Tuesday,25 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1183, (6 - 12 February 2014)
Tuesday,25 September, 2018
Issue 1183, (6 - 12 February 2014)

Ahram Weekly

East or West?

Gamal Nkrumah evaluates the significance of the Ukrainian political crisis in international affairs

Al-Ahram Weekly

Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych was hospitalised last week after two months of anti-government demonstrations reminiscent of the “Arab Spring”, except that it was -6°C degrees in Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, as Al-Ahram Weekly went to press, the Ukrainian president reportedly suffering from a mysterious respiratory infection.

One can have different views on Yanukovych’s strategies, but feigning illness is by no means a magical potion to the country’s political problems. The cold war between East and West Ukraine is unlikely to see a thaw in the weeks to come. This may seem unduly gloomy, but the protagonists are unlikely to reach a compromise anytime soon. Closer ties with Russia are considered a dream for many Ukrainians. For others it is a nightmare.

Ukraine is schizophrenic. The ongoing ideological power struggle is tearing Ukraine apart. The struggle metamorphosed into historical and geographical dimensions. The western half of Ukraine, which is culturally more aligned to Poland and is Western-oriented, would prefer to be part of the European Union, NATO and the West. The eastern and southern parts of Ukraine are predominantly Russian speaking and its people are politically and culturally close to Russia.

But there is an irony here: Ukraine is the cradle of Russian civilisation — the Kievan Rus. The very name derives from the current Ukrainian capital Kiev. Ukraine, Russia and Belarus are the three predominantly Slavic nations of the former Soviet Union, and all three claim Keivan Rus as their cultural and political precursor.

The European Union (EU) foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton paid a brief visit to Kiev ostensibly to assess the situation herself, but presumably also to encourage Ukrainians to seek EU membership.

Western nations are keen to draw Ukraine away from the Russian orbit. NATO’s eastward expansion was abruptly halted by the Georgian war of 2008 and Yanukovych’s later election on a pro-Russian platform. Yet, it is Russia and not the EU or the United States that has stepped forward to rescue Ukraine from bankruptcy. Russia in December provided $3 billion of a total aid package of $15 billion. Moscow disbursed an additional $2 billion to Ukraine on Friday.

Russian President Vladimir Putin issued a strongly worded warning to the West to stay out of Ukraine’s domestic squabbles. “The more intermediaries there are, the more problems there are,” Putin pointed out. “I am not sure Ukraine needs intermediaries,” Putin pointedly told delegates in Munich.

The outcome of the current political crisis in Ukraine will determine the prestige and status of Russia and its precise relationship with its neighbours.

Providing a better environment that prompts political stability and promotes economic growth is a matter of urgency for Ukraine, a resource-rich, but relatively poor nation of 46 million that shares an historical allegiance to Moscow. The western half of the country has long resisted a policy of Russification, and refuses to be drawn into the Russian sphere. In sharp contrast, the east and south have an inherent bias in favour of the pro-Russian status quo. And, if Ukraine is exciting in 2014 it will be for all the wrong reasons.

It is against this backdrop that Ukrainian parliamentarians voted last Tuesday to repeal sweeping anti-protest laws whose passage this month enraged pro-European demonstrators and nosedived Ukraine headlong into political crisis.

Yanukovych’s decision more recently to blockade 14 of the 25 regional administrations in the country, including some in the southern and eastern parts of Ukraine caused public uproar. Given political polarisation and general discontent, even among staunch pro-Russia peoples, such as the Muslim Crimean Tartars, Ukraine’s political future is shrouded in uncertainty.

Meanwhile, former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko commands quite a following in contemporary Ukraine, even though she now languishes not quite in prison, but rather in a clinic under police surveillance. Tymoshenko was the star of the Orange Revolution. A gas business tycoon and reputedly one of the country’s richest women, Tymoshenko is pro-West and virulently anti-Russian. She later conceded that Ukraine was “an absolutely ungovernable country”.

Given the brouhaha this week, Ukrainian Prime Minister Mykola Azarov on Monday tendered in his resignation in a bid to ease the country’s political crisis as parliamentarians and politicians debated key reforms. The Ukrainian public can surely opt for perfectly rational outcomes that would not occur if politicians were left to their own devices.

Azarov branded the protesters “terrorists”. Under the constitution, the departure of the prime minister on Tuesday means the resignation of the entire government.

“The conflict situation which has come about in the country is threatening the economic and social development of Ukraine, creating a threat to the whole of Ukrainian society and to each citizen,” Azarov was reported as saying.

Yet, even with Azarov’s resignation there are no clear signs that the power of the pro-Russia ruling elite of Ukraine will ebb away from Moscow. World boxing champion and Ukraine opposition leader Vitaly Klitschko retorted that Azarov’s announcement was only “a step to victory”. He played down the significance of the move. “For several months we have been saying that what is happening in the streets is also the result of the policies of the current government. This is not victory but a step to victory,” Klitschko, leader of the UDAR (Punch) Party, was reported as saying. 

Before his hospitalisation, President Yanukovych approved the law on amnesty and the repeal of the so-called Verkhovna Rada (Ukrainian parliament) laws endorsed on 16 January. Indeed, the speaker of the Verkhovna Rada, Volodymyr Rybak, publicly declared that force would not be used to contain street riots, sit-ins and demonstrations. For Ukraine, 2014 is the year of moving sideways. It started with a bang as the year when simmering dissatisfaction flared up.

At the 50th Munich Security Conference that commenced on Friday, the West and Russia clashed over Ukraine. Representatives of both the Ukrainian government and opposition forces were in attendance at Munich. “The struggle for the future of Ukraine played out on the world stage Saturday when the Ukrainian foreign minister and opposition leader Vitali Klitschko battled during a heated session at the Munich Security Conference,” read a conference statement.

The Ukrainian interior ministry announced that it does not intend to arrest the organiser of the AutoMaydan anti-government protest, Amytro Bulatov. Nevertheless, the ministry declared that it has put Serhii Koba and Dmytro Bulatov, leaders of the demo, on a wanted list. Bulatov was next found with severe injuries on the evening of 30 January. He claimed that he was abducted by unidentified attackers whom he said spoke with a Russian accent. Bulatov is currently undergoing treatment in a private clinic in Kiev. Sooner or later there will be a showdown to settle once and for all the Russian question.

The West is not sitting idly by. US Secretary of State John Kerry on Saturday acknowledged that there are “unsavoury elements” among the Ukrainian street protesters.

“In fact, the lesson of the last half-century is that we can accomplish much more when the United States, Russia, and Europe work together. But make no mistake: We will continue to speak out when our interests or values are undercut by any country in the region,” Kerry warned.

Many pro-European and pro-Western Ukrainians are openly neo-Nazi and fascist. Yet he also denounced Russia’s interference in Ukrainian domestic affairs. “Nowhere is the fight for a democratic, European future more important today than in Ukraine,” Kerry added ominously.


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