Russia’s economic interests stir Ukraine’s unrest

From the outside, the political unrest in Ukraine seems to be settling: President Viktor Yanukovych has been formally impeached and criminal cases opened. Most importantly, as many legislative representatives who aligned themselves with President Yanukovych and against the protesters fled or defected, the balance of power in the Verkhovna Rada (“Supreme Council”/Ukrainian parliament) shifted. Those supportive of the protesters, once able to fulfill the quorum, passed a series of laws addressing both the causes and responses to the “Euromaidan” (the protests’ collective name – think “Arab Spring”), and are using the extent of their legal and political muscle to reshape the government.

The most substantive move thus far (which could very well change by the time you’re reading this) has been the restoration of a series of constitutional amendments, originally passed in 2004, which inhibit the executive powers of the president in favor of parliamentary authority. In September 2010, the Constitutional Court declared the reforms unconstitutional – following the resignations of four of its eighteen judges. Doing so pushed the powers, the most important of which being appointment of the prime minister, back towards Yanukovych. Six months prior, in the wake of his election, Yulia Tymoshenko, then prime minister and opposition member, had resigned. When the polls had closed and results of the election were finalized, she stated – apparently with some clairvoyance – that support of opposition of Yanukovych could be generalized into “who values the preservation of Ukraine’s independence and self-identity and who does not” (Kyiv Post, Feb. 25, 2010). In 2011, Tymoshenko was indicted, tried, and convicted for abuse of power. The deal she had struck with Vladmir Putin in 2009, dissipating a thirteen-day long Russian freeze on natural gas sales, was deemed to be both corrupt and outside of Ukraine’s best interests – Yanukovych testified for the state. Tymoshenko’s release from prison was passed by the remaining members of parliament on February 21st.

Her questions about national integrity were based in Ukraine’s fundamental divergence in economics and politics between European integration and alignment with Russia. Popular support is continuing to lean towards the European Union – the protests began when Yanukovych declined to sign an international treaty which would progress free trade and cooperation towards the E.U. and away from Russia. Last fall, while the deal was still being negotiated, Russia placed a customs block on all goods from Ukraine, effectively threatening a trade war. In 2009, Russia’s state-owned Gazprom shut off service to Ukraine (and consequently most of southeastern Europe), demanding repayment for back debts. The final negotiation would be the basis of Tymoshenko’s trial. Regardless, in April 2010, about a month after Timoshenko’s resignation, Yanukovych signed the Kharkiv Pact, allowing Russian naval access to Ukraine’s primary Black Sea port, Sevastopol, until 2042. Ukraine, in turn, would have a discounted contract on natural gas. On November 21, Yanukovych officially walked away from the trade agreement with the E.U., inciting the protests. Tymoshenko and Yanukovych personify the two paths Ukraine is presented with – one towards the NATO and the European Union, another towards Russia.

What should international eyes take from the Euromaidan? The most obvious lessons would be the importance of public dialogue and the quickness with which a “democratic” state can decay into a blurred space between reality and George Orwell’s imagination–but it doesn’t end there. The protests, while necessarily fighting corruption and undemocratic practices, are at the core a response to Russia’s military, political, and economic interests intersecting at the degradation of Ukraine’s national sovereignty. In 2008, before the Gazprom crisis, Ukraine shied away from NATO membership after Vladmir Putin stated that a missile defense shield would be met with a redirection of Russian weapons towards Ukraine and potential annexation of Crimea, the eastern peninsula which Sevastopol sits on. The tension is ultimately rooted in the economic interests of Russia’s corporations and the geopolitical aims of its military – the catch being that the line between the two is smudged. The influence that Russia has exhibited over the Ukrainian government is exemplary of the danger presented when corporate and public interests are blended. The situation in Ukraine hit its critical point when Yanukovych opted for back room handshakes over democratic interests–that should be pretty poignant to a country whose legislature disbursed $431 billion (Congressional Budget Office, October 2012) to purchase equity and assets from financial institutions in 2008.

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