Thursday 14 August 2014

No More Chicken, Kiev?

Thoughts on the crisis in Ukraine, along with some contemporary history of the region.

(Originally Published in The Nation on 30th June, 2014)

Contrary to popular belief in Pakistan, the USSR (Union of Soviet Socialist Republics) was not brought to its knees by Afghan Mujahideen supported by our boys. Mikhail Gorbachev’s policies of Glasnost (meaning ‘openness’) and perestroika (restructuring) and his reorientation of Soviet strategic aims led to the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The Last Soviet Soldier left Afghanistan in 1989, while Estonia had declared Independence from the Soviet Union in November 1988 and a pro-communist government was incharge in Kabul till 1992. The Berlin wall was not brought down by Afghan and Arab ‘Mujahideen’. Considering these essential facts, the fallacy of “destroying a superpower” seems shallow as a puddle. Following the breakup of the Soviet Union, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Estonia, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Ukraine and Uzbekistan emerged as Independent states.

Ukraine is the largest country within Europe according to area and the sixth largest European country by population. Census data from 2001 revealed that 78% of people living in the country were Ukrainians in ethnicity while 18% were ethnically Russian. Till 2004, Ukraine was a semi-presidential republic. In 2004, Viktor Yanukovych, the incumbent Prime Minister, was declared winner of the presidential elections, while the Supreme Court ruled the election to be rigged. The massive rigging caused a national outcry in support of opposition candidate Victor Yushchenko. It led to the “Orange Revolution” which resulted in a re-vote ordered by Ukraine’s Supreme Court, resulting in victory for Yushchenko. He remained President till 2010, when Viktor Yanukovych was elected President after the elections. During the ‘Orange Revolution’, Yanukovych was supported by Russia.

In November 2013, protests broke out in the country after President Yanukovych’s government rejected a far-reaching accord with the European Union, in favor of stronger ties with Russia. Thousands of people thronged into Central Kiev for peaceful protests. They occupied Independence Square, known as ‘Maidan’. The anger was fuelled by perceptions of political corruption and alleged links between the government and super-rich oligarchies. Police launched a brutal raid on student protestors, images of which spurred more people to join the protests. In January 2014, the Ukrainian parliament passed anti-protest laws which were later repealed. On 22nd January, two protestors died after clashes with the police. Protestors seized government buildings the following day in western Ukrainian cities. Prime Minister Mykola Azarov resigned on 28th January. The next month, violent clashes erupted in Kiev while the Speaker of Parliament refused to initiate debate on changing the Constitution. More than 77 people were killed and hundreds wounded due to a stand-off in Kiev.

President Yanukovych fled to southern Russia and the Ukrainian Parliament voted to remove him from his post. A national election followed in May, leading to the victory of Petro Poroshenko, a pro-European candidate. Mr. Poroshenko was known as the ‘Chocolate King’ as he owned the Roshen confectionary group. He was one of the leaders of the 2004 Orange Revolution and participated in the ‘Maidan’ movement in Kiev.
It is worth consideration that the protests against President Yanukovych were strongest in the Kiev area and Western Ukraine, where there is a greater affinity with Europe, rather than in the Russian-speaking East and South. Ukrainians in the East, working in heavy industry that supplies Russian markets, were fearful of losing their jobs if Ukraine moved closer to the European Union. Collapse of Government authority during the last few days of February 2014, led to a secession crisis in Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula which has a significant ethnic Russian population. Following the Russo-Turkish War of 1768-1774, Crimea had been annexed by the Russian Empire. Armed Russian soldiers began moving into Crimea on 28th February, 2014.

The ‘Maidan’ protestors had ‘started the fire’ by taking over government buildings and establishing ‘local authorities’. “After Yanukovych’s removal, it became the turn of the opponents of the Maidan,” Nicolai N. Petro, wrote in a magazine called, ‘The National Interest.’ Local representatives from the East and South convened in Kharkov and assumed all political authority until “legitimate political authority” in Kiev was restored. The Crimean delegation took the lead, seeing an opportunity to restore the autonomy that Kiev had largely taken away from them in 1998. But when the interim government in Kiev told them they could not hold a referendum on autonomy within Ukraine, and tried to replace those in charge of local security forces, the Crimean parliament declared independence and changed the wording of the referendum—altering the language from “staying within Ukraine” to “joining Russia.”
The Donbass followed a similar scenario. In March, local authorities in Lugansk asked Kiev to ensure the rights of Russian speakers and disarm its militias. When the interim government ignored these requests, those most impatient and distrustful of Kiev occupied government buildings in Donetsk, Lugansk and Kharkov, and organized a referendum for creating local republics that stopped short of asking to join Russia. In many areas in the region, a majority of those who voted were overwhelmingly in favor of regional sovereignty.

Faced with the problems of stabilizing the economy and keeping the country together, President Poroshenko has tried to steady the ship since assuming power. He signed the European Trade Association Agreement, which was the bone of contention for the previous regime. Experts believe that this agreement would benefit the Western and Central parts of Ukraine but workers in Eastern Ukraine will suffer because the country’s free trade access with Russia will be revoked. In his inaugural address, Mr. Poroshenko affirmed that the Ukrainian language will continue to remain the national language (despite the fact that 83 percent of journals, 87 percent of books, and 44 percent of television programs in Ukraine are solely in Russian, compared to 28 percent solely in Ukrainian) and that aspirations towards regional autonomy would not be tolerated by Kiev.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has overtly supported the rights of Russian speakers in Ukraine and it is feared, rightfully so, that the current fiasco can lead to the breakup of the country along ethnic and linguistic lines.

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