The protests and political unrest occurring in Ukraine highlight the ongoing battle for hearts and minds in the post Cold War era. The economic battle between the 'East' and 'West' continues to be played out in Eastern and Central Europe. The origin of the protests can be traced to President Yanukovich's decision to abandon trade agreements he was developing with the EU in favor of borrowing money from Putin and Russia. This political move crystallized the inherent ethnic and linguistic divisions within Ukraine.
This ethnic and linguistic divide between Ukrainian speakers in the West and Russian speakers in the East and South continues to serve as a major political issue in the week following the overthrow of Yanukovich's regime. Protests in favor of Russia have erupted in Crimea and two airports in the region have been taken over by private security forces, raising alarm regarding Putin's designs for Russia's presence in Ukraine. Rumors are flying regarding potential civil war and partition of the country, and a number of commentators are questioning if the Ukraine will serve as a bridge between East and West or if Ukraine will continue to be divided in terms of influence.
In all of the commentaries regarding Ukraine, people have largely not discussed the fact that both Russia and the EU are attempting to impose their imperial agendas within Ukraine, and within the rest of the region. Russia, as both the Soviet Empire and the Tsarist Empire, has dominated Ukrainian history and politics for centuries. A number of far-right parties support a move towards the EU as a nationalist movement away from Russian imperial domination. Many Euromaidan protesters see the EU as a promise of increased prosperity and democracy. While a turn towards the EU could potentially herald a move towards increased democracy, the basis for that democracy has not been created since the fall of the Soviet Empire in Ukraine.
We can honestly assess the current economic system as crony capitalism, in which 1/5th of the GDP is controlled by the Oligarchs. These oligarchs came to power during the transition to capitalism and are the main benefactors of capitalism in Ukraine so far. In fact, corruption in Ukraine is so rampant that Bentleys are as common on the streets of Kiev as they are on the streets of Miami. Kreshatyk street leads up to the Maidan and is home to Chanel, Louis Vuitton, Dolce and Gabbana and various other European fashion houses. Local Ukrainians told me that the only people in society with money are politicians, mafia members or academic professors (since bribing for grades remains common). The deep economic inequalities associated with the oligarchic mode of crony capitalism are linked in many of the protestor's minds to the 'Russian model.' On the other hand, many in the Euromaidan movement look towards the EU as a model for everything that is associated with the 'Russian model': dysfunctional democracy, a corrupt elite and a lack of transparency.
However, unfortunately for Ukraine, the EU will largely also serve to be an imperial force in the region. While state corruption may shrink under increased EU regulations, the austerity movement and EU import requirements will bring a new form of economic imperialism to Ukraine. In addition, much like recent Eastern European additions to the EU, Ukraine is sure to face an exodus of professionals and young people searching for higher wages in Western Europe. Not to mention many foreign investors will begin to change the face of ownership within the country. Perhaps a Brussels led financial invasion will be better for Ukraine than a corrupted crony capitalist system. But this does not change the fact that ultimately, Ukraine remains a pawn in a larger battle for financial influence between Europe/the U.S. and Russia, continuing a cold war mentality that is based upon 'spheres of influence.'
In opposition to most commentary out there right now regarding Ukraine, I hope that the people of Ukraine can find a third solution, a solution that eschews both Russian and European influences. Ukraine has only been an independent country for approximately twenty years; before then it was subject to Soviet and Tsarist imperial forces and domination. I think the protests in Maidan are an important move forward in shedding their colonial past from Russia, but turning towards a European form of financial imperialism is not much of an alternative. It is my sincerest hope that Ukraine can move towards a more inclusive form of democracy and a more egalitarian vision of capitalism, free from the influences of both East and West.