How the mighty have fallen. From bouncer to President, and now fugitive on the run, Victor Yanukovich must be regretting letting his and his country’s future slip from the strong position he held. Having set a new foreign policy and positioned Ukraine in an intriguing middle-way position between Europe and Russia, failure to deal with his own cronyism and corruption is likely to lead to serious long-term instability for the country.
What really happened
Moscow’s protests that thugs and anarchists have hi-jacked the Ukrainian State, while overhyped, are not altogether misplaced. Until bullets were fired, the protests in Kyiv were in danger of being taken over by those who simply wanted to watch things burn. During the day, all was peaceful: only under the cover of night did fighting take place.
It was the monumental mishandling by Yanukovich of this situation that has reduced him to an escaped convict. The second shots were fired at protestors, the attention of the wider community was aroused, and the pro-European half of Ukraine became mobilised, with the rest, as they say, becoming history.
Hero to Zero
Yanukovich, wherever he is hiding, has had a dramatic fall. Leading up to the Euromaiden revolution, he had spectacularly played of both sides in the competition for Ukraine. Once (and sometimes still) portrayed as a puppet of Putin, Yanukovich had in fact stepped away from Russian influence and had antagonised the Kremlin by flirting with the EU.
These actions were actually sensible: he sounded out both sides, and discovered that Russia was willing to pay a lot more for Ukraine than Brussels was. As the US Ambassador to Ukraine stated, “Russia cares more about losing Ukraine than Europe cares about gaining it.”
The difference for Kyiv was measured in billions: Russia provided instant hard cash, whereas the EU offered less, spread out over a longer period. Russia, not only playing the role of banker, is also the main oil and gas supplier, and by applying political and economic pressure in addition to Europe’s disinterest in Ukraine, helped direct Yanukovich back to Moscow.
Yet Yanukovich was hampered by two critical things: corruption and globalisation. Widespread discontent with his incompetent regime left him with little sympathy even in his homelands, whilst the power of the global media and the projection into Ukraine of Western ideals and images of ideal lives, worked to build up an image that he had led Ukraine to the door of Europe, to the opportunity for everyone to have a Schengen passport, and then closed it in their faces. He had dashed the travel dreams, and with them the hope of finding better lives, of a generation.
The reality of course is different, and the new President, whoever that will be, will be taking a poisoned chalice. Having such high expectations set upon them, they can only fail. When the protestors realise that the dream of Europe is at best a decade away, disappointment and disillusionment will once again set in. And seeing how easily a relatively small group overthrew the government, Ukraine’s political and economic risk ratings are likely to deter a lot of foreign investors.
More worryingly, there is now a very significant division in Ukrainian society. Already, persecution of the Russian minority, around 40% of Ukraine, has begun, with the downgrading of their language. Pro-Russian riots have broken out in the Crimea, Kerch and Kharkov, and Moscow is deeply concerned about the effect of Kyiv’s upheaval on these people and the also on Russia’s military base in Sevastopol. Putin will happily agree a behind-the-scenes deal with Europe to get rid of the West of Ukraine, but he will not release the East, where so much Russian interest lies, without a fight. The Western part will simply go from being an area of political influence to an area paying for Russian gas supplies; the East is where tensions will rise, and where, probably in the long-term, the country will eventually split.
Yulia Timoshenko’s liberation from her unfair imprisonment has now removed the theoretical last barrier between Ukraine signing the agreement on offer from the European Union in late 2013. It would be wise for her not to seek the President’s office now she is free until the illusion has worn off and people see clearly that their achievements will have little effect on their lives. At that point, maybe Timoshenko should run for President, and use her political connections on both sides of the borders – in Russia and in the EU – to secure for Ukraine a firm basis on which to grow again.
Europe’s unwanted present
The reaction of the EU to Ukraine’s revolution has been muddled. Realising that they can ill-afford to pump into Ukraine the money needed, Brussels and EU Foreign and Finance Ministers have been frantically calling up the rest of the world for financial help, including even tapping China for cash.
Expect Ukraine to sign the accession agreement with the EU, and for Brussels to take things very slowly with Kyiv after an initial hurry. The corruption, informal networks and indebted nature of the country will take decades to change, and Europe will not want to deal with the consequences, as attempts to pawn off Ukraine’s future to the IMF have already showed.