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Ukraine: Political Turmoil

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The Ukrainian government and opposition leaders need to have a dialogue urgently to save the nation from collapsing
AMIR HOSSAIN | Issue Dated: February 16, 2014, New Delhi
Tags : Leonid Makarovych Kravchuk | President Viktor Yanukovych | European Council President Herman Van Rompuy |

The very recent warning by Leonid Makarovych Kravchuk, the first President of Ukraine that “The entire world acknowledges... that the state [Ukraine] is on the verge of civil war” precisely indicates the muddled social and political condition of the nation. The concurrent protests by opposition leaders against the government and specifically President Viktor Yanukovych have reminded the world about the Orange Revolution of 2004 that took place against electoral fraud. Over the years, the battle between Ukraine’s opposition leaders and the President has been escalating. The situation now is such that the nation could quite easily see a WWII German redux, by getting divided into two parts, with the western part (which is opposing the current President Viktor Yanukovych, and wants to align with Europe) going to Europe and the eastern part (supporting the President) going with Russia.

To be fair, this cultural division has more or less been present in Ukraine since many years, and had not caused any grave issues – far from it, this apparent east versus west division was used quite some in jocular contexts. So few thought that this undercurrent could transform itself into something more serious. Yet, the current state of Ukraine leaves no one in doubt what the issue is all about. The immediate wave of ongoing demonstrations and civil unrest gained significance in Nov 2013, in Kiev, when President Viktor Yanukovych decided to make an association agreement with Russia, instead of with EU (which interestingly had been his apparent choice since long). As per the last minute deal, the Russian government contracted to buy Ukraine’s debt of $15 billion and agreed to provide massive discounts on natural gas imports. It’s not as if the deal was a con job. Far from it, analysts like Lilit Gevorgyan, a senior economist at IHS Global Insight, have pointed out that the Ukrainian government chose the best deal, if it was a choice between EU and Russia. But as it happens generally, what fans the crowd’s fury is not necessarily a policy issue, but an on-ground policing issue. The protest in reality, and unfortunately, became a national east Ukraine versus west Ukraine movement when a group of students, peacefully protesting the Russia-incline of the President, were attacked viciously by the police on November 30, an attack that led to several injuries. But more importantly, it resulted in almost a million people gathering at Independence Square by December 8, 2013 to show their protest against the government and the President. What could have been diplomatically handled (and some critics mention, even ignored), became unmanageable almost overnight due to police excesses. Protesters refused to vacate the square until their demands were met, which included releasing jailed protesters (critics mention, is not unreasonable), signing the EU agreement, changing the Constitution of Ukraine to reduce the power of the President, asking the President to quit, and conducting of early elections (all of the latter demands being more or less unreasonable, as per most analysts).

If this was becoming unmanageable, President Yanukovych added his part of the oil to the fire on December 16, 2013, by passing and bringing into force the Bondaenko-Oliynyk set of laws, which banned public protests in various forms. However, the government later on repealed nine of the twelve restrictive anti-protest laws.

Subsequently, on January 28, 2014, the Prime Minister, Mykola Azarov and the entire cabinet resigned. Azarov stated, “To create additional opportunities for social and political compromise and for a peaceful solution to the conflict, I made a personal decision to ask the president of Ukraine to accept my resignation as Prime Minister of Ukraine." Surprisingly, and in a very conciliatory tone, Yanukovych offered the top posts in his government to opposition leaders. But they rejected the offer claiming that complete victory was yet to come in the near future. The worst fallout of these protests have been that mayors of western aligned constituencies in Ukraine have openly started revolting against the Yanukovych-led government. Exacerbating the situation, in some areas, protestors have taken control of the regional administration. In a sadder turn of events for Ukraine, these territories are also now announcing that they are prepared to fend off a military attack if Yanukovych decides to send the army to regain control.

That said, it’s quite clear that the ongoing protest can be culled in one go if the President agrees to step down, as the general angst now is directed more against the President rather than the government. There are many reasons for this. Over the past, Yanukovych has been severely condemned for colossal corruption and cronyism. For the uninitiated, Yanukovych had spent around US $75 million to establish his new mansion while the nation was and is suffering from a debilitating economic and financial crisis. Sergii Leshchenko, deputy-editor-in-chief of Ukrainska Pravda, Ukraine’s leading online media channel, had then said, “In a country where 35 per cent of the population lives under the poverty line, spending 100,000 dollars on each individual chandelier seems excessive, to say the least.” This exemplified the majority thought wave. Yanukovych has also set up a burning example of regional cronyism. As per several reports, more than half of the ministers appointed by him had some or the other connection with his home region of Donbas. He allotted as much as 46 per cent of the budget for socio-economic development to the Donbas region. Given that Donbas is one of the two largest regions in Ukraine, this figure should not have been that controversial, but given also that Yanukovych belongs to that region, such allocations only gave more fuel to critics.

Amid political turmoil, and on expected lines, Ukraine has become the playground of global biggies like Russia and the EU and even the US. On the one hand, while Russia has slammed anti-government protestors for inflaming the crisis (The Russian Foreign Ministry said, “We expect the opposition in Ukraine to renounce threats and ultimatums and re-energise its dialogue with the authorities with a view to taking the country out of the deep crisis, within the framework of the Constitution.”), Ukraine’s opposition leaders are continuously meeting with European leaders to work out their plans of action.

Disappointingly, but not surprisingly, Western leaders have been quite slanted. For example, the European Council President Herman Van Rompuy has been rabidly insistent, almost aka Persius in the movie 300, that the “Future of Ukraine belongs with the EU”. Not to be left behind, US Secretary of State John Kerry (who met up with three opposition leaders on February 1, 2014, in Germany, on the sidelines of a security conference) happily announced that the US backed Ukraine’s “Fight for democracy”. The “Backing” obviously comes conjoined with financial gifts. EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said in a recent interview with the Wall Street Journal that “Western powers were working on a financial plan for Ukraine whose numbers ‘won’t be small’ and won’t hinge on Kiev first agreeing upon a long-term International Monetary Fund agreement, whose financial conditions Kiev has had difficulty complying with.” One doesn’t need to be clairvoyant to understand that the only condition EU and America would require of Kiev would be to distance itself from the Russians.

At this position, it is very difficult to say that between the east and west divide within Ukraine, who will gain significantly from the crisis in Ukraine. But one thing is sure that if the scenario continues in this way, then Ukraine will be the loser in every aspect. Already, the nation is on the edge of economic adversity as its currency has plunged to a four-year low amidst political turmoil. With just 0.4 per cent growth in 2013, and expectably lower growth this year, the last thing the nation needs as of right now is a civil unrest or an global east versus west tug of war. Ukrainians need to realize that they have to resolve their problems on their own. It’s true that Constitutionally, the President does not need to step down. But extreme situations demand extreme solutions; and the President can perhaps call for instant elections overseen by UN observers, to ensure that the current situation is handled judiciously. Well, as they say, Ukraine should choose anything but the Americans...

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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017