Stalemate in Ukraine

The strikingly similar sets of anti-government protests in Ukraine and Thailand, which I commented on last week, are still continuing. We had another look at Thailand the other day – not much seems to have happened since, although the reports from Fairfax’s Lindsay Murdoch remain essential reading – so now let’s check on Ukraine.

There was a major clash between police and protesters on Wednesday morning, when the authorities tried to clear some space for traffic through the main protest site of Independence Square in Kiev. It was a tactical defeat for the police, and last night the BBC’s Steve Rosenberg said the barricades were “bigger than ever”: “Protesters erected barriers of metal pipes and sand bags packed with snow to ward off any further attempt by the authorities to empty the square.”

But the politics of the situation have become even more interesting, as both Ukraine and the European Union have strongly hinted that their free trade and association agreement is back on the table.

First deputy prime minister Serhiy Arbuzov, quoted by the BBC, said following talks with the EU’s enlargement commissioner that Ukraine would “soon sign” the deal. That confirms the view of EU foreign minister Catherine Ashton, who after returning from a visit to Kiev said that Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych “made it clear to me that he intends to sign the association agreement.”

Just as conceding defeat on her proposed amnesty law did Thai prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra no good, it’s quite possible that signing on with the EU would now do little to mollify the Ukrainian protesters. But it’s clearly worth a try.

For analysis of the Ukrainian situation, don’t miss yesterday’s piece by veteran Guardian columnist Jonathan Steele.

Steele has been writing about Eastern Europe at least since I was in primary school, so he knows his stuff. He’s sometimes a little too charitable towards Russia, but most of what he’s saying here seems to me right on the money:

The notion that Ukraine needs to be detached from any links with Russia has been the primary error behind the European Union’s clumsy and provocative approach to Ukraine …

Twenty years since the collapse of the Soviet Union and Ukraine’s independence, the country’s economy is almost equally linked to Russia and the EU. Its trade turnover with the EU is exactly the same as its turnover with Russia, and in both directions it has the same deficit, exporting less than it imports.So the logical message from history, politics and current economics is surely that Ukraine should be allowed to co-operate with both sides without having any doors slammed. …

As the crisis deepens, Yanukovych is still trying to deal with both Moscow and Brussels. He has dispatched delegations in each direction. It looks like a clumsy effort to extract cash by exploiting the artificial tug-of-war that Brussels has promoted, but Yanukovych has no alternative.

As I’ve said myself, “Ukrainian leaders of whatever political stripe have to balance their country’s interests with both east and west.” It’s less a matter of choosing one or the other than of trying to maintain close relations with both. The problem is that at present neither Russia nor the EU wants to see things that way.

Steele’s larger point is that there’s nothing distinctively “western” about the values of openness and democracy that the protesters in Kiev are loyal to: people in Moscow have much the same goals, although less chance of achieving them under the current regime. Russia too is a European country, and if the EU ends up integrating Ukraine but at the price of further alienating Russia, it will have made a bad bargain.

Where things might go from here is not clear. The chance of a political compromise looks rather better in Ukraine than in Thailand, but that isn’t saying much. As Steele puts it:

The most urgent requirement is political rather than economic: how to end the confrontation on the streets. Yanukovych is right not to resign, as the more extreme of his opponents are demanding. He would be falling victim to the “curse of Cairo” whereby an elected leader is forced out by crowds. The street uprising against Slobodan Milosevic in Belgrade in 2000 and the Orange protests in Kiev in 2004 were sparked by fraud and ballot-rigging. What took place in Egypt this year was not, yet its undemocratic echo spread to Bangkok last month, and now to Kiev.



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