By Hesham Shafick
“I ask Yanukovych – resign!” said Vitali Klitschko, the boxing world’s heavyweight champion and one of the leading figures of the pro-Euro opposition protests in Ukraine.
President Viktor Yanukovych had been ousted from his position as prime minister 10 years earlier through the Orange Revolution. Since then, the Ukrainian dream to join the European Union and become a part of the so-called Western bloc had been progressing.
Six years later after the revolution, however, the Russian-backed “deep state” managed to bring Yanukovych back, this time as president. Yanukovych propaganda portrayed the Orange Revolution as a Western-sponsored coup.
Inspired by the Arab Spring and Turkish protests, Ukrainian protesters have vowed to remain in Kiev’s Independence Square, where protests first began on 21 November, until Yanukovych steps down, an action the West has largely received as a return of the Orange Revolution.
In the East, it was also perceived as a new Orange Revolution, though with a markedly different definition provided by the current regime. This definition is embodied in former Ukrainian Prime Minister Mykola Azarov’s statement, “Push away the plotters, who seek power and attempt to repeat the scenario of 2004.” Russian President Vladimir Putin denounced the ongoing demonstrations as a “pogrom,” and advised Ukraine to enhance trade agreements with Russia and spurn the West.
The East–West division in Ukraine is starkly reminiscent of Berlin Wall-era Germany. In addition to the proxy East–West dispute over Ukraine, the Ukrainian population itself has long been divided. In the eastern part of the country, much of the population speaks Russian and sees Moscow as a patron. But many in the western part of Ukraine see Russia as an imperialist force, and often invoke the slogan “Ukraine is Russia” as a way of calling out Ukraine’s leaders for maintaining what they believe is too close a relationship with their eastern neighbour. After the Orange Revolution, when the West dominated public office, the East dominated the public sphere. Today, the opposite is true.
It is not only the ideological and cultural differences within the nation that make Kiev the new Berlin: fiscal pressure obligates Ukraine to take a side. In simple words, Ukraine needs to borrow money, whether from the West or the East, in order for its economy to survive. Standard and Poor’s, which already cut Ukraine’s credit rating to B- in early November, warned that further political deterioration could bring another downgrade. Yet both Europe and Russia, Ukraine’s most likely lenders, stipulate not borrowing from the other. Brussels says a trade deal with Europe would bring Ukraine valuable investment, yet a prerequisite of opening the markets to foreign direct investment is required. Putin on the other hand is using the supply of cheap Russian gas – or the threat of cutting it off – as a hammer to bring Ukraine to heel.
Giving up on Brussels and looking instead to China sparked the latest upheaval, which began with a failed vote of no confidence against the government. The protesters in Independence Square are seeking to accomplish what they failed to do in Parliament. Opinion surveys conducted before the protests showed about 45 percent of Ukrainians supporting closer integration with the EU, with a third or less favouring closer ties with Russia. But the protests, and the subsequent police violence, appear to have unleashed anger against the government and tipped the balance more strongly in favour of integration with the EU.
Yanukovych’s trip to China could reveal a possible source of financing that might save the regime’s head. Beijing has already provided Ukraine with $10 billion in loans and promised further economic and trade agreements. China could be a loophole to steer between the two sides battling back home. Being an Eastern substitute to Russia, it both sidesteps the negative connotation of “Ukraine is Russia” and keeps Yanukovych’s Eastern constituency pleased, while tackling the nation’s fiscal anguish.