A decade after the momentous Orange Revolution and the nonviolent protests galvanizing the Ukrainian democratic movement, the streets of Kiev have descended in a warzone, set against the backdrop of violent clashes between protesters and police forces. The rhythmic mantras “Razom nas bahato! Nas ne podolaty!” (Together, we are many! We cannot be defeated!) that animated Kiev’s Independence Square ten years ago, now provide an almost foreboding character to the current Ukrainian protests and street violence. The civil unrest originated back in November 2013, when Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, supposedly under Kremlin pressure, abruptly decided to forego a far-reaching political and free-trade agreement[i] with the European Union (EU) in favor of closer economic ties with Russia.
Ten years after its Orange Revolution, Ukraine is still facing the division of its own elite, embedded corruption in its administration, a highly centralized police system and lack of coherence in governmental leadership. It is not surprising that the violent protests have been fuelled by a generalized popular anger at pervasive governmental kleptomania, violation of human rights (the anti-protest laws restricting freedom of speech and freedom of assembly[ii]), and abuse of power. Ukraine is already dealing with a severe economic crisis and has been negotiating to secure a loan package from the International Monetary Fund for months.
An authoritarian turn in Ukraine is particularly undesirable to the EU, jeopardizing its heavy economic investments and questioning its normative power in the eastern neighborhood. The EU has not shown any intention to offer a membership status to Ukraine, due to well-grounded doubts over such a vast financial assistance effort, especially in the current times of economic austerity. Nevertheless, Ukrainian leaders and political elites interpreted the EU’s cautiousness as a sentiment of failed recognition for their democratic transition and the lost momentum of the Orange Revolution. While the “carrot” of enlargement and the EU’s substantive macro-policy of democracy promotion may have worked in the case of the Central and Eastern European countries, the practice of the European Neighborhood Policy’s sectorial logic of external governance did not offer credible incentives for democratization in the case of a former Soviet country such as Ukraine.
The Black Sea Synergy Initiative[iii] and the Eastern Partnership[iv] indicated the EU’s willingness to pull together and deepen bilateral agreements. However, these EU policies are not focused enough to provide a long-term, substantive, and capacity-building approach to stabilize and strengthen democratic institutions in the country. At the same time, they do not address substantively one of the main issues for the EU’s skittish involvement in the eastern neighborhood, namely the EU’S energy dependence on Russia and the strong need to support alternative pipeline projects of oil and natural gas from the Caspian region to Europe.
In the balance here is not just the outcome of a free-trade deal with the EU and the hopes for a more prosperous future, but whether the hawkish tactics of Russia, willing to use every bit of economic influence covering trade threats and its stronghold on energy supplies – will ultimately prevail and include Ukraine in a newly growing Russian hegemonic sphere of interest. Many Ukrainians’ perception of their political leaders is that of collective disappointment and generalized corruption, while at the same time recognizing the constraining realities of being almost exclusively dependent on Russian energy supplies (natural gas for heat) and having to deal with the Soviet legacy of vital Russian military resources on its territory, including major military assets for the Black Sea Fleet[v] (Crimea, Sevastopol). Clearly, Ukraine’s problem is that of national identity, having to forge its democratic future in the shadow of Russia, still needing to broker a national common front between pro-European regions and a more Russia-oriented east, while at the same time dealing with deeply ingrained political, ethnic, and linguistic divisions.
On the contrary, seeing itself as the rightful hegemon in its own territorial backyard, Russia’s interest is to protect and expand the Russian sphere of influence by preventing the emergence of “unfriendly” and pro-Western regimes in its neighborhood. Russia’s “return to the region” is an added instability factor, due to its drift back to authoritarianism and its energy and economic leverage potential, as clearly demonstrated by the recent events in Ukraine. As far as regional security is concerned, Russia considers itself as the best security provider in the region with the Russian Black Sea Fleet at its disposal in Sevastopol, being more than able to secure the new strategic frontier of the Wider Black Sea Area without EU or NATO enlargement aspirations.
In light of Russia’s new assertiveness in the European eastern neighborhood, it is high time for a new EU foreign policy paradigm to manage the diplomatic relation with Russia. The main challenge for EU member states is to forge more unity and cohesiveness when dealing with Russia, the old contradictory policies of either “soft containment” or “balance of threat” being outdated in the current geopolitical configuration. Actually, Russia has always profited from this divide et impera strategy with EU member states, trespassing Brussels for Paris, Berlin, and Rome, taunting its partners with its Gazprom energy colossus, and antagonizing its old Central and Eastern European critics. Russia’s energy blackmail potential does not stem from a unilateral European Union dependence, but from the apparent dis-unity between the levels of imports among EU member states. All in all, EU member states’ bilateralism in the area of energy security has been to Russia’s advantage.
Conversely, the EU could have far more leveraging options when pursuing its strategic interests with Moscow, particularly as regards Russia’s access to the EU markets. The EU’s indecisiveness regarding its eastern neighborhood, the avoidance of a strong even antagonizing position regarding recent Russian assertiveness, and the soft containment policy and cooperation that it currently employs, only reinforce the strong meddling capacity the Kremlin has in the internal political affairs of neighboring countries. Quite contrary, Russia called on the EU not to interfere in Ukraine’s internal politics[vi], the speaker of the Russian State Duma, Sergey Naryshkin, prompting foreign politicians to refrain from getting involved in the affairs of a sovereign country. Also, notwithstanding diplomatic declarations that today’s discussion at the EU-Russia Summit[vii] in Brussels are “not about Ukraine”, the escalation of events in the country was expected to be a priority on the agenda of the two hour meeting, potentially degenerating into a blame game scenario[viii].
In a bid to end the street warfare and regain the trust of the population, Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych has made a first concession to pro-EU demonstrators and agreed to rescind the anti-protest laws. After his failed divide-and-conquer tactic to fragment the opposition by offering prominent jobs to opposition leaders Arseniy Yatsenyuk (the role of Prime Minister) and Vitaly Klitschko (the role of deputy Prime Minister), Yanukovych is left to negotiate a new political solution that avoids the further worsening of the situation and paves the way for a genuine dialogue between the opposition, civil society, and governmental authorities. Moreover, he declared that he would grant amnesty to the protesters, provided they leave the streets and main square (Maidan).
In an effort to promote dialogue and defuse the crisis, EU Foreign Policy Chief Catherine Ashton is expected today in Kiev, where she will meet the President and the opposition leaders in the aftermath of alarming reports that the government was planning to introduce a state of emergency in the country. Another senior EU official, Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fuele, also returned to Ukraine yesterday for the second time in four days “to continue the efforts to help find a way out of the crisis”. A stark supporter of the anti-protest laws, Ukrainian Prime Minister Mykola Azarov, has resigned today, announcing that his decision was a personal choice to “create more opportunities for social and political compromise.