First Posted: 2/27/2014
One of my students recently asked me what I thought about the unfolding events in the Ukraine. He used words such as “momentous” and “historic” to describe the protests and violent reactions by the government.
Being intimately familiar with the 2004 Orange Revolution and the failed presidency of Viktor Yushchenko (2005-10), I expressed my doubts about his characterization. For you see, the Ukraine and its more than 45.5 million people have experienced this sort of political upheaval before in its recent history.
Yushchenko was swept into power by similar mass protests against a corrupt government that attempted to rig elections in favor of Viktor Yanukovych (2010-14), who is currently on the run after parliament voted to remove him from power.
The Yushchenko presidency was undermined by three main factors that could easily undo recent events. The united opposition to former President Leonid Kuchma (1994-05) quickly dissolved after Yushchenko and the opposition assumed office. Infighting, though, plagued the self-proclaimed national democrats.
The departure of Yanukovych could lead to a similar disintegration of the opposition. Radical elements within the opposition have outflanked moderates at key moments during the latest crisis. This undoubtedly was important for removing Yanukovych from power, but it does not bode well for governing the country. Anti-Russian, anti-Semitic and anti-Soviet positions associated with radical elements will alienate many in the Ukraine, Russia and the West, and they will distract attention away from the Ukraine’s urgent need to reform the economy.
No matter what Ukrainian officials do, the Ukraine could easily face economic pressure from Russia. Russian President Vladimir Putin did everything in his power to undermine Yushchenko. Now there is nothing to stop him from trying once again to use Russian economic power to undermine the current opposition.
Putin would love to create a new form of the Russian empire. He could easily surmise that a more favorable pro-Moscow candidate will be found. The more or less pro-Russian parliamentary forces will remain a significant force in parliament and will use this time to regroup. To aid them, Russia might elect to manipulate the energy issue, the question of Ukraine’s debts to Moscow or tariff levels for Ukrainian goods.
Lastly, the previous democratic revolution could not resist the temptation to decidedly move Ukraine out of Russia’s orbit, which many countries in the West – most notably the United States – were too eager to promote. That was a fundamental mistake that must not be repeated. Not only did it needlessly irk Moscow and serve to increase Moscow’s pressure, it did not resonate with a significant plurality, if not majority, of Ukrainians, and it made Russia more obstinate in resisting U.S. interests around the globe. Despite arguments from Ukraine’s radical elements, the keys to Ukrainian political and economic sovereignty are not NATO membership and the withdrawal of the Russian Black Sea Fleet from Sevastopol. The key is economic reform that will herald sustainable development within a transparent, rule-of-law framework – something that Ukraine’s own oligarchs need to accept. Revisiting Ukraine’s relations with the European Union (EU) will be paramount, but eventual EU membership must coincide with the interest of the greatest number of Ukrainians as possible. The more economically dominate eastern Ukraine must be won over.
The tragedy of Ukraine’s history in 1917 was the loyalty of its people. The national independence government of that era failed to win the loyalty of the poor masses, so the eventual incorporation into the Soviet Union followed. In so many ways, the national democrats of 2014 face a similar dilemma. The economic message will be difficult to deliver and even harder to implement, but even the cruelty of Yanukovych and his goons does not vindicate the radical opposition’s national security preferences.
Failure to heed this warning might not lead to reincorporation into a Russian empire, but it could sink the Ukraine further into Russia’s orbit as a new generation of voters once again becomes disillusioned with Ukraine’s pro-Western democrats.