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Fighting for the Soul of Ukraine

MIke King

Before Yanukovych decided against the deal with the EU, Tetiana Sylina, a journalist highly critical of the government, told me that unless the EU signed the deal, with or without the release of Tymoshenko, it would “lose Ukraine.” Not signing, she said, would lead to increasing authoritarianism resembling Russia’s. “Yanukovych,” she said,

is not interested in the EU or the customs union or European values, he just wants cheaper credits and foreign investment and the opening of markets for oligarchs. But for Ukrainians, Europe is not about Yanukovych but about its 46 million people.

In this respect, she echoed Hanna Shelest, a researcher at the National Institute for Strategic Studies, whom I met in the Black Sea port of Odessa. She told me that she wanted Ukraine to sign the deal because “it is a question of self-identification. Sometimes we don’t feel ourselves European but what is worse is when Europeans don’t see us as European.” Andrey Stavnitser, a businessman who runs a dry cargo terminal near Odessa, told me he was hoping that if the deal was signed, the application of EU standards would begin to curb corruption. “For my business,” he added, “it would be better to enter the customs union,” because he could then expect more Russian cargoes, but “as a citizen,” he said “I would vote for the EU.” As to a relationship dominated by Russia, he said, “I would not go there again.”

Among ordinary people there was more ambivalence about the deal, although the polls favor it. A big reason for this was that what was at stake and how the EU deals or the customs union would actually affect people’s lives were rarely explained properly. Indeed, the Russian-funded media in Ukraine had, said Shelest, even given people the impression that if they chose Russia over the EU, “then everything will be cheaper, such as gas, and that if we go toward the EU, normal marriages will not exist, only gay marriages.” Russia, she said, was presenting itself as “the big brother who will tell us what to do,” and a pro-Russian choice would mean “we will live happily ever after and won’t have to read that complicated EU agreement.”

In the meantime Putin was piling on the pressure. In August, trade ground to a virtual standstill as Russian officials began checking every single truck crossing the border. They began withdrawing licenses for certain companies—especially those connected to oligarchs in Yanukovych’s eastern heartlands—to export to Russia; and Russian importers began to break contracts already signed for metal products, steel, and cars. In only a few months the level of trade between Ukraine and Russia dropped 25 percent; in eastern Ukraine, one source who asked to remain anonymous told me, production dropped between 30 and 40 percent between May and November. All this served to compound Ukraine’s existing economic woes. According to the Economist Intelligence Unit, even before the protests began the country had seen a decline in economic activity for the last five quarters.

The Russian tactic, says EU commissioner Füle, was “bullying, bullying, bullying, and being brutal,” but “our mistake is only ever having been half serious about the transformation of that part of Europe and not clearly offering them a European perspective in the long run.” In EU-speak this can be translated to mean eventual membership. Ukrainian exports of metallurgical goods, cars, and even chocolates were all limited by Russia. On November 21 Yanukovych blinked. The government announced that Ukraine would not sign in Vilnius because of “national security” issues and said that it was “resuming active dialogue with Russia and other countries of the customs union of Belarus and Kazakhstan.” In this way, The Economist wrote, Yanukovych “lost his chance to swap a gangster’s reputation for a statesman’s.” In Vilnius Yanukovych said he still wanted to sign with the EU but he also demanded large sums of money to compensate for lost business with Russia. It was too late.

The ruling circle around Yanukovych is known as “the family.” It includes oligarchs from the east, political and security officials, and his very wealthy son Oleksandr, who was trained as a dentist. However, members of “the family” do not always have the same interests and are sometimes in conflict. During the last few weeks there has been much analysis among political observers about which big business leaders are siding with the president, the protesters, or sitting on the fence. Some oligarchs for example have been in favor of the EU deal because they believe that the application of proper legal standards will help protect them from unwelcome and underhanded takeover bids, especially from richer Russian oligarchs. In that sense business is like politics and, as Oleh Shamshur, a former Ukrainian ambassador to the US, told me, in his country’s next election “no trick dirty enough will not be used” by Yanukovych’s side to win.


What of the opposition to Yanukovych? Ranged against the president are the three main opposition leaders, who distrust one another almost as much as they hate him. Together, their parties took some 50 percent of the vote in 2012. They are all fiercely in favor of European integration and are actively supporting and organizing the protests. The country’s three former post-Soviet presidents have come out in favor of the protesters as has the Kiev patriarchate of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. Unsurprisingly the Moscow patriarchate of the church has not.

One of the political leaders from the western part of Ukraine is Oleh Tiahnybok, the head of the Svoboda (Freedom) party. In the past it had links with neo-Nazi parties in other parts of Europe. In 2004, after a speech railing against what Tiahnybok said was a “Moscow-Jewish mafia” that ruled Ukraine, it was ejected from the group around Yushchenko. Since then he has declared that the party is not anti-Semitic. On December 1 Svoboda supporters, living up to their reputation as the hard men of Ukrainian nationalism and opposition, led the charge to occupy Kiev’s city hall.

Arseny Yatsenyuk is now the leader of Tymoshenko’s Batkivischyna (Fatherland) party, the largest of the three main opposition groups. An intense former foreign minister and speaker of parliament, Yatsenyuk said in October that Yanukovych had fallen into a trap. If he signed the EU agreements in Vilnius he would lose much of his core eastern electorate. On the other hand he did not want to join the customs union and be bossed around by Putin, but equally he did not want to do the things that the EU was demanding of him—not only releasing Tymoshenko but also, for example, freeing the judiciary from political influence.

There could be a good reason for that. In Croatia Ivo Sanader, then prime minister, changed the policies of his nationalist party in order to support European integration. That however meant that the judiciary was then freed to do something hitherto unimaginable: in 2010 Sanader was arrested on corruption charges and has since been convicted. Many Ukrainians think that Yanukovych fears arrest himself when he steps down.

Ukraine’s most interesting emerging leader is Vitali Klitschko, a heavyweight boxing champion who also goes under the name Dr. Ironfist. He has surrounded himself with intelligent advisers and might be the strong leader that many seem to want. If Tymoshenko is still in jail, Klitschko could be a serious threat to Yanukovych in the 2015 presidential election, assuming of course that the president is still in power and does not stop him from running on the grounds that he has recently lived abroad. Yanukovych had legislation to that effect passed and it would have to be reversed. Yanukovych would also like to eliminate the second round of voting, since some polls suggest he would lose to Klitschko in a runoff if neither had a majority.

On November 27 Klitschko, who is strongly backing the protests, wrote in an editorial in the Financial Times that “the official halt in Ukraine’s European integration unmasks the true face” of the Yanukovych regime—“a cartel of commercial self-interests that has captured public office and believes that political longevity can be bought by selling Ukraine’s interests.” Ukrainians, he warned, would not allow Yanukovych “and his cronies to steal their future” and if their views were not taken into account, “more protests are yet to come.”

They have continued and Ukraine has not yet reached a tipping point. The protests in Kiev and the west have shown no sign of abating while there have been no significant demonstrations of support for the government. Yanukovych has lost the credibility he had built with his pro-European polices at home and in the EU, but opposition leaders don’t yet seem to have mustered enough support to bring the government down. On December 6, Yanukovych met Putin in Sochi on the Black Sea, and while Catherine Ashton, the EU’s foreign affairs chief, was in Kiev on December 10 and 11 she was cheered by protesters. While Brussels and Moscow are both tugging at Ukraine’s sleeve, both will have to wait to see what Yanukovych does next and what is decided on the streets of Kiev.

—December 11, 2013

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