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Ukraine’s Identity Crisis

On February 8th, 2013 demonstrations against the government of Ukraine turned violent after three months of protests in the capital of Kyiv. The chaotic state of affairs has ramifications for global relations, though the events have long centered on Kyiv, the ramifications have spiraled out of a purely Ukrainian context. Whilst the ousting of President Viktor Yanukovych was prematurely seen by the West as a step toward European integration, the case is clearly more nuanced, and recent developments only serve to reveal the underlying complexities. There appear to be two significant elements to the developing disarray, both of which are contributing to potentially dangerous disorder. The first is the actual issue over Ukraine and its relations with the European Union and its previously strong ties to Russia. The second element is behind the rumours of a division of Ukraine into a Euro-centric West region and a Russo-centric South and East region.

The events that are currently unfolding began on November 23rd, 2013 when President Yanukovych rejected a trade deal between the EU and Ukraine; the deal was largely seen as a way of transferring Ukraine out of Russia’s sphere of influence through developing closer ties with Europe. There were six pieces of legislation in the Kyiv parliament that were designed to appease the EU in hopes of forming closer ties. However, the ruling party at the time, the Party of Regions (the party of Yanukovych), refused to vote on any of the bills. The key rejection was over the release of the former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, who the EU wanted to have released and transferred to Germany for medical treatment for a medical condition.

The release of Tymoshenko was unacceptable to Yanukovych who had her imprisoned in 2011 for abuse of power over a gas deal with Russia. The European Court of Human Rights declared her pre-trial confinement (which was ordered for an indefinite length of time) to be, “arbitrary and unlawful,” and infringed upon her liberty. Oddly enough the court did not rule on the actual charges of her abuse of power relating to the gas deal. Regardless of whether or not the charges are true, she has become a symbol of the pro-western opposition to Russian interference in Ukrainian politics.

Her appearance at Independence Square following her release from Kharkiv hospital will undoubtedly create some tensions between ant-government protestors and those who view her as a corrupt member of the established order. This split over how to define Tymoshenko’s role in the eyes of the Ukrainian public could threaten to draw attention away from the formation of a new government and potentially cause a divide between the existing cooperation between anti-government groups. The proclamation that she will run for the office of president after parliamentary elections does nothing but harm a fragile state and the west must recognize that her involvement in politics once more threatens stability.

Compounding the chaos is the situation beyond Ukraine’s borders with the EU. The United States has warned Russia not to send troops into the country, presumably under the auspices of protecting ethnic Russians in the South and East. The Kremlin still backs Yanukovych and Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, recently suggested that “illegal extremist groups” are in fact aiding the opposition movement. This reassurance from Moscow gives Yanukovych the confidence to denounce the overthrow of his government as a “coup” and defy any call for resignation. His word is clearly taken as disingenuous by opposition groups and he is ostensibly powerless as his ousting has been supported by members of his own party.

While the rhetoric of the former president may amount to very little, the announcements and actions of the Russian government are certainly a cause for alarm. Both the European Union and the United States have issued warnings against military intervention by Russia. The European Union and the United States are concerned about Russian interference. If alignment appears to be going too far towards the European camp, Moscow may indeed decide that intervention is the only way to hold onto its former satellite state.

Article 2 of the Ukrainian constitution defines the state as unitary, and the Party of Regions is muttering about a federal Ukraine. Forces loyal to the ousted president see this a method for keeping together a rapidly dividing nation. However, opposition forces believe that this is a ploy by the Party of Regions to retain power and a method for Russia to retain influence in Ukraine. Writing in Deutsche Welle, Roman Goncharenko writes of political developments, “There has been vocal support for Viktor Yanukovych’s ruling Party of Regions in the east and south of the country – traditionally strongholds of the party – which could embolden the party to try to exploit the current political crisis in order to turn Ukraine into a federation.”

Further, Roman Goncharenko writes, “In early February, the parliamentary newspaper Holos Ukrainy (Voice of Ukraine) printed a proposal by the Communist Party ‘regarding possible amendments to the Constitution.’ According to these amendments, Ukraine should become a federal state. The Communists are allies of the ruling Party of Regions and often vote together.”

However, maybe federalization is the only option because the protests appear to be happening only in the Western half of the country. Ukrainians in the East and South are largely of a Russo-Ukrainian ethnolinguistic background. This is an oversimplification as the most recent census identifies only 17.3% as ethnically Russian. But the danger as was witnessed in Georgia is that if the country is divided this could potentially set the stage for a bloody conflict down the road.

As Uri Friedman writes in The Atlantic, “the signals from the country’s south and east are troubling. In an interview from the eastern city of Kharkiv, the country’s second-largest metropolis, Yanukovych insisted he was the victim of a coup, and that he would not resign or leave the country. According to RT, officials from Ukraine’s pro-Yanukovych southeast gathered in Kharkiv on Saturday and committed to restoring ‘constitutional order’ in the face of Kyiv’s upheaval. Russian officials were also present at the summit, which has led to speculation about Moscow asserting control over Crimea or other southeastern regions.”

The events of the last three months need to be resolved and their impact and what actions other actors will take are purely speculation. It is safe to say that the chaos will continue until a strong figure emerges as the leader of the opposition who can stabilize the transition toward democracy.