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Fighting for the Soul of Ukraine

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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.

1.

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.

2.

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.”

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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.

3.

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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