deal Putin may have offered Yanukovych. For the West to consign a country that, in its heart and spirit, looks to Washington D.C., London and Brussels for leadership to an unsure future of diktats and dictatorship rather than liberal democratic values would be an abomination.
Russia has been willing to defend its interests. When it comes to Ukraine, it’s high time the West defended its own too.