If you are wondering what’s happening in Ukraine and why, now is a good time for a quick lesson in local geography and history. Ukraine is located right between two major superpowers: Russia and The European Union.
Ukraine has a population of 45 million people and is surrounded by Poland, Belarus, Hungary, Romania, Slovakia and Moldova. From 1922 until 1991, the area was called the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. When the Soviet Union fell in 1991, Ukraine become a unitary semi-presidential republic.
Viktor Yanukovich has been president of the republic since February 2010, and is known for his pro-Russian stance. He won the 2010 election against Yulia Tymoshenko, the co-leader of the Orange Revolution. During Yanukovich’s first year in office, Yulia Tymoshenko received a controversial seven-year jail sentence, which was viewed by the European Union, Russia and the United States as political revenge. Ukraine saw a wave of protests during Tymoshenko’s 2011 trial, and while bad blood remained, the protests eventually died down. While it’s a contentious issue, that isn’t the full reason why what’s happening in Ukraine started.
Over the past few years, the Ukrainian government has been working to strike a deal with the European Union that would allow them membership and looser movement restrictions. While Russia has continued to be the largest market for Ukrainian exports, analysts see the EU as a critical market. Free trade with Europe would undoubtedly open up a massive business market with numerous potential economic benefits.
While Eastern Europe as a whole has been slow to enter into the Western-dominated union, Ukraine’s neighbors Poland and Romania are now members alongside the recently inducted Croatia. A great number of Ukrainian citizens see entry into the EU as essential. Membership would allow them visa-free movement across EU member states, which would allow increased potential immigration as well as free movement for business travelers and tourists.
Ukraine would be required to make sweeping political changes to get on board with the EU’s requirements. In order to become a full European Union member, each country must show minimal levels of corruption, fair election processes, freedom of process and a just legal system. As recently as 2012, the Transparency International Corruption Perception index gave Ukraine an abysmal rating. They nearly topped the list of 176 nations, with a corruption rating of 144. On top of dealing with this major issue, the EU also demanded that the case against Yulia Tymoshenko be reinvestigated before a deal could move forward.
There has long been frustration with how slowly Ukraine is moving through the EU reform process. Despite starting the process two years after Ukraine, Moldova quickly implemented all actions necessary to remove the visa barrier.
The real trouble for Ukraine came this past November, when Yanukovych announced that he would not be signing the EU deal despite years of discussion. Officials admitted that they succumbed to pressure from Moscow, and also had a breakdown of EU trust when they refused to investigate the Tymoshenko case.
Anger led to protests, which erupted and got out of control when Yanukovich introduced strict anti-protest laws to quiet the population. While there have been rumors of government negotiation, protests have only continued to escalate. Opposition groups have been continuing for the past two months with pro-EU rallies in Kiev, drawing as many as 200,000 people. Why they are angry is quite clear to the international audience but what’s going to happen in Ukraine is anyone’s guess.
By Nicci Mende