Ukraine has seen a barrage of demonstrations recently which have drawn international attention. For days now, protestors have converged on Ukraine’s Independence Square in Kiev in order to voice their disapproval of the decision by the leadership to make an about face on plans to further European integration. The recent move to suspend trade talks with the EU ignited public demonstrations which seem to be escalating as the days go by. Considering Ukraine’s history, along with its strategic importance to both the European Union and Russia, the recent events look less like simple trade protests and more like another color revolution.
The predicament which is underway is more multi-dimensional than might be apparent. There are two simultaneous movements at work within Ukraine. Part of the country desires to see a move “Westward” towards additional economic and political integration with the EU, while another section of the society leans towards the stability that is offered by ceding to Russian “suggestions” that it not enter into deeper trade agreements with Europe. This tug of war places the former Soviet-controlled nation in quite the predicament. Although, it declared its independence more than 30 years ago, the recent problems seem to highlight the reality of Ukraine being somewhat subject to the whims of its more powerful neighbors. Despite its constricted ability to decide its own fate, Ukraine has learned over the years to manage the power struggle between its two neighbors in order to extract maximum concessions from both sides.
Both Russia and the EU view Ukraine as extremely important. Of all the former Soviet states, it is second only to Russia in the size of both its population and economy. The nations importance to Europe is clear considering a significant amount of European natural gas comes from Russia and nearly all of it is transported through Ukraine.
Comparatively however, Ukraine is more than just important to Russia, it plays an essential strategic role for a number of reasons. Although Russia’s economy has long valued the economic input Ukraine has provided, primarily with its steel and agriculture industries, economics is not the only thing at stake.
Sevastapol, an important Ukrainian city, also serves as the home of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet. This combination of both economic and military significance, in addition to the simple proximity of Ukraine to important Russian territory adds to the importance of these recent events.
It is clear for these reasons, that while the EU might have a political and economic stake in the outcome of the trade talks, Russia’s interests seem to far outweigh those of the EU.
With the players set, and the issues clearly laid out, the recent riots in Ukraine begin to take on added significance in a rapidly changing world stage. Protestors have dug in for the long haul it appears as they have recently barricaded themselves within Independence Square and proceed to block employees from accessing some government buildings.
The demonstrations turned violent Sunday as hundreds of thousands of protesters were confronted by riot police in an effort to clear out the square.
The violent tactics used to clear out the square turned out to be counterproductive as they drew significantly larger crowds the following day. The EU also released communication which took place with Jose Barosso (EC President) and Viktor Yanukovych (Ukrainian President) in which the EU highlights their suggestion to avoid using harsh tactics in response to protests. Yanukovych however, finds himself between a rock and a bigger rock as Russian economic pressure appears to have forced his hand to reconsider the EU trade deal. In addition to outside political and economic pressure, which complicates the issues on Yanukovych’s plate, the demonstrators effective constricting of government functions could eventually begin to cost Ukraine $500 million per day in GDP. Although Yanukovych has publicly denounced the use of force by riot police, urging them to strictly abide by the law when dealing with protestors, the potential for protestors to shut down important functions of government may bring the option of force onto the table as the crisis continues.
In a trip to Armenia, Russian leader Vladimir Putin condemned the recent events, labeling the actions as “pogroms.” In a recent visit to Armenia, Putin stated, “What is happening in Kiev is not a revolution as claimed by the opposition, but pogroms.” The Russian leader was referring to the brutal persecution, primarily against Jews, which has taken place throughout Europe and Ukraine in the past.
Putin used the trip to Armenia to highlight potential benefits the Ukrainians would also enjoy if they stick to the recent decision to shun additional EU integration. He pointed out benefits that the Armenians are going to receive which include favorable energy prices along with Russian arms sales. The recent demonstrations however have not drawn a clear response from Russia, regarding how to respond.”Ukraine is in no position to choose an association with the EU because its economy cannot survive without Russia” stated a Russian government official to the press.
When taking a closer look at the recent events however, they show an eerie similarity to those of the Orange Revolution in 2004. That revolution spawned similar riots, which begun as a result of controversial election results between Viktor Yushchenko and Viktor Yanukovych (current President of Ukraine). The issue apparently stemmed from the fact that certain exit polls had shown Yushchenko to have a more than 10% lead heading into the election, but the result was a 3% victory for Yanukovych. Those in favor of the results credited media collusion for the disparity in percentages. Yushchenko called for protest and eventually, as demonstrations and tensions rose dramatically the decision to re-run the election was reached. The decision resulted in the overturning of the original results as Yushchenko eventually edged out Yanukovych in the re-run.
Yanukovych, explaining that he ceded to the decisions for the sake of avoiding bloodshed stated, “I didn’t want mothers to lose their children and wives their husbands. I didn’t want dead bodies from Kyiv to flow down the Dnipro. I didn’t want to assume power through bloodshed.” The riots and disturbances which
led to a decision of re-running to decide Ukrainian leadership came to be known as the Orange Revolution, on of a group of such events dubbed Color Revolutions. This history becomes more important in light of comments made by Ukrainian PM Mykola Azarov suggesting that this past weekends recent actions have “all the signs of a coup.”
Color Revolutions seem to have an interesting pattern in that they tend to occur in nations that possess natural resources needed by leading industrial nations around the world. They also appear to find themselves taking place in left-leaning, anti-imperialist nations. Some examples include China, Iran, Lebanon, Kuwait, Iraq, and many others. Venezuela is an interesting case of a nation which managed to survive one such attempt at a color revolution, however many a nations leadership has been toppled following these kinds of reform movements.
In the case of Ukraine, there are many issues currently encompassed within this recent outbreak of protests and instability. While on the surface these events might appear to stem from disgruntled Ukrainians just wishing for a simple trade deal with Europe, the history of revolution along with the major interests of Ukraine’s neighbor to the East suggest that these may not be so much simple trade protests as they could be yet another color revolution. Time will reveal the outcome of demonstrations which have commanded world attention to turn to Kiev, Ukraine.
By Daniel Worku