Déjà vu in Kiev

It might seem like yesterday once more but 2014 is going to be a crunch year for Ukraine

It was at this time nine years ago when the eyes of the world were drawn to Ukraine.  Pro-western protesters were out on the streets of Kiev, and other towns and cities across the country, demonstrating against Russian interference in the election process in what was dubbed the ‘Orange Revolution’.  I remember walking the streets of Kiev during that time and it was difficult not to get caught up in the party atmosphere that had captured the world’s attention.  Yet for all that this was a country recognising its links with the West, Ukraine’s recent past was in evidence everywhere.  I was working in the country as part of the OSCE (Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe) election team and I monitored polling stations located in air bases that once housed long range bombers tasked with targeting the UK in the event of war.

Viktor Yanukovych – Prime Minister to the outgoing President and seen as Russia’s preferred candidate – had been declared the winner in the second round of voting in the Presidential elections in November 2004.  The opposition claimed that the State had exerted unfair influence over the election.  Added to that, it became increasingly clear that Yanukovych’s opponent Viktor Yuschenko had been poisoned; his facial features still showing clear signs of the botched attempt on his life.  Eventually the protests and international pressure proved too much for the authorities in Ukraine and Yuschenko won in a re-run of the election on Boxing Day 2004.  At the time, this result was seen as yet another defeat for Russia in its own backyard and a victory for those who wanted to bring Ukraine closer to the West.

Almost a decade on, history seems to be repeating itself.  Viktor Yanukovych is now President and yet again pro-western Ukrainians have taken to the streets to demonstrate against his policies and his closeness to Moscow.  The background to the current problem is that President Yanukovych halted an Association Agreement with the European Union which would have meant an injection of funds from the EU to reform the country and bring it closer to the EU. The Agreement was strongly opposed by Russia.  Most non-EU countries are desperate to cement ties with the EU, ties that would bring cash and business opportunities.  However, Moscow has consistently opposed states within its sphere becoming closer to Brussels and in the current case of Ukraine, Russia’s opposition to the intended Brussels-Kiev agreement proved too strong and President Yanukovych stepped back from the deal at the last moment

The Russian factor

Russia wants to re-establish closer links with other former Soviet states and is building its own Customs Union that was launched in January 2010 and currently includes Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus. Russia would dearly like to see Ukraine join that Union and it clearly sees any move by Kiev to forge closer ties with the European Union as being a threat to that possibility. Many Russians, including President Putin himself, see the states of the former Soviet Union as continuing to be within Moscow’s sphere of influence.  President Putin even went so far as describing the collapse of the Soviet Union as the “greatest geo-political catastrophe” of the 20th Century.  During the Soviet era, Ukraine had the biggest economy in the USSR bar only Russia itself and it remains a coveted prize in terms of Russia’s influence over its near neighbours.

As well as the threat to its markets, Russia also sees Ukraine’s closer ties to the West as a direct threat to its own security.  Many within the Russian security and political establishments are still livid over the 2004 expansion of NATO to take in the Baltic States and other former Warsaw Pact members, many of which border Russia.  They are actively trying to stop further expansion by the military alliance.  This resistance was demonstrated by Russia’s treatment of President Saakashvili of Georgia when he tried to take his country closer to the West.  This reached its nadir in August 2008 when, with the world’s attention focused upon the opening of the Beijing Olympic games, Russian forces intervened in South Ossetia and expanded their military action into Georgian sovereign territory, going as far as bombing the Georgian town of Gori (incidentally the birthplace of Stalin).

Looking both ways

Ukraine is caught at a crossroads between closer ties with its biggest economic partner with whom it has much shared history, and closer ties to its Western neighbours.  This division is reflected in the cultural-political makeup of the country.  The West of the country that borders EU Member States like Poland, Slovakia and Hungary yearn for closer ties with their neighbours with whom they feel the closest affinity.  Indeed Western cities like L’viv were part of Poland up until the Second World War.  Citizens within this region see the economic and political progress that has been made by these countries since the fall of the Soviet Union.  By contrast, those Ukranians living in the East of the country people feel a closer affinity to Russia and this region’s economic performance is more heavily reliant on trade with the Russians.

Ukraine’s schizophrenic outlook – this clear split between Russia and Western Europe – is therefore broadly geographic. This is seen in election results where even in the elections nine years ago, the west of the country voted heavily in favour of the pro-Western Yuschenko whereas the East voted heavily in favour of the Russian-backed Yanukovych.  That has remained a constant in Ukrainian politics and is unlikely to go away any time soon. As an election observer from the OSCE in 2004, I was certainly aware of the allegiances of the electorate by the differing receptions that we received as we travelled the country.

More than anything however, the whole of Ukraine needs steady and reliable economic partners. Its economy is faltering and it has been reported that the country is close to bankruptcy.  As a result, many Ukrainians have left their homeland.  Ukraine’s population is falling rapidly, this demise exceeding even that of neighbouring Russia.  In 1993, just after gaining its independence, the population of Ukraine stood at 52.2 million; by 2012 that figure had fallen to 45.6 million. This fall reflects a broader malaise and leaves the country in a quandary. It is heavily reliant on cut price Russian energy imports, something which is not lost on ordinary Ukrainians during bitterly cold Ukrainian winters (the elections in 2004 were during a particularly cold snap).  However the Association Agreement with the EU could be worth billions to the Ukrainian economy and be vital to its long term economic stability.

That leaves us with the question of what comes next for Ukraine.  A stable and successful Ukraine is crucial to a stable and successful Europe.  In spite of its recent population decline, it is still the seventh biggest European country, about the same size as Spain.  Ukraine also matters because it occupies a key geo-strategic area in Europe.  It has lengthy land borders with EU members Slovakia, Romania and Poland as well as Russia, Belarus and Moldova (including the break-away entity of Trans-Dneister).  It is also directly opposite Turkey on the North shore of the Black sea.  All this and, of course, its historic and ongoing close links to Russia.

Looming Presidential elections

The next Presidential elections are due in February 2015, thus making the coming months crucial.  Opposition support is beginning to coalesce around the former world boxing champion Vitali Klitschko, who has a large and popular following.  He backed the Orange Revolution in 2004 and has more recently shown himself to be a deft and capable politician in his own right.  He has championed western-style economic strategies and he has highlighted in particular the economic success that neighbouring Poland has enjoyed, compared to that of Ukraine.  Yet he has also hit out at the recent toppling of the statue of Lenin which occurred amidst anti-Moscow/pro-EU protests in Kiev. In taking these stances, Klitschko has demonstrated his awareness that he has to appeal to citizens in both the East and the West of the country.

What remains to be seen is how the Yanukovych administration will react to current events and to any further challenge to its authority.  It has to be remembered that Ukraine’s ruling elite are often successful business people.  Yanukovych himself is a successful business man and one of Ukraine’s wealthiest, with close links to Russia.  In Ukraine, like Russia, business is closely linked to politics.  That means that the wealthiest in society have a key interest in who forms the government.  This can mean the difference between business success and failure, and even whether or not a business person can reasonably expect to face jail time.

President Yanukovych has drawn sharp criticism from human rights groups and western governments for human rights violations, not least for the incarceration of former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, and for the hard-handed treatment of protesters in recent weeks by riot police.  Over the coming months, Western governments will be monitoring closely how Yanukovych responds to civil protest and to political opposition.

With elections due in early 2015, this coming year promises to be a critical one for Ukraine.  2014 will be the year that sees further debate about the country’s future – and almost certainly further protest. Much will rest on whether Yanukovych commits to the democratic norms that we in the West take for granted, or if he follows the lead of an increasingly autocratic and assertive Russia.  You might have seen a lot of Ukraine on the TV in recent weeks; expect to see a whole lot more in the coming months.
Stephen Gethins was part of the OSCE election team in Ukraine in the 2004 run-off elections and he has worked across the former Soviet Union.  He is the Chairman of the Board of Advisers of the Scottish Global Forum.

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