Ukraine means “borderland.” Throughout history, the country has fallen under a variety of powers and has often found itself split between east and west. For hundreds of years, eastern Ukraine was dominated by Russia and western Ukraine by Lithuania, Austria and Poland. The legacy of this divided history is that now this country of 46 million people with its rich and historic identity is split between a Ukrainian-speaking, European-oriented west and a Russian-speaking, Russian-oriented east. However, over the past month active dialogue has gone on between Ukraine and the European Union in the hopes of signing an Association Agreement that would bring Ukraine closer to the EU both politically and economically.
This comes at the same time as extreme pressure from Russia to join in its own Customs Union. Russia has historically kept an overwhelmingly strong hold on Ukraine, controlling most of its territory since the 1600s until Ukraine’s declaration of independence 22 years ago. Due largely to hostile warnings and sanctions imposed by Russian President Vladimir Putin, Ukrainians, even in eastern, Russian-leaning areas, have grown more supportive of strengthening relations with the EU. Polls are now showing that more than 60 percent of Ukrainians are in favor of signing an Association Agreement with the EU. (Alaska Dispatch, “As protests boil, EU keeps arms open to Ukraine” 12.03.13)
Consequently, it is not surprising that this past week in Ukraine, masses of people have taken to the streets in protest of President Viktor Yanukovych’s surprise refusal to sign this agreement with the EU, an accord that could have been an historic move towards Western economics and principles and a step away from the Russian sphere of influence. Numbers of protesters in the Ukrainian capital Kyiv’s Independence Square have reached as high as 350,000. Almost exactly nine years ago, the Ukrainian people took to the streets in a similar fashion during the Orange Revolution to protest the rigged election of Viktor Yanukovych and successfully replaced him with the pro-western candidate Viktor Yushchenko. After little improvement, continued corruption, and an overwhelming sense of hopelessness under Yushchenko, Yanukovych came to power once more. In 2004, the Ukrainian people were protesting for fair elections and against a corrupt government. Now the people are back in the streets, demanding European integration as the only step toward a freer democracy and more favorable economic conditions.
Ukraine was one of six Eastern European countries asked to participate in the EU’s summit in Vilnius, Lithuania last week. The topic of the summit was the Eastern Partnership project, championed by Poland and Sweden in 2008 to form closer ties with the EU’s eastern neighbors. Ukraine is by far the largest and most strategically important country of the six countries involved, holding a crucial energy transit route and a critical geopolitical and economic position.
In the weeks leading up to the summit, Yanukovych showed signs of wanting to work with the EU despite qualms about preconditions involving required government and judicial reforms (including the release of former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko from jail, whose imprisonment was seen as politically motivated). With his rash decision to decline the EU’s offer of association, Mr. Yanukovych has gone from being seen as the man who could have led Ukraine to social and economic prosperity to a thug who robbed his country of a successful future in pursuit of his own gains.
This sudden suspension of negotiations with the EU is attributed to intense economic and political pressure from Russia, upon whom Ukraine heavily relies for energy as well as for other trade. Losing Ukraine to Europe has long been a Russian fear, a move that would officially crush hopes of restoring an empire of lands the government sees as traditionally and rightfully Russian. Ukraine declared its independence 22 years ago, but Russia has never truly accepted it. Russian president Vladimir Putin recently said of Ukraine, “We have common traditions, common mentalities, common history, common culture. We are…one people.” Many Ukrainians as well, particularly in the East, continue to hold ties to Russia and rely on their business. Putin has also referred to the breakup of the Soviet Union as the biggest tragedy of the 20th century. With this in mind, he hopes to create a Eurasian Union that can rival other world powers in which Ukraine would fill a vital role. (The Economist, “Charlemagne: Playing East against West” 11.23.13)
Putin’s aim for this union is to unite economies, legal systems, customs services and military industries. Putin’s plan has caused a fear in the west of re-sovietization of the region. Russia has already imposed sanctions on Ukraine and other countries seeking ties to the EU like Moldova and Georgia. In the months of closer talks with the EU, Ukraine has seen its exports to Russia drop by 25 percent. Though Russia may advertise lower prices and economic easing, countries that enter into such a union would lose a great amount of sovereignty and bargaining power in the international sphere. These events have caused a war of words between the EU and Russia.
One of the points of discord in the initial agreement was that President Yanukovych was required to release former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko from jail before signing the agreement, as EU countries saw her imprisonment as politically motivated and an example of selective justice. Tymoshenko announced last week through her daughter Eugenia that she would rather stay in jail than see Ukraine go towards Russia, and urged Europe to drop the precondition of her release.
The protesters are largely made up of a growing educated, young middle class, many of whom comprise the first generation to have grown up free of Soviet rule. They were disappointed by the failure of Viktor Yushchenko, the hero of the Orange Revolution, to bring about change and democracy. Now they look towards closer ties to Europe as means of bringing about change. The biggest obstacle to democratization and integration with the West is not even Russia but Ukraine itself, whose government is plagued by chronic corruption and dysfunction. The people of Ukraine have spent years disenchanted and hopeless by the seemingly unfixable condition of Ukrainian governance. The protesters have insisted on the independence of demonstrations from political parties and affiliations. With this exclusion of politics, they hope to separate themselves from the corrupt and defective institutions they live under.
Ukraine suffers from what Ukrainians often call “brain drain” or the loss of educated people who either run up the ranks of corrupt power or leave the country entirely searching for a better life. So many young Ukrainian students have hopes of studying in the West. In official polls, people under 35 are the most supportive of European integration. With closer European ties and the help of EU institutions, more opportunities could be given to students, which could advance Ukraine’s path to a more stable democracy.
Ukraine’s future is murky if not bleak, but the hopes of a young, politically active generation are very real. However, as the protests become increasingly more violent and larger in numbers and force, it is hard to predict Ukraine’s future. One thing is for sure: Ukrainians want a better life, and they are looking hopefully towards Europe to give it to them.
—Zoe Ripecky ’14 is an international studies major.