Global Viewpoint

Prof. Carol Leff discusses the protests in Ukraine

2/21/2014  8:00 am

Three months of protests in Ukraine erupted into new violence beginning Tuesday (Feb. 18) as riot police attempted to clear protesters from a square in the capital of Kiev, with dozens killed and many more injured. Despite appearances, however, this is not a simple people-versus-government conflict, says Carol Leff, a political science professor at Illinois who teaches courses on Soviet, post-Soviet and Eastern European politics. Ukraine, a former Soviet republic, sits between Russia to the east and the European Union to the west, where it borders new EU members Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and Romania. The country also is divided by region, ethnicity and language, with western and central regions largely speaking Ukrainian and eastern and southern areas Russian. All of this plays a role in the conflict. Leff spoke about the situation with News Bureau social sciences editor Craig Chamberlain.

These protests began in November when Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych pulled back from signing a trade agreement with the EU, angering those with loyalties to the west. Protesters have since called for the president’s resignation. So how much of this conflict is about east versus west, and how much of it is about other issues?

The east-west divide is definitely a political and not merely linguistic divide, as electoral maps since independence in 1991 clearly show. President Yanukovych’s political base is in the east, where he was born, while the protesters are predominantly from central and western regions. These areas do hold differing opinions on key issues, with the east more oriented to neighboring Russia and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s Customs Union, and the rest of the country more likely to aspire to EU membership.

Ironically, though, it was the Yanukovych administration that brokered and last year initialed the EU agreement before reneging at the last minute. Observers saw the president as positioning himself for re-election by appealing beyond his eastern stronghold.

But what has fueled the protests now transcends the EU issue alone. Every government attempt since November to repress the demonstrations has only swelled the ranks of the protesters, whose demands are now for constitutional reform, an end to corruption and early elections. These demands are much broader than a foreign policy dispute.

You say Ukraine’s economic problems have played an important role in what’s going on. How so?

Misgovernment has squandered the agricultural and industrial promise that Ukraine showed when it gained independence. Yanukovych would not have felt such strong pressure to pick sides between the EU and Russia if the country’s debt and balance of payments problems weren’t so acute – verging on default. Ukraine badly needed a bailout last fall. Economists tend to see the EU Association Agreement that Yanukovych declined to sign as a better long-term prospect for economic growth, but in the short run, in November, Putin made the offer Yanukovych couldn’t refuse – both a bigger loan up front, the largest Russia has ever given, and energy price relief for a Ukrainian economy that depends on Russian oil and gas.

And of course there was direct Russian pressure for an “either-or” choice, including the hold-up of border trade and some not entirely veiled threats of economic retaliation. Ukraine is caught in between the EU and Russia, since it trades about equally with both, and is better off when no choices between them are necessary.

What are the perceived stakes for Russia and Putin in all this? For the EU?

Russia has multiple stakes, both practical and cultural. Russians see the state of Kievan Rus of a millennium ago, centered on the city of Kiev, as the early Russian state. Kiev is of course now the Ukrainian capital.

Much more recently, it was the Ukrainian independence referendum in 1991 that led Russian President (Boris) Yeltsin, only a week later, to hold the summit to dissolve the Soviet Union. Without Ukraine, the Soviet Union seemed pointless. Economically, Ukraine is central to Putin’s Customs Union project. Putin has accused the EU of intervening in Ukrainian domestic affairs, though he has modulated that tone in the past week.

The EU in turn wants a stable and economically open “neighborhood” at its eastern borders, but its hydra-headed foreign policy apparatus creates problems for agile response to the changing Ukrainian situation. There is discussion now of using the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) – to which both Europe and post-Soviet states belong – as a mediation forum.

Several stories have noted that this is the first time Ukraine has experienced significant political violence since leaving the Soviet Union peacefully in 1991. Even its Orange Revolution in 2004, which reversed a rigged election, occurred without bloodshed. So how much does this recent violence raise concerns for the future?

Until now, the political divisions in Ukraine, although very real, have been underpinned by an overwhelming consensus on the legitimacy of the new state. The independence referendum of 1991 passed with more than 92 percent support. What’s new is the extent of polarization, and the bitterness and anger that are creating destruction and clashes across the country.

One thing that differentiates this period from the Orange Revolution is that the Orange Revolution had a tight focus on achieving a re-run of the fraudulent presidential election, with a clear leader in the opposition candidate, and a judicial mechanism that affirmed the need for a re-run.

It is not obvious now that the protesters are willing to accept any opposition spokesmen as negotiators with the regime. In fact, knowing the feeling on the streets, opposition leaders in January refused Yanukovych’s offer that one of them become prime minister. Anything that looks like compromise with Yanukovych is toxic on the streets. And that is a real problem. It takes two sides to negotiate, and the protesters don’t want any negotiation that leaves Yanukovych in office.