Understanding Ukraine – Quickly

In the year 2014 politicians in Europe turned the clock back in to 1947. A new Cold War was lobbed into public consciousness by the media. .

Tension in politics and the military between the West, defined as NATO and its allied European Union and in the East, Russia, appeared to grow very suddenly.  Euromaidan was the spark point. Euromaidan is the common name for the demonstrations, then riots and eventual coup d’état leading to civil war in the Ukrainian Republic. Maidan, actually Independence Square in Kiev, the capital city, became the central gathering point for the revolutionaries and the Ukrainian public at large to express  their opposition to their government.

Western media saw similarities to the Arab Spring and cast Maidan as a heroic struggle for freedom and democracy against a dictatorial, brutal and ugly regime. Being in the still somewhat mysterious Eastern Europe it was easy to slip into Cold War clichés and journalists were soon talking in a way that suggested that Ukraine was in the grip of some foreign power and needed the Western Cavalry to save these innocent, mistreated people from the enemy. This was far from reality.

From the perspective of the man in the street be it London, Paris or Madrid the Ukraine was somewhere ‘over there’.  True Spain had won the UEFA cup in Kiev in 2014 but TV didn’t really tell you much about the place and England didn’t make the final so who the hell cared where Ukraine was or about its politics!

Out in the boulevards, malls and streets of Europe people were more concerned about the cost of living, the recovery from recession, unemployment, immigration and the stability of the Euro. The only enemy the public could see were the banks and their henchmen the bureaucrats of Brussels. Ukraine was not high on the public agenda but nightly TV during February tended to show awful scenes of violence from crowds attacking the police who replied with tear gas, rubber bullets and the usual panoply of police weaponry. However people saw for themselves via a variety of media that the police were rather restrained considering the level of violence aimed against them.  Fire bombs, crude weaponry and firearms were all used against the State authority. It was not difficult for people to see for themselves these were not peaceful protesters but well organised armed gangs of what normally would be called thugs and hooligans.

To fuel the impending fire the US had stepped into the scene back in December when admittedly the protest was at least more political than armed struggle. Victoria Nulan US  Assistant Secretary of State visited the Maidan protestors famously handing out biscuits or cookies to protestors. The protestors naturally assumed that the US backed them in their desire to throw out the government. Her visit coincided with Secretary of State John Kerry issuing a statement, expressing the United States’ “disgust with the decision of Ukrainian authorities to meet the peaceful protest with riot police, bulldozers, and batons, rather than with respect for democratic rights and human dignity.”

Some fair minded people could have told John Kerry that it reminded them of Zuccotti Park in New York and the way the cops behaved toward the Occupy Wall Street protesters. How would the NYPD have reacted if they had been pelted with petrol bombs? Those in the know could have pointed out that even in January Kiev and other cities were in a chaotic if not anarchic situation with government buildings occupied by protestors and rioters which were not necessarily on the same side or the same thing. The country was falling apart.

How apart the protestors were from reality and each other was shown by Republican presidential hopeful Joh McCain. He and Chris Murphy a Democrat Senator managed to share a public platform with protest leaders in Maidan declaring “Ukraine will make Europe better and Europe will make Ukraine better.”

The glowering figure next to the two US politicians was OlehTyahnybok leader of a right wing party that can best be likened to the British National Party or the French National Front. Not a very savoury character, he demonstrated clear neo-Nazi and anti-Jewish sentiments. Shouldn’t he have been seen as a strange bedfellow to Americans? By February the protests had been taken over by such radical and extreme nationalists.

With USA representatives in the square and the US ambassador only appointed in July 2013 whose qualification seemed to be past trouble spots like Central America or Pakistan who could blame the Maidan revolutionaries from believing the US was on board and right behind the revolution.

What were the protests all about? Ostensibly the Ukrainian government had suspended signing a Ukraine–European Union Association Agreement with the European Union but instead had agreed closer economic relations with Russia.

Imagine living and working inside Ukraine, particularly the less wealthy Western part. Life is hard and there are many complaints but since independence life has actually got better. Many have two jobs and moonlight and the black economy is probably as large as the official one. Tax is best avoided and cash is king. You don’t see this as wrong as only politicians and the rich are corrupt. Next door are EU countries which have done really well in subsidies and the cities are paved with dollars for immigrant workers who can send money back to the family. The EU is a great place to be. EU strings and reforms are not top of your personal agenda getting wealthier is.   

The Russian deal to most ordinary people outside Ukraine was a no brainer, it’s clear and simple. Briefly the overall Ukrainian economy was and remains a disaster area. Bankrupt it needed quick money.  It was agreed by the Ukrainian President and the Russian President that Russia would buy $15 billion of Ukrainian Eurobonds and that the cost of Russian natural gas supplied to Ukraine would be lowered to $268 per 1,000 cubic metres plus an association with the customs union between Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Russia.

What was the EU offering? As with all things EU it was not that simple. Basically you have to join the club plus a few other strings. Negotiations for an EU partnership deal had been going since 1994 with various changes in Ukrainian governments.  The EU Association Agreement was initialled on 30 March 2012 in Brussels; but it never happened. The economy during this period just kept on getting worse as the Ukrainians’ were kept dangling waiting for financial help.

Keeping things simple when discussing Ukraine is not that simple. Ukraine did not exist as an independent state before 1991. In fact it had never been an independent state or held down by occupying Russians as the media seem to lead us to believe. It just had never existed as an independent unified state in the modern sense ever before. In 2010 presidential elections were held and with nearly 50% of the vote Viktor Yanukovich had won. That of course leaves another 50% who were not happy. The country was divided. The rival candidate, Yulia Tymoshenko, relied on a bloc of votes from very disparate parties whereas Yanukovich had a more united bloc called the Party of Regions. In addition Yanukovich drew his support mostly from the east and south east whereas Tymoshenko relied upon the western part of Ukraine. And one more very important thing, the east and south east of the country spoke Russian and the Western half Ukrainian. There was a natural divide along linguistic grounds.

Ukraine since its creation has been a basket case in terms of government and a cess pool of corruption. No doubt there have been good men trying and the early years of disastrous inflation had ended but power leads to short cuts and soon to favours then patronage and syphoned off wealth. Soon Ukraine had its own oligarchs.

Oligarchs are those who grabbed state owned property and assets for next to nothing by either already being state officials in the Soviet system and by manipulation of power through the corruption of politicians and by buying up the vouchers given to ordinary people as their share in state enterprises. Soon the new super-rich controlled political parties; they owned them along private personal armies of enforcers loosely called a new Mafia.  These latter appeared in Maidan and contributed much of the violence overtaking ordinary peaceful protest.

Looking at a map of Europe it seems two countries could do very well in East West trade routes. Namely Ukraine and Poland. Both countries look as though they could be a bridge between anyone from China to Russia and from Spain to Turkey and Arabia. Yanukovich had dreams for doing just this. Kiev could become a trade hub. The problem with this idea was that amongst all the other things Ukraine had to do to get the EU agreement, they had to realise that Ukraine could not at the same time be a member of a customs union and be in a common free trade area with the European Union.

Poland had already lost this precious geographical trade position by joining the European Project or a “de facto” political union. Now it was time for Ukraine to decide but the EU had one more demand that went to the heart of the Oligarchy; Yulia Tymoshenko.  

About Jan Kuśmirek

Having brushed with the Security Services in my late teens and early twenties, I went on to become one of the world's leading exponents of aromatic medicine and skin care. I am an accepted authority on the subject and a sought-after lecturer. In the last few years I have turned my hand to literature and am the author of three spy novels that retell the European confilcts of the 20th century from a Polish perspective. The central character in the series - Teddy Labden - has resonated with the Polish media, who have claimed him as their own "James Bond".
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