Ukraine has turned away from Brussels and into the arms of Russia, but what will be the effect on the rest of eastern Europe?
Blood, tears, riot shields and rocks; perhaps not the collection of nouns attendees of the Eastern Partnership summit in Lithuania hoped would mark the close of business in Vilnius. After years of tentative negotiation and ingratiation, the Eastern Partnership summit was supposed to cement relations between the European Union and the aspirant states of Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine. Unfortunately the actions of Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych have shattered, for now at least, any hopes of Ukrainian integration into the EU.Instead of taking the fruits offered by the European community, Yanukovych has turned on his heel and chosen the cold sanctuary of old Soviet comrades.
In the eyes of the protesters who currently swarm the streets of Kiev, Russia has been picked over Europe, the chains of the past reapplied just when liberty and modernity was within their grasp. No surprise then that a palpable rage now floods the capital; protesters have stormed government buildings and there have been violent clashes with the authorities, some dissidents even going as far as to hijack a digger in an attempt to bulldoze a police cordon.In response, Ukrainian police have utilised baton and fist with brutal expediency, whilst Kiev courts have issued a ban on protests at Independence Square, the simmering centre of the unrest. Such strong-arm tactics are redolent of the methods used by Russian authorities to quell dissent and do nothing to dispel the impression that Ukraine has taken a spiralling step away from Brussels and toward Moscow.
Yet it is in Moscow that the root of the problem lies, so much so that Yanukovych himself has bemoaned the pressures imposed on him from across the border. “We have big difficulties with Moscow,” he has commented. “I have been alone for three and a half years in very unequal conditions with Russia.” Such difficulties and unequal conditions appear to have lain heavy on the Ukrainian president throughout the Vilnius talks and it was widely agreed by senior officials and journalists alike that Vladimir Putin’s influence was instrumental in the Ukrainian withdrawal from the summit deal.
While we may laugh at Putin as he flexes sagging biceps and flaccid pectorals in perverse PR shots, his influence on Eastern European politics is deadly serious. As Yanukovych’s U-turn shows, the ties of the old Soviet bloc have not been completely severed. Russia maintains considerable leverage over former Soviet states and is not averse to using an iron hand to asphyxiate neighbouring nations. It has recently banned imports of Moldovan wine, the lifeblood of the Moldovan economy, as a form of punitive retaliation against their apparent lurch towards the EU. Similarly, Ukraine has suffered from similar spiteful caprice, with Ukrainian confectioner Roshen seeing its products banned from import into Russia earlier in the year. The ban was conspicuously overturned as the Vilnius summit drew to a close.
However, Yanukovych will no doubt be flinching as he recalls the Kremlin cutting off gas supplies into Ukraine in 2009. As a power-hungry nation reliant on Russian gas imports for fuel and industry, the impact could have been devastating for both Ukraine and the rest of Europe. Subsequent diplomatic talks may have managed to smooth over the cracks but it is a crisis that still lingers as Ukraine tries to wean itself off Russian gas, while Moscow is still intent on using it as a bargaining chip.
The fractiousness of the Russian government is indicative of an administration that is jealously guarding its interests. From frustrating American efforts in the Middle East, staking claims of dominion in the Arctic to coercing former Soviet nations to reject western markets, the Russian bear seems intent on erecting a barricade against what it views as rampant western expansionism. Atop the frigid ramparts stands Putin, hurling accusations of western foul play and hypocrisy in response to every dispute, incident and diplomatic impasse, both international and domestic. Whether these outbursts are paranoid delusions or displays of political guile is anyone’s guess but they are a sobering reminder that mistrust of the West still festers in Russia’s political heart.
Ukrainians find themselves on a fault-line between the East and West and at the centre of a power play between the bureaucracy of Europe and the oligarchy of Russia. Whilst not united in their support of the European Union, the will for progress in Ukraine is undeniably strong: the throngs protesting in Kiev serve as physical evidence of that fact. Yet it is unlikely that Yanukovych will relinquish power and accede to the demands of the protestors with the shadow of Putin looming large behind him. Therefore, the success or failure of the Ukrainian protests will hinge upon whether the roiling anger of protesters and opposition leaders can crystallise into a solid movement against the current regime. Equally, it will depend upon their ability to win over or electorally outnumber the many Ukrainians who are still sympathetic to Russia.
Whether this political battle is won or lost will have major ramifications for the future of Europe. The outcome of the turmoil in Ukraine could either inspire other states to break free of Russian influence or cause them to fall abjectly into the lap of Vladimir Putin. Western leaders should therefore not sit idle; with the political landscape of Europe teetering on the brink of change, now is not the time for muted, perfunctory statements calling for resolution but committed political engagement to ensure that whatever direction Ukraine takes, it will be the Ukrainian people who set the course.