Might Have Ukraine's President Played the Wrong Card?


In quieter times: A Ukrainian woman on Kyiv's main square last year during Independence Day celebrations. Credit: Michael Bociurkiw

Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych returned from Vilnius, after snubbing offers of a much-anticipated association agreement with the European Union at the just-concluded Partnership Summit, to find his country in turmoil.

By Sunday, hundreds of thousands of furious countrymen packed the streets of central Kyiv, capping a week of protests over his decision to opt instead for a dubious customs union with Russia. Kyiv City Hall has been occupied by protesters and there are signs that the opposition is taking strides to unite.

Protest leaders have called for the president's resignation and fresh polls, and in a sign of desperation, the administration has offered round-table talks with opposition leaders Monday to find a way out of the crisis.

The situation in which Ukraine finds itself is the president's own doing, and was sealed when Yanukovych secretly met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow last month.

To woo the indecisive and bumbling Yanukovych, Russia successfully employed the same tactic it used with Moldova and other former Soviet satellite countries to scare the tiny country away from further integration with Europe: economic sanctions. It told Moldova that its wines were suspect and no longer worthy of Russian corkscrews. As if part of an increasingly familiar but unsavory rhyme, Ukrainians were subsequently informed that steel, railroad wagon parts, supplies for the Russian military, among other products, may no longer meet Russian standards. To add insult to injury, Ukraine's prized chocolates were put on an alert list. Hardly an occasion to uncork vintage Ukrainian bubbly.

Ukrainian exports subsequently plummeted by 25 percent, long line-ups of lorries formed at the Russian border and currency reserves shrunk to cover just two months of imports. Perhaps making Yanukovych even more vulnerable was that many of the sanctions would directly target businesses in his own region of eastern Ukraine, bordering Russia.

What we do know is that the Ukrainian president came away with a Russian offer of what is widely seen as merely short-term incentives to save his ailing economy from a perilous free fall. In Vilnius, Yanukovych played the clumsy card of pretending to protect Ukrainian pride, saying the EU would need to pony up a staggering 20 billion euros a year to bring the ailing economy up to "European standards."

Many observers agree that the deal with Putin also has the added incentive for further enriching Yanukovych and his circle of cronies -- and no doubt promises of cash for the 2015 Presidential elections.

So what now?

Unless the protesters are prepared to stay in Kyiv's main square for days, perhaps even weeks, to force Yanukovych's hand, it is unlikely the president will reverse his decision. This is a hardened political boxer who, after all, refused to bow to intense pressure from European leaders to free jailed opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko, so that she could receive medical treatment in Germany.

There is also the court of public opinion. According to at lest one poll, 58 percent of Ukrainians support the idea of integration with the 28-member European bloc. And with repeat elections in five constituencies scheduled for December 15, followed by crucial presidential elections in March 2015, Yanukovych would best not ignore what the pollsters are finding. That's why some speculate Yanukovych may succumb to the temptation to back down. In fact his website said Friday that Ukraine intends to sign an agreement with the EU in "the nearest future."

Petro Poroshenko, the urbane Ukrainian billionaire (his Roshan chocolate empire is among the targeted Russian sanctions) told BBC's Hard Talk this week: "Ukrainians feel that someone stole their European dreams."

It could take another "Orange Revolution," which forced political change in Ukraine nine years ago, to halt the country's drift toward Russia. But do Ukrainians have the resolve to see this through? In my many trips to Ukraine over the past years, including to the more pro-European western regions, I heard time and again from ordinary people that they are fatigued by the failures of the past. Former President Viktor Yushchenko's inability or unwillingness to bring about promised changes has left millions with a worsened standard of living and a widespread feeling of marginalization. His obscene neglect of the need for political and economic reform, coupled with an obsession with partisan retaliation, is part of the reason why Ukraine finds itself in its current, vulnerable mess.

Recent developments have also revived speculation that, in order to survive, a polarized Ukraine -- divided equally between a pro-European West and a predominantly Russian-speaking, Moscow-leaning East -- needs to seriously consider splitting into two. But whether the country has the economic DNA to survive such a radical surgery is anyone's guess.

There is one thing we can be sure of: Putin and his circle will do everything in their power to keep Ukraine, a country the size of France with 45.5 million people (down from a peak of 52 million in the early 1990s) in its economic and political sphere. No matter how intent European diplomats are to lure Ukraine westwards, they must remember Lenin's words from decades ago: "For us to lose Ukraine would be the same as losing our head."