Ukraine threatens to become the Syria of Eastern Europe. And like Syria, civil war could ultimately decimate a vibrant and ethnically diverse society, and a rich civilisational legacy

The political crisis in Ukraine, that has now entered its fourth month, is rapidly reaching a point of no return. Territorial fissures in the country along political, linguistic and ethnic lines, the real possibility of civil war, and the emergence of the southern (autonomous) Ukrainian republic of Crimea as a potential, international military flashpoint, are among the different aspects of the current situation in the country, which is the second largest state in Europe.

The focus has shifted from Kiev to the southern province of Crimea where the interim government that deposed former President Viktor Yanukovych has not been recognised. With its complex ethnic mix and historical past, the region has traditionally had strong ties with Russia.

Russia has stepped up its military presence in Crimea — it already has a treaty with Ukraine that allows it to station its Black Sea Fleet in Sevastopol, and its Parliament recently passed a resolution reserving the right for limited military intervention to defend the rights of 1.5 million Russians in Crimea.

The western bloc has accused Russia of the “armed seizure” of Crimea, and Washington is putting together legislation for a package of sanctions against Russia that could include trade restrictions, visa bans and asset freezes. These countries have withdrawn from preparations for the G8 Summit that is to be held in Sochi, the venue of the Winter Olympics.

Euromaidan and agreement

The background to the crisis goes back to the three month occupation of the Euromaidan in Kiev which grew out of opposition to President Yanukovych’s decision to postpone signing an Association Agreement with the European Union (EU).

The protests and sit-ins rapidly spiralled into pitched battles between protesters and police. Police reprisals against protesters — of whom a large section were armed with deadly weapons including Molotov cocktails to force entry into government buildings — resulted in 85 deaths.

In the face of escalating street clashes, and increasing pressure from the EU and the United States to accommodate the opposition’s demands, Mr. Yanukovych was forced to sign an EU-brokered agreement with his Maidan opponents on February 21.

The agreement represented the first real breakthrough in the deadlock, as it had the support of all the players in the conflict — including the western bloc and Russia. Mr. Yanukovych promised a return to the 2004 Constitution within 48 hours, the setting up of a government of national unity, and presidential elections between September and December of this year.

The opposition parties and their backers, however, clearly had a bigger agenda. A day later they broke the agreement and seized power in Kiev. This sent the deposed President, who now faces charges of mass murder, into refuge in southern Russia.

Ukraine is now facing an acute economic crisis as well. It is close to bankruptcy with a debt of nearly $73 billion. In December, President Yanukovych had secured a bailout deal with Russia, which offered to buy $15 billion of Ukrainian debt in two-year bonds, plus a $3.5 billion discount on natural gas purchases. The offer stands withdrawn in the light of the recent political changes.

With elections announced for May, the new government is seeking a $35 billion aid package from the International Monetary Fund, which, if it does come, will have unpopular strings attached in the form of harsh austerity measures. The U.S. government has also offered $1 billion in immediate aid.

Two perspectives

History shows how swiftly the root causes of international conflict often get buried under the layers of subsequent events. This seems to be fast happening in the Ukrainian crisis with the ground now shifting to the Crimean crisis, and the Russian military threat there.

Nevertheless, the two perspectives on the conflict remain unchanged. Europe and the U.S. view regime change in Kiev as the outcome of a democratic revolution and President Yanukovych as a corrupt and tyrannical surrogate for Russian President Vladimir Putin. This view permeates most sections of the western media. The Euromaidan reportage continued to see the protest as popular and spontaneous long after its leadership had been infiltrated by avowedly right wing and neo-Nazi nationalist groups. The overt western support for the protests was at best glossed over and at worst justified. The resistance to the new Kiev government in the Crimea and eastern regions, which derives from a complex play of factors, is still presented as Russia-sponsored dissent.

The other perspective sees regime change in Kiev as a coup, funded by the West, with right-wing forces firmly in the driving seat.

The regime of President Yanukovych was undoubtedly authoritarian and corrupt but he was not only a democratically elected President, but had also agreed to an interim government ahead of an advanced schedule of elections.

A stream of high-profile figures from the EU and the U.S. visited the Maidan actively stoking dissent, actions that would not be tolerated in any western capital where anti-government protests are taking place. The visitors included Special Representative of the EU, Baroness Ashton; former U.S. presidential candidate John McCain; and the U.S. Assistant Secretary General for Europe and Eurasian Affairs, Victoria Nuland. In fact, the substantial part of Ms Nuland’s infamous leaked conversation with U.S. Ambassador Geoffrey Pratt — which the western media swooped on for her abusive dismissal of the EU — has only lent credence to the allegation of U.S. micromanagement of regime change in Kiev.

Western-backed coup

“Without doubt a western-backed coup,” is how Marcus Papadopoulos, London-based Editor of Politics First magazine, described the political change in Ukraine. “Ukraine is an independent country. How has the U.S. and the EU respected its independence? By joining the protests that they called a pro-democracy movement,” he told The Hindu. “Ukraine has a huge industry-military complex. Forty per cent of south and east Ukraine are Russian-speaking, and Russia will seek to protect them. It has a right to make sure its economic interests are protected. It does not want a country on its borders that is illegitimate.

“In 1997, Russia and Ukraine signed an agreement on the division of the Black Sea Fleet, with 81 per cent going to Russia along with Sevastopol and other military installations in the Crimea. In return, Moscow compensated Kiev with a large sum of money as well as writing off a large amount of Ukrainian debt. Russia also pays Ukraine an annual fee.”

After its independence in 1991 from the former Soviet Union, Ukraine has swung between its desire for integration into the European Union and keeping friendly ties with Russia, which continues to be its largest single trading partner that it depends on for cheap energy resources.

According to Mr. Yanukovych, integration into the EU through a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (DCFTA) would have cost the Ukrainian economy €20 billion.

Restrictive trade policy

“This is a highly restrictive and bullying trade policy by the EU,” said Robert Oulds, Director of the Bruges Group, a London-based think-tank. “When President Yanukovych postponed signing an Association Agreement in late 2011 it did not create a political issue. This time the EU and the U.S. whipped up opposition to him,” he said.

According to Mr. Oulds, Mr. Yanukovych had strong reasons for caution as 75 per cent of the United Kingdom’s industrial exports go to Russia, and a major part of Ukraine’s export is to the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). “Ukraine cannot be part of an EU Free Trade Association and also be part of the Russian[-led] Custom’s union. An EU agreement will put quotas on Ukraine, the highest being on agricultural goods like sugar and wheat. The quota for wheat is limited to 20,000 tonnes [subsequently negotiated to two million tonnes], whereas globally, Ukraine exports 10-15 million tonnes. European integration will result in huge job losses owing to the closure of many businesses because of higher EU regulations. For Ukraine it is a very bad deal,” he said.

Clearly, the EU’s vision for the integration of Ukraine has ramifications beyond the economic as it seeks to draw Ukraine into a defence, security and political framework that would give it strategic importance as a pro-NATO state on the very borders of Russia.

A policy paper prepared by the Razumkov Centre, a pro-EU think-tank located in Kiev, set this framework out clearly.

“The EU’s interests (that condition its actions and influence with respect to Ukraine) ensue from the ideology of the European Neighbourhood Policy and priorities of the Eastern Partnership,” it states. “They involve creating around the EU a belt of democratic, prosperous and stable states sharing common values … forming a security area around it and expanding its sphere of influence to the South and East. The EU is interested in ‘Europeanising’ Ukraine, introducing the European norms and standards to its domestic and foreign policy.”

Meanwhile, the interim government in Kiev has announced elections on May 25, an exercise that Crimea has already said it will boycott and replace by a referendum on whether to stay within Ukraine.

In the Kiev ministry, 10 key posts have gone to the Fatherland Party of former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, including President Olexander Turchyonov and Prime Minister in the interim government Arseniy Yatsenyuk. Of significance however is the presence of the far-right parties, who acted as the steel fists of the Euromaidan movement. The neo-Nazi and Russo-phobic Svoboda Party is not far behind with major portfolios including defence, economic affairs, education, ecology and agriculture. Also represented are members of the Right Sector party, another far-right outfit.

Tetyana Chornovol, portrayed as a crusading journalist, but who has also been involved with the ultra-right Ukrainian National Assembly, was named chair of the government’s anti-corruption committee.

Ukraine threatens to become the Syria of Eastern Europe. And like Syria, civil war could ultimately decimate a vibrant and ethnically diverse society, and a rich civilisational legacy.

parvathi.menon@thehindu.co.in

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