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Ukraine Divided: Why This Former Soviet Republic Can’t Choose Between East & West

Irina Ivanova Jan 21

Ground zero for Ukraine’s contested future is Kiev’s Independence Square — Maidan Nezalezhnosti. Pro-European Union protesters have held the square week after week, in much the same fashion that their counterparts have done in recent years in Egypt, Greece, Spain and the Occupy movement.

The public backlash was sparked on November 29, when Ukraine’s president Viktor Yanukovych turned his back on a comprehensive free-trade deal with the European Union for an unprecedented $15 billion aid package from Putin’s Russia. Hundreds of thousands of others turned out to the square on the weekends demanding the president’s ouster, early elections and the release of jailed politician Yulia Tymoshenko, whose sentence is widely considered political payback (and whose release was a condition of the EU agreement). They were fed and sheltered by volunteers, who also kept the camp clean, ran a medical team and erected a stage that has served as the focal point of the uprising — and, secondarily, a site for concerts. 

So when Ukraine’s parliament cracked down on the legal, peaceful protests by passing sweeping laws against demonstrations on January 16, they did it out of desperation at months-long public outrage that has shown no signs of abating. 

The uprising began as a demand for EU integration, but has since has morphed into a referendum on the state of Ukrainian society. Many have a deep dissatisfaction with the state of things in Ukraine. Cited concerns include, in no particular order: corruption, graft, income inequality and alcoholism.

At the time of writing in mid-January, the numbers of protesters were smaller — 50,000, down from 800,000 at the demonstrations’ height in early December. But the anger remained.

Tug-of-War

The tug-of-war over Ukraine’s future — driven by political actors within and powerful neighbors, Russia and the EU, without — is now being witnessed by much of the world. But the country has a history of getting trampled while the world looks on. For the last several centuries, the territory of modern-day Ukraine shuttled between Russia and Poland. (Russia’s name is derived from the name of the ancient Ukrainian state, Kievan Rus’.) After the collapse of the Russian Empire in 1917, and again during the Second World War, Ukrainian nationalists tried to establish independence, only to succumb to the USSR’s pull. Ukraine suffered the brunt of Stalin’s mass killings, which wiped out between 4 and 10 million people during the forced collectivization of farms in the 1930s. Peasants were starving while Russia exported a record amount of grain. The Nazis’ killing spree across the Eastern front created the most casualties in Poland and Ukraine.

Eastern and Western powers with an eye to expansion have inevitably looked Ukraine-ward. And even those who weren’t interested invariably stumbled through it, a region that sits like a large, lush carpet between the eastern edges of the EU and the western fringe of Russia. Why has this swath of land inspired such conflict? One of the most notable reasons is that Ukraine has the unfortunate luck of possessing substantial natural resources. Today, it is the largest agricultural producer in Europe. Though its economy is still recovering from the 2008 global economic crash, Ukraine remains the world’s second-largest grain exporter, trailing only the United States.

Tellingly, while Ukraine emerged as a sovereign nation after the breakup of the USSR, its modern name can be translated as “borderland.” It still acts as a buffer between the European Union and Russia, and its position also makes it a geopolitical target for both. Accompanying these competing influences outside are lingering ethnic divisions inside: ethnic Russians comprise some 17 percent of the population, and most live in eastern Ukraine. The population’s split on the Europe/Russia question reflects these pressures: western Ukraine, including the capital, Kiev, overwhelmingly wants to join the EU. Eastern Ukraine is mostly pro-Russian in its sentiments.

Many Ukrainians desperately want closer ties to Europe not for the national interest, but for themselves — more open borders would make it easier for many to work and live in the West. And for many educated and ambitious youth, opportunities in still-struggling Western Europe far outweigh their poor prospects at home.

Ukraine can’t loosen its borders until its interior is relatively stable: that means a decent economy, functioning infrastructure and reduced public violence, at the least. If it opens up before these conditions are met, it risks the exodus of its youth — the very people national growth depends on (and who, even today, form a steady stream of émigrés). The pro-EU argument assumes that all needed changes can happen at once — and bring in cleaner government, to boot.

But the EU offered far too little, and perhaps underestimated the challenges it faced. The free-trade agreement would have given Ukraine a steady flow of goods to and from the West, and some loans. But this was not enough to make up for the loss of trade with Russia, which would inevitably follow any EU deal. Nor would it compensate for retaliation in the form of a hike in gas prices. (Ukraine is a heavy user of natural gas, and relies on Russia for a large part of the supply.)

Let’s not forget the fate of some of the EU’s poorer members. Looking at the politico-economic quagmire still happening in Greece, and high unemployment in Spain, Ukraine can be forgiven for not seeing an immediate short-term benefit in a EU relationship; nor in the IMF loans offered that would have put the country on a “diet.” The long-term benefits would likely be considerable, but Ukraine is hardly in a position to make good long-term decisions. Russia’s $15 billion was sorely needed, and it’s hard to see when the desperation will end. 

Now that the protesters have an official target on their back, their fate is up in the air. The most satisfying end — electing new leaders — is unlikely, even if early elections are called, because there’s no united opposition candidate. Reformers have fleeting lives on Ukraine’s political stage, and it’s unlikely this time would be different.

Irina Ivanova is a Ukrainian émigré and journalist living in New York.