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Mainstream, VOL LII No 1, December 28, 2013 - ANNUAL 2013

Ukraine in Dilemma—East or West? Revenge of History?

Sunday 29 December 2013

by R.G. Gidadhubli

Ukraine has been passing through the worst period of crisis in its post-Soviet history. Protests of unprecedented magnitude are taking place during the last few weeks unmindful of the cold winter at the Independence Square in the capital of Ukraine, Kiev, and other cities by thousands of activists of civil society, students, younger generation and political leaders of Opposition parties against President Viktor Yanukovych since he refused to sign the agreement with the European Union (EU), which was scheduled on November 29, 2013 at the EU summit in Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania. There are strong differences among the leaders in the country on this issue.

Disagreeing with the Opposition leaders and protesters, the President claimed that he has only suspended signing the agreement. The government is taking strong measures against the protesters. Equally important is the fact that having won the confidence motion in the parliament on December 3, 2013, and holding talks with the three Opposition party leaders including Arseniy of the Batkivshchyna (Father-land) Party on his policy issues, Yanukovych has rejected the demand for his resignation. Unabated protests are going on in the country.

Hence several questions arise. What are the reasons for Yanukovych not signing the agreement and is he justified in not signing it?. What are the costs and benefits of signing the agreement?. What are the likely implications of the agitation for the country?. An effort has been made to examine these issues and the likely prospects for the country.

There are several possible reasons for not signing the agreement and the problems that the country has been facing.

Firstly, President Viktor Yanukovych has stated that he had only suspended signing agreement with the EU contending that it was not fully meeting the needs of Ukraine. There was a view among the Ukrainian officials that the final decision had not been taken because complying with the economic conditions of EU membership was tough and difficult and not in the interest of the country. In fact Yanukovych reiterated that the financial terms offered by the EU for close political and trade deals with the bloc had been humiliating and that he would wait for improved conditions to be offered before agreeing on anything. Hence the government announced that it was suspending the efforts toward signing the document. But disagreeing with this contention, many analysts pointed out that these EU membership conditions were known earlier also and there are provisions of time given for complying with those conditions. Hence the decision not to sign the agreement at the summit on November 29, 2013 was unexpected and caused apprehensions both inside Ukraine and in the West. In fact until recently Yanukovych had stated that he intended to sign the pact with the EU. Hence his backing out just weeks before the summit was the main cause for protests in the country, and he has been accused of doing so under pressure from Moscow.

Secondly, on August 30, 2013 the issue was debated among different political groups and parties. Now the President not taking the final responsibility on the subject that a referendum was necessary to decide whether Ukraine should join the European Union or the Russian-led Customs Union meant that he was putting the onus on the parliament. But no decision was taken on this issue as well.

Thirdly, on the issue of signing the agreement with the EU, Yanukovych has been in a dilemma and is under pressure from the East and West. By signing the agreement with the EU, Ukraine will be closer to West Europe and that means moving away from Russia. The leaders of the West European countries are interested in Ukraine joining the EU and hence there is pressure exerted by them as a part of their policy of eastward expansion. In fact subsequent to the Soviet breakup, several former East European countries and the three Baltic states of the former Soviet Union have become members of the EU and NATO. This has reduced Russia’s status and influence as a major global power. Hence the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, is trying his best to prevent this agreement to be signed and wants Ukraine to remain close to Russia. In fact Russia is keen that Ukraine becomes a member of the Customs Union formed by Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus.

Fourthly, Ukraine was one of the most industrially developed republics in the former USSR after the Russian federal republic. With Poland on the West and Russia on the East, Ukraine is geographically and ethnically divided. The eastern part is inhabited by predominantly Russian ethnic population and the west by the Ukrainian ethnic population. Yanukovych is an ethnic Russian and hence faces opposition from his political opponents mainly from the western parts of Ukraine who are keen to join the EU. There are also political divisions among parties which is evident from the fact that on November 26, leaders of the three main Opposition groups, the Batkivshchyna Party, the UDAR Party, and the Svoboda Union—Arseniy Yatsenyuk, Vitaly Klitschko, and Oleh Tyahnybok—circulated an appeal for unity among their supporters. They asserted that even though they belonged to different political parties, they were united by one demand that Yanukovych must sign the association agreement at the summit in Vilnius. Hence there was legitimate concern among the Opposition leaders who feared that failure to sign in Vilnius would mean postponing of the agreement for an indefinite number of years. As Yanukovych has not signed it at the summit, the problem persists and protests have been aggravated.

In the opinion of some Western analysts, protests in Kiev have assumed a wider regional dimension since defying the bitter cold, hundreds of students and political activists from neighboring states such as Georgia, Belarus etc. have arrived at the Euromaidan in Kiev in recent weeks to support what many see as a common fight against Russian influence.

Fifthly, there is the Tymoshenko factor that has been an added dimension to the problem facing Yanukovych. The former Prime Minister of Ukraine, Yulia Tymoschenko, is an ethnic Ukrainian leader, a political rival of Viktor Yanukovych and a heroine of the 2004-05 Orange Revolution that foiled Yanukovych’s initial bid for the presidency. She has become a target of political rivalry and has been convicted on the allegation of abuse-of-power for seven years and is languishing in jail since 2011. Her supporters maintain that she is a victim of political revenge resorted to by President Yanu-kovych, who narrowly defeated Tymoshenko in the presidential runoff in 2010. At present she is suffering from serious health problems and as she is not getting proper treatment in Ukraine, the Western powers have insisted that she should be allowed to go to Germany for treat-ment. But Yanukovych has not conceded to this demand and has asserted that he would sign a law under which Tymoscheko will not evade criminal responsibility if she were to go to Germany for treatment. The issue has not yet been resolved and considering the delaying tactics for the release of Tymoshenko, the EU put the prerequisite condition of releasing her before signing the association agreement with it at the meeting in Vilnius on November 29, 2013

Sixthly, the pressure from Russia is due to various factors such as geographical contiguity, close economic linkages, long historical legacy and so on. Thus the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, has legitimate concern and interest in the current developments in Ukraine. This is evident from the fact that the toppling in Kiev of the statue of Vladimir Lenin who was instrumental for the Great October Socialist Revolution in 1917 and strong anti-Russia protests in Kiev from where the Tsarist Russian Empire originated several centuries back were acts of Revenge of History. Hence there is speculation of the anti-Russian Orange Revolution that took place in 2004 might be repeated.

In order to sustain close ties with Russia, Yanukovych has been frequently meeting Putin and might get economic assistance apart from political support for not joining the EU. In fact there are ups and downs in Russia-Ukraine relations during the last two decades and recently Ukraine has felt the threat of trade war and sanctions imposed against import of Ukrainian goods into Russia since this has very adversely affected the economy. At the same time Ukrainian leaders are aware of the economic advantages of closer ties with Russia and the probability that a deal could be reached on reducing the price of Russian gas for Ukraine. Otherwise Ukraine has legitimate concern that Russia could increase the price of natural gas that would hurt the economic interests of the country since Russia is the largest supplier of hydro-carbons to Ukraine. On December 17, 2013, Yanukovych secured a deal of $ 15 billion bailout package from Russia during his visit to Putin in Moscow—an indication of Russia’s keen desire to strengthen close bilateral ties. Even as there are speculations about consistency of Russia’s economic assistance to Ukraine, this might help Yanukovych to tide over the imme-diate economic crisis.

 Seventh, Ukraine has also been under great pressure from the West and that has been growing. At the same time the EU has been offering economic assistance though less as compared to that by Moscow. As per reports, Brussels has so far offered Ukraine about 610 million euros which comes to $ 838 million. But to allay the concern of the high economic cost of signing the agreement, the EU foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, has assured that the agreement will have positive effect because it would send powerful signals of confidence to international markets and financial institutions which will take care of the short-term challenges of Ukraine. Equally important is the fact that from the perspective of the EU, this agreement will serve as a blueprint for political and economic reforms in Ukraine bringing it closer to the West European market economies. Thus the long-term benefits are likely to be enormous.

Eighth, one factor that goes in favour of the West is that some sections of Ukraine’s powerful oligarchs, who were earlier close to Yanukovych, have changed their preference and are now fearful of being devoured by the Kremlin-friendly business interests and therefore pushing hard for Kiev to move towards Europe. For this reason naturally they are seeking protection from the European Union just to protect themselves from Russia.

In lieu of conclusion it may be stated that the Government of Ukraine is under immense pressure from both within the country and outside, particularly from Russia and the EU. By suspending the signing of the agreement with the EU, Yanukovych claims that he is trying to get better deals from both the East and West for his country. But as the ongoing protests continue unabated and the situation seems to be worsening, how far he will succeed in his policies aimed at bringing peace in the country is open to question. There is also speculation about a new Revolution being repeated, the continuity of the position of the President himself and even the unity, integrity and stability of the country.

Vladimir Putin has succeeded in his political game by enabling Yanukovych not to yield to the EU pressure by assuring a hefty bailout package of $ 15 billion to tide over Ukraine’s current economic crisis despite the fact that Russia is not free from its own economic problems. Hence analysts doubt whether Russia will remain consistent in its promises and also reduce the price for oil and natural gas that Ukraine has been demanding. Challenges persist for Yanukovych since the protesters insist on continuing their agitation till their demand is met. The EU authorities and several West European leaders have hailed their patience and tenacity; they are bent on supporting the protesters and giving them hope and confidence that they will succeed in their fight against the present regime. Will Yanukovych succeed in preventing his political activists and opponents in their objective of taking a Revenge of History by turning Ukraine towards the West?

Dr R.G. Gidadhubli is a Professor and the former Director for the Centre for Central Eurasian Studies, University of Mumbai.

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