In the weeks leading up to the European Union’s Vilnius summit in late November, it seemed all but certain that Ukraine was pivoting West. At the meeting, the EU and Ukraine were expected to sign an Association Agreement, which would have abolished trade barriers between the two and required Ukraine to undergo some EU-mandated political and economic reforms.
But then, days before the summit, Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych announced that any agreement with the EU would have to be put off due to reasons of national security. Ukraine, its occasionally authoritarian president had concluded, would not be able to withstand the intense economic pressure that Russia would apply if he signed the deal. Russia’s aim? To goad Ukraine into joining its own Customs Union with Belarus and Kazakhstan, which would preclude association with the EU.
Yanukovych’s unexpected decision has made his job more difficult. Enraged citizens, carrying Ukrainian and EU flags, took to the streets of Kiev to demand that Yanukovych and his government resign. Protestors, mostly from the capital and the country’s Western reaches, have occupied Kiev’s central Independence Square and some administrative buildings for more than a week. For them, the EU is their country’s last hope for better domestic governance and protection of civil rights. They fear that Yanukovych’s latest move toward Russia will further entrench Ukraine’s dysfunctional and ineffective political elite and diminish the country’s independent national identity.
The revolution on Euromaidan, as the protest has been called, in reference to Kiev’s main boulevard, has a hard road ahead of it. It lacks real leadership, and the opposition parties that could fill that role are untrusted by the public and at loggerheads with each other. Still, the anger of a sizable part of Ukrainian society cannot be ignored or discredited. And Yanukovych has nowhere to hide. Even his support base in Ukraine’s east is disappointed. His unreliability -- he was for the deal before he was
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