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Fighting for the Soul of Ukraine

Stas Kozlyuk/Demotix/Corbis
Antigovernment protesters with a flag showing imprisoned former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, Kiev, Ukraine, November 24, 2013

“Revolution!” This is what they are shouting in Kiev. Ever since November 21 tens of thousands have been on the streets of the capital of Ukraine, defying the police and bans on demonstrations. On December 8 hundreds of thousands packed the city center, and a granite statue of Lenin was toppled in a scene recalling both Europe’s anti-Communist revolutions of 1989 and the symbolic fall of Saddam’s statue in Baghdad in 2003. Especially at the beginning of the demonstrations the riot police have reacted brutally, which brought out many more protesters. At times hard-liners among the demonstrators have resorted to violence but some of the violent actions seem to have been led by government-paid provocateurs.

As the first snows of winter fell no one knew which way the upheaval in one of Europe’s largest countries would turn. Protesters in Kiev’s Independence Square set up barricades and tents, occupied city hall, and blockaded government buildings. On December 9 security forces raided the offices of a major opposition party and took away computer servers. The websites of opposition media groups were attacked. On December 11 police tried to evict protesters from city hall before retreating. The same day, the protesters were rebuilding barricades the police had knocked down the night before. President Viktor Yanukovych was reported to have met with three former presidents and to have promised to revive talks with the EU.

Was this a rerun of the Orange Revolution of 2004–2005, which captured the imagination of the world and infuriated Vladimir Putin, Russia’s leader? Or would President Yanukovych reassert control and hence reassure Putin that he had won the latest battle of Kiev?

Whichever way things develop, one thing is clear. What we saw in the Orange Revolution, and what we are seeing now, is a fight for the very soul of Ukraine, a country of some 45.5 million people that stretches between the eastern marches of the European Union to the western borderlands of Russia. The protests began when the Ukrainian government announced it would not sign two rather dry-sounding agreements with the European Union at a summit meeting on November 28 and 29 in Vilnius, Lithuania. At issue were not really the minutiae of a trade deal and matters of political and economic reform but something far more profound. The question is whether Ukraine will end years of balancing between the EU and Russia and definitively throw in its lot with the countries to its west, or whether it will return to a Moscow-led order, in which it resumes its traditional role of Russia’s little brother.


In October 2012, during Ukraine’s last parliamentary election campaign, I had lunch with Leonid Kozhara, then spokesman of the country’s ruling Party of Regions and now Ukraine’s foreign minister. At one point he tugged the sleeve of his jacket. For Russia, he said dismissively, the other former Soviet republics were just like the buttons on the sleeve, but “we,” he said, meaning Ukraine, “are the sleeve.” At the time it seemed as though Kozhara’s party, with its leader Yanukovych, was the pro-Russian party of Ukraine. Its heartland is the Russian-speaking east of the country and there, in the industrial regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, it received respectively 65 percent and 57 percent of the vote. Move from east to west, however, and the electoral map tells you much of what you need to know. The further west you travel, and especially as you leave regions that were not historically part of Russia or its empire, like Crimea, the party’s support falls until, in the Lviv region, on the Polish border, it got only 4.7 percent in the 2012 vote.

This October I was back in Kiev, as a guest of the German Marshall Fund, a think tank and grant-making body, to meet officials and others and to talk about the European future of Ukraine. At the time of my visit a year before, pro-Europeans were depressed. They were still smarting from the failure of the Orange Revolution, in which they believed mistakenly that Ukraine had been firmly set on a pro-European path. The revolution had begun in 2004 when a rigged election would have made Yanukovych president. There were two heroes of the revolution. One was Viktor Yushchenko and the other the rich and glamorous Yulia Tymoshenko, who had made a fortune in the gas business.

Initially, the revolution was a success. The attempt during the election to poison Yushchenko marred his features but he survived and became president. Expectations were high, and thus disappointment was to some extent inevitable, but no one expected the Orange leaders to let their people down quite as much as they did: they failed completely to build a well-functioning modern state. The revolutionaries proved incompetent, autocratic, and corrupt and fought among themselves so destructively that by 2010 Yanukovych was voted back into power.

Then, in 2011, Tymoshenko was jailed for abuse of power over a deal she had struck with Russia’s Gazprom, by which Ukraine pays more for its Russian gas than Western countries that are supplied with the same gas via Ukraine. Her prosecution was viewed by most informed people as utterly flawed and above all political. Since the heyday of her popularity during the Orange Revolution, support for Tymoshenko has fallen sharply but she still remains a significant political player.

When Yanukovych’s party won the 2012 general election, pro-Europeans thought that the fate of their country was sealed. Belarus and Kazakhstan are part of a customs union with Russia, and Putin wanted Ukraine and other former Soviet states to join it. This arrangement is the precursor to a Russian-dominated Eurasian Economic Union—to be launched in 2015—which pro-Europeans regard as a means by which Russia will reassert control over many of the countries on its periphery. So, Ukraine looked as if it were moving toward Russia. But at that lunch with Kozhara, the man who would become foreign minister, he told a story that helps explain what happened next. He said that he had met colleagues from Kazakhstan who had warned him against joining the Russian-sponsored customs union. They said that in a meeting the Russians had explained what they wanted to do. When the Kazakhs began to put forward their own ideas, the Russians told them they were not interested because they had just made clear to them what would be done, whether they liked it or not.

What Kozhara’s story meant was that, at the heart of the party regarded as pro-Russian, there was little appetite for being absorbed into a new arrangement with Russia in which Ukrainian leaders would simply be reduced to taking orders. So, to the surprise of many, the Yanukovych government began doing exactly the opposite of what had been expected of it. It began working on deals with the EU, and hence public support for those deals began to rise. (A survey in October found that 45 percent of Ukrainians believed that Ukraine should sign the agreements with the EU, while only 14 percent believed it should join the customs union.) Now, after the government caved in to Russian pressure, and the resulting protests, there has been much talk of dissent within the president’s party. The chief of the presidential administration has resigned, and at least two members of parliament have quit the party as well.

People in Ukraine speak both Ukrainian and Russian. The west is more or less entirely Ukrainian-speaking, while Russian is spoken in the east and center. In Kiev, as I went with colleagues to visit ministries, officials spoke one language or the other and no one seemed to mind which was being spoken. Unlike some other countries though, language is not a guide to how people identify themselves. According to the 2001 census, 17.3 percent say they are Russians, though many more use Russian as a first language while identifying themselves as Ukrainian. The east of the country and the Black Sea coast were long part of the Russian Empire, while much of the west was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and then parts of interwar Poland, Romania, and Czechoslovakia.

Since the different parts of the country have such deep roots in different political traditions and histories, which are reflected in their different voting patterns, it is easy to understand why Ukrainian politicians might want to balance between the EU and Russia and extract concessions from one side by playing it against the other. But what has provoked the current crisis is that both Russia and the EU have become fed up with Ukraine’s hedging.

Putin is set on recreating a circle of countries around Russia that bend to its will. With regard to Ukraine, while he pays lip service to its sovereignty, there is little doubt that he subscribes to the view put so succinctly by a Russian friend of mine, who is of the same generation as Putin, that the Ukrainians will “come crawling back to us sooner or later.” But to the west, the EU—especially its former Soviet bloc countries like Poland and Slovakia but Germany as well, led by Angela Merkel, a former East German—also want Ukraine as closely integrated as possible into a belt of friendly countries.

For Russia, as Štefan Füle, the EU’s enlargement commissioner, told me, Ukraine has always been part of a geostrategic game, while the EU has always been uncertain about the extent it to which it should adopt a similarly active policy, as opposed to relying solely “on our values and principles.” He added that the EU had never seen the issue as one of a zero-sum game with Russia. Still, as one Western ambassador put it to me unequivocally in October: “A geopolitical window [to Europe] has opened.” In Vilnius Yanukovych tried to close it and now the protesters on the streets of Kiev are desperately trying to keep it open.

EU relations with the six European and Caucasian ex-Soviet states around Russia have been conducted under the aegis of what is called the Eastern Partnership. At the November meeting in Vilnius, important agreements were supposed to be signed with four of them, including Ukraine. Nothing significant was to be done with Belarus and Azerbaijan. The former is understood to be Europe’s last dictatorship and closely bound to Russia already, while the Aliev family, which runs Azerbaijan, has no interest in Europe’s democratic values or trade. Its members have become rich on oil and gas and that is enough for them.

Georgia, by contrast, initialed a trade deal with the EU and an association agreement, as did Moldova, which borders the EU. Both of them have separatist regions on their territory controlled by Russia. Armenia was due to sign agreements too but it is utterly dependent on Russia for its security and has a large migrant population working in Russia, who would be vulnerable should Putin be inclined to expel workers, so President Serzh Sargsyan changed course after a visit to Putin in September and dramatically announced that Armenia would join the customs union. This left Ukraine, by far the biggest, most populous, and most important of the six countries, and it was expected to sign a major free trade deal and an association agreement with the EU specifying political relations and reforms in everything from food safety standards to the judiciary.


In October European flags were everywhere in Kiev and everyone in government was speaking in favor of the deals. Legislation had just been passed in order to clear the way for the signing. One major sticking point remained, however. EU leaders as well as Ukrainians had condemned “selective justice,” which was code for pardoning or getting EU backing for releasing Tymoshenko, who has had serious back problems. The EU and its negotiators, a former Polish president and an Irish former president of the European Parliament, shuttled back and forth to Kiev working on an agreement. The central point of it was that Tymoshenko would go to Germany for medical treatment before the Vilnius meeting, thus clearing the way for a signing.

On balance it looked like things were progressing, though there was an unresolved problem. Yanukovych was happy for Tymoshenko to go but wanted to make sure she could not come back, at least not before the 2015 presidential elections. This made clear his fear that she still has some support.

Pro-Europeans also thought that the way Putin makes public his disdain for Yanukovych, who in his youth spent time in prison for robbery and assault, was helping to estrange their president from Russia. When they have met, Putin has made Yanukovych wait for hours, presumably to humiliate him; he spends as little time with him as possible. Putin despises Yanukovych, say Ukrainians, who also told me that they think their president is frightened of him.

At some point Putin decided that the Vilnius summit stood in the way of his plans and that he had to undermine it. If Ukraine signed the EU trade deal this would, by default, rule out its joining Putin’s customs union and hence the Eurasian Economic Union. The deals would mean that Ukrainian legislation, rules, and standards would be harmonized with those of the EU. While EU imports would be cheaper in Ukraine, higher-quality Ukrainian exports would also be more competitive in the EU.

No one doubted that, in the short run, this would spell pain for a number of Ukrainian industries, but in the long run, went the argument, while the medicine was bitter, it was worth taking. You had only to look at the divergent paths of Poland and Ukraine. In 1990, according to the World Bank, their GDPs per capita were similar, as were their mortality rates. Now with Poland in the EU, its GDP is more than three times greater than that of Ukraine and Poles can expect to live more than five years longer than Ukrainians. Today Poland’s population is more or less the same as in 1990 but aging Ukraine has lost six million people, more than 11 percent of its 1990 population.

Ukraine and the other countries in the Eastern Partnership have not, unlike the western Balkan countries such as Serbia, been specifically promised membership in the EU. On the other hand the union’s Lisbon Treaty says that any European country can apply to join. Still, in October, everyone in government and the opposition was saying that signing the two agreements in Vilnius was a historic opportunity for Ukraine. What was to be signed, said Andrii Olefirov, the deputy foreign minister, was just the first stage: “We are looking at the long-term perspectives and benefits which we will get,” and as an example he cited progress toward visa-free travel to Europe’s Schengen Area of twenty-six countries. Yurii Miroshnychenko, the president’s representative to parliament, said: “We are fully aware of the price we will have to pay for this decision, yet we are ready to make this decision as a strategic one.”

MIke King
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