A controversial opinion piece circulated social media this past weekend under the cynical headline, “The Day We Pretended to Care About Ukraine”[i]. The article tackled the international public opinion’s appetite for “apocalyptic” type of imagery when following the reporting of conflict-ridden events. At the same time the article criticised the fact that the Kiev protests looked more like “clickbait” instead of genuine news reporting. The context of the Ukrainian conflict, its complexity or its development seemed to become second order topics, as long as the bloodshed and the gruesome killings were nicely captured on camera.
The hypnotic fascination of the mainstream media and the international public was oriented more towards how the conflict “looked” like rather than how it really affected the country’s political landscape or its citizens.
Three months ago the European Union was on the brink of signing a comprehensive free trade and association agreement with Ukraine that would have brought the country closer to the EU’s economic and political sphere of influence. However, in a dramatic turn of events, the now-ousted president Viktor Yanukovich vetoed the EU’s offer at the last minute and accepted from Russia an aid and gas deal. This radical shift prompted wave upon wave of violent protests in Kiev, culminating with the president’s impeachment and subsequent flight from Kiev on the 22nd of February to gain backing in the eastern stronghold of Kharkiv[i]. Ukraine became once again a Parliamentary-Presidential republic, with the executive branch being now under the Parliament’s oversight.
To put it mildly, the Ukrainian political scene was once again drastically overturned less than one day after a long-awaited compromise[ii] was brokered by Germany, Poland, and France. Signed by the former president and the opposition leaders on the 21st of February, the now effectively void agreement was intended to terminate the bloodshed in the streets of Kiev (see picture below). Presently, the political status-quo in the capital spells a puzzling picture, with the removal of the ex-president’s chief political rival and former Prime Minister Yulia V. Tymoshenko from prison, new presidential elections being announced for May 25, and amnesty being granted to all anti-government protesters.
Tymoshenko is purported to run in the presidential elections of the 25th May against Vitalyi Klitschko, the Udar party chief. The generalised sense of victory is nevertheless overshadowed by an increasing rift between the opposition’s political leaders and the radicalised protesters in the Maidan, claiming that the agreements do not reflect the aspirations of the street movement[iii].
What does this turn of events mean for the European Union? The EU now finds itself in a delicate position by having to rethink its long-term political and economic engagement strategy with Ukraine, while at the same time being forced to find short-term financial solutions to ensure the country’s survival in 2014 and 2015. For most Ukrainians the protests that started in November last year symbolise a pro-European democratic turn. Quite surprisingly, this new wave of Ukrainian nationalism and assertion of national independence[i] from Russia was possible under an EU’s tutelage. This is clearly an instance of the EU’s soft power at work that was so successful previously in terms of ensuring the transition from communism in eastern European countries.
To that end, the European Commission has confirmed that a range of options for economic assistance are under discussion, the Commission spokesperson, Olivier Bailly, further asserting that the “the EU has been working on an international economic support package for Ukraine – short, medium and long-term support to address the challenges of the Ukrainian economy”[ii]. On February 23rd, the new interim president Oleksandr Turchynov indicated that Ukraine is ready to turn from Russia’s sphere of influence and realign “to the path of European integration”[iii].
Yesterday, February 24th, EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton started her two-day visit to Kiev by laying flowers for the Maidan victims (see picture below). She was there to discuss how the European Union can back Ukraine in the bid to find long-lasting political solutions to the generalised crisis, as well as a concrete plan to aid the failing Ukrainian economy. In a meeting with Ukraine’s new interim leadership and interim president Oleksandr Turchynov[iv] and an ally of former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, the EU foreign policy chief focused on the measures to be taken to alleviate the country’s failing economy.
Today, Ashton promised Ukraine strong international support to fight its financial difficulties and urged Moscow to let the country move forward “in the way it chooses”[v]. The EU foreign policy chief made no mention of specific details for foreign economic aid, but clarified the EU’s position of joint collaboration with the International Monetary Fund. Ukraine’s acting Minister of Finance, Yuriy Kolobov, suggested that Ukraine is close to bankruptcy and in a dire need of financial assistance for an estimate of 25 billion euros[vi].
Ukraine’s democratic future remains unclear, the country being once again at a political crossroads. Yanukovych remains vocal while exiled in the country’s Russophile eastern region and his base of political power, labelling the political development in the capital as “vandalism and banditry and a coup d’état”[i]. There still remains the issue of nearly 100 killed and hundreds more injured during the street bloodshed, fighting for things European Union countries take for granted – democracy, freedom, and prosperity. The rapidly changing political landscape in Ukraine has opened new regional crisis points in the east and the south of Crimea, both Russian speaking areas supporting Yanukovych. Not to mention the dire economic crisis crippling the country, its massive debt difficulties and the need for an International Monetary Fund financial package. Russia has proposed Ukraine a financial rescue deal[ii] only if the country cuts its economic ties with the West.
Between the rivaling magnetic pulls of both the European Union and Russia literally tearing the country apart, Ukraine is faced with a clear choice between its Soviet past and a prospective better future. It still remains to be seen how Ukraine’s territorial integrity will be handled as regards to “dangerous signs of separatism”[iii] from the Russophile regions in the east and the south and their potential backing by Russia. The legitimacy of the interim government rests on the leadership’s capacity to successfully balance the increased internal and international pressures, Moscow’s long-reach, and the urgent need to find concrete, technocratic solutions to the crisis. The best EU strategy is to concomitantly try to find much-needed speedy solutions to the economic turmoil and the governmental breakdown in Ukraine, while at the same time pursuing a constructive engagement with Russia, still holding a tight grasp on gas supplies and refusing the payment of emergency loans to Ukraine.