Ukraine: A familiar tale for us as identity issue is key to crisis
Ukraine is a country of divided loyalties, and it will take goodwill from both the EU and Russia to heal its wounds, says Dr Timofey Agarin
Over the last week Ukraine has been in headlines across Europe, and most of these picture public protests as the last stand-off between the democratic West and authoritarian Russia.
The images come as no surprise to those interested in Russia's relationships with Europe, and painting a black and white picture might seem natural here – on the one side, there is police in riot gear, on the other pensioners dressed up in Ukrainian folk dress. These images catch our eye, but they are rarely realistic.
This is not a stand-off between Russians and Ukrainians, neither is it a clash of European and Asian civilisations. This is a conflict between the haves and the have-nots, not between politicians, but between people on the street, regardless of their national, linguistic and cultural identities.
The protesters may now be overjoyed at the success they have achieved in forcing a regime change, chasing the president out of the capital into hiding, Parliament issuing an warrant for his arrest and one of the jailed leaders of the opposition, Iulia Timoshenko, now released from prison.
Three months after the start of the demonstration in Independence Square in the heart of the Ukrainian capital, even with more than 500 people injured and dozens dead, this seems to be a good result of the protests. Unfortunately, this is but the start of a laborious and, likely, very painful processes of implementing reform that caused the popular protests in the first place.
To understand what must be done in Ukraine to halt unrest, we must understand when this all started.
The protests centred on the capital when the President Viktor Yanukovych declined to sign a trade deal with the EU after months of negotiations. Instead, he had made a move to co-operate closer with Russia, deepen economic and financial exchange and ensure the vital flow of energy from Russia to fire up the industry of the south eastern Ukraine, where he is from originally. In so doing, he followed closely the reluctance of many in the east of the country to co-operate closer with the EU, as they regard that as leading to a diminution of their economic status and living standards and cutting off their ties to Russia.
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Not only do many people in the east work in the country's vital heavy industries that make up almost three quarters of country's economic output, many eastern Ukrainians have close relatives living in Russia. For Yanukovych to neglect that would have meant cutting centuries-old social and cultural ties in eastern Ukraine. It would also see state revenues from industry, export and trade with Russia plunge, taking all the country's economic recovery with it.
When choosing trade with Russia over closer economic exchange with the EU, Yanukovych deeply offended the Ukrainian-speaking west of the country. They have century-long links to Poland and of late, were looking towards closer integration with the EU. Those living in the west felt that their identity and political aspirations were not being taken on board, and they will see the new administration as going some way towards proper recognition.
Across the western Ukraine, Yanukovych is associated with Russia and as such, he is an easy target for public scorn. Despite the fact that the eastern Ukraine has largely survived on trade with Russia, and has fed much of the western Ukraine out of these revenues from production, and exports to both the EU and Russia, many western Ukrainians underestimate the importance of the east for the wellbeing of all Ukrainians.
Yanukovych made the right choice of getting more for the country in negotiations with both the EU and Russia, but he failed to sell his choices well.
He gave an impression that after two years of telling his fellow Ukrainians about the prospect of EU integration, he suddenly stopped and pointed the other way: Ukraine could return to Europe by going through Russia only.
No wonder most Ukrainians from both the western part and the eastern part became very upset.
Though he might be now ousted from power, new political arrangements must be established soon to ensure the country does not descend into social, economic and political chaos. Parliamentarians have now passed a series of laws, but yet we are still to see any initiative for economic reform, any working ideas that would address the challenges this country has faced for nearly 20 years.
Ukraine is heavily dependent on Russia for energy; its finance and economic sectors are deeply intertwined. Add to this, the society of divided loyalties and the current unrest demonstrates how concerns over identity can supersede, at least in the short term, economic considerations. Parallels with Northern Ireland – while tenuous – are apparent.
The unrest is the result of previous generations of politicians in Ukraine failing to introduce the reforms necessary to enhance the competitiveness of the country. The challenge for any incoming administration is to begin a programme of reform, which will require making unpopular decisions – which could lead to further public protests. Those who are seen as the saviours today could quite quickly gain a very different reputation. And such fundamental change will not be easy, nor will it be swift, no matter who is in power.
As the largest country wholly within Europe and a population of more than 44 million people, people in Northern Ireland should observe the situation there carefully. The way forward to economic prosperity lies through a negotiated solution, involving all parties involved in the parliamentary process.
It will depend on both western leaders and the Russian government becoming involved and supporting change. Russia and Europe also have selfish strategic economic reasons for dampening the current unrest. The Ukraine is a transit country for Russian gas exports to Europe, and neither side would want those lights to go out.
Though Russia is often portrayed as a war monger, clutching fists over Ukraine, peace is the region is more important to Russia than to any EU member states.
From a purely selfish point of view it would not want anything approaching civil war in Ukraine as that, inevitably given the historic ties between Russia and the east of the country, would lead to arms, refugees and instability spilling over across the border. Vladimir Putin, as much as anyone, wants stability in Ukraine, given its economic importance.
In the current volatile political situation in Ukraine, it is important that all sides – particularly those on the outside – do nothing to inflame the situation further. Nothing short of a compromise between the European Union and Russia over support and joint investment in developing Ukraine as a region that links, rather than divides the two would secure a sustainable peaceful development.
Though often portrayed as mutually exclusive, the interests of Europe, Russia and Ukraine go back centuries and cannot be dismissed in the search for new political allegiances.
What is also required is substantial financial aid for Ukraine, a country which has seen its economic status plunge in recent times. That would be the surest sign of political goodwill on all sides towards the country in its time of greatest need. Playing for mere political advantage on either side could be disastrous as it would only ferment further grievances within a deeply divided country.
As we know in Northern Ireland, questions of identity can be a very emotive force, but even when differing identities are given some kind of parity of esteem, other problems will remain.
Finding a common will to tackle them requires logic not emotion and courage too. The jury is out on what segment of political elites in Ukraine is able to form the government that is willing to cooperate with both Russia and Europe, who will undertake politically suicidal economic reforms that have been delayed for over 20 years and unite the people who protested against social injustice on the streets of Kiev since November.