Ukraine’s President Viktor Yanukovych had much explaining to do to the European Union last Thursday. After six years of negotiation on an EU-Ukraine trade pact and political association agreement which was finally due to be signed at Vilnius, Lithuania, he had to explain why he wasn’t going to sign it after all.
“The economic situation in Ukraine is very hard, and we have big difficulties with Moscow,” explained Yanukovych. “I was alone for three and a half years (since his election in 2010) in very unequal conditions with Russia…one to one.”
So Ukraine put the deal on hold indefinitely – and thousands of outraged Ukrainians came out on the streets of Kiev in protest on the following day.
It was starting to look like a rerun of the “Orange Revolution” that forced Yanukovych out of power after he won a fraudulent election in 2004. Early Saturday morning the riot police attacked the protesters and drove them from the square, but on Sunday the demonstrators were back 100,000 strong, and Yanukovych had to issue a public apology for the attack.
We’ve been here before, haven’t we? The big Russian bully threatens some ex-Soviet country that is now looking west, and the craven local ruler gives in. Pro-democracy demonstrators come out in the streets, and peace, justice and pro-Western policies triumph. Except this time, it’s not like that.
The big Russian bully bit is still true. Moscow has been turning the screws on Ukraine hard, because with 45 million people and a serious industrial base it is the most important of the ex-Soviet states. Ukraine’s trade in 2012 was almost equally split between Russia and the EU, but over the past year Russian-Ukrainian trade has fallen by a quarter.
“That’s a huge blow to our economy and we can’t ignore it,” Ukraine’s energy minister, Eduard Stavitsky, told the BBC. Stavitsky had asked repeatedly about getting compensation from the EU for the trade with Russia that Ukraine was losing as a punishment for its dalliance with “the West” – but “all we got were declarations that Ukraine would profit from a deal with the EU in the medium to long term.”
Unfortunately, politicians have to live in the short term, and Yanukovych’s problem (and Ukraine’s) is that the country is divided down the middle. His supporters are mostly Russian-speakers who live in the heavily industrialised eastern half of the country – and those are the people who will really suffer if Russia cuts off its trade with Ukraine.
Yanukovych was trying to make a deal that would satisfy the aspirations of pro-EU voters, especially in the nationalist, Ukrainian-speaking west of the country, without destroying the livelihood of his own supporters in the east, but either the EU didn’t understand his dilemma, or it didn’t care. It demanded that he choose between east and west, and made no offer to compensate Ukraine for its big short-term losses if it signed a deal with the EU.
So Yanukovych has put the whole thing on indefinite hold, but that doesn’t mean he’ll throw in his lot with Russia instead. If he can ride out the demos that are currently rocking Kiev, then in the longer term he will probably make a cautious return to talks with the EU.
Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.