Monday, November 25, 2013

Massing on Maidan: Ukrainians Stage Protests After President Yanukovych Ditches EU Deal

Ukrainian protesters in Kiev on Sunday - Photo by Reuters
Over 100,000 Ukrainian citizens assembled in European Square and Independence Square in the capital of Kiev on Sunday to protest president Viktor Yanukovych's decision to back out of signing a highly-anticipated deal with the European Union.

At first glance that might not seem like the kind of story deserving more attention from mainstream American media than it did, but I think it does.

In this day and age when the power structure of wealth and political influence are increasingly controlled by a smaller and smaller percentage of the overall global population, I think the protests have a common link with the Occupy Wall Street protest movement. They signify a deeper unrest that's not confined to any one nation. 

The specific reasons that sparked the Ukrainian protests might be different, but we're still looking at an important indicator of the frustration felt by ordinary people across the globe over the gap between rich and poor; which is as high as it's been in decades and growing. And a sense of disconnect between the will of ordinary citizens and the actions of the political parties that claim to represent them. Our current House of Representatives being a prime example.

100,000 people showing up on Maidan to express their political views on the direction of their nation must also be viewed in light of the recent uprisings that took place across the Mid-East during the 'Arab Spring'.

From the Ukrainian perspective, as reported by the BBC, the protests in Ukraine raise the specter of the Orange Revolution protests back in 2004 when thousands took to the streets to protest the widely contested election of current president Yanukovych which many considered to have been rigged.

The current protests erupted after Yanukovych announced last week (on what many Ukrainians are now calling "Black Thursday") that Ukraine would not sign an association agreement with the European Union at the end of this month as many had expected. The treaty would have brought this Eastern European nation, a former part of the Soviet Union that was first annexed by the USSR in 1939 before finally regaining full independence in 1991, closer to the economic alliance of Western European nations.

While many clearly hoped it would mean a well-needed boost for Ukrainian businesses and possible access to Western credit markets to help Ukraine's struggling economy and increase employment, there was also a simple desire by many to step out of the shadow of Russia's sphere of influence. But it was not to be.

Russian president Vladamir Putin has staunchly opposed Ukraine aligning itself with the EU. According to an article in The Economist,  Russia imposed sanctions on Ukraine as far back as August in an effort to put pressure on Yanukovych to scuttle talks with the EU and instead join the Kremlin-friendly Customs Union; an economic bloc created by Russia in 2010 which sought to counter the EU with a group of former Soviet states; it includes Kazakhstan and Belarus.

Putin's pressure simply proved too much. With Ukrainian trade shackled by as much as 25% because of Russia's sanctions, Yanukovych shelved the EU deal, angering a Ukrainian populace eager to bring itself closer to it's Western European neighbors.

It's not surprising, after all remember when Putin shut off natural gas supplies (which flow through Ukraine) to Western Europe at the height of winter back in January 2009? And remember the Russian Navy's Black Sea Fleet is headquartered on the coastal Ukrainian city of Sevastopol under a long term lease agreement - so it's not like Russia was just going to sit back and watch Ukraine join the EU (and potentially NATO?) and do nothing. In the mindset of many Russians, Ukraine is still part of it's territory even though the USSR dissolved back in 1991.   

From the American perspective the ongoing realignment of which nations wield power and influence on global affairs is changing the idea of what being a 'Superpower' means. Especially since the second invasion of Iraq under former president George W. Bush and the subsequent backlash against the idea of the United States role as 'global policeman'.

Examples abound. French forces intervening in Mali to drive back Islamic extremists. China investing billions in African nations to help secure sources for oil and other natural resources for export to satisfy their nation's growing energy needs. And of course, there's Russia playing a much more active role in global foreign policy and flexing it's muscle and excerting its influence in situations like Libya and Syria; and obviously in the Ukraine.

Personally I disagree with many foreign policy experts/pundits and politicians who subscribe to the script that former president Ronald Reagan 'ended the Cold War' when the Berlin Wall came down under former Soviet leader Gorbachev.

Sure America's military-industrial complex succeeded in essentially bankrupting the former Soviet Union by spending an enormous proportion of the US budget on defense spending; but the stuggle to excert global influence between Russia and the West continues as evidenced by Putin's efforts to prevent the Ukraine from aligning with the EU and keep it within the sphere of Russian influence.

Caught in the middle are millions of Ukrainians, only 15% of whom support an alignment with the Moscow-based Customs Union. Ukrainians have fought long and hard for their independence from the Russian and Austro-Hungarian Empires in the 19th century, then from the Soviets and the Nazis in the 20th century; and now it seems from a 21st century Russia eager to reaffirm it's grip on this nation of almost 45 million people who speak 18 different languages.

At a time when it seems an independent nation like Ukraine, who's people thirst for Democracy and fair elections, would merit more vocal support from the West, Americans are pretty quiet. Exhausted from Bush's war in Iraq (which was never actually about independence) and from the protracted conflict in Afghanistan; whose leaders sadly seem content to coexist with a complex mix of Islamic extremists and tribal warlords running it's rural interior and rampant political corruption running the cities. 

With Russia and China both backing Assad in Syria, we seem hesitant to confront Putin over his grip on Ukraine and upset whatever kind of peace we hope can be reached in a Syrian nation still involved in a brutal civil war; the outrage over his use of chemical weapons seems to have faded from the mainstream media spotlight.

The ills of the world can't all be laid on Putin's doorstep, but the world has learned he deals with opposition much the same way Stalin did; by criminalizing anyone who opposes him, outlawing opposition political parties and sentencing anyone with the temerity to disagree with him to long prison sentences.

Or worse, as in Russian opposition leader and ex-military pilot Nikolai Savinov who was murdered under 'mysterious circumstances' last week. The Ukrainians who are still out on Maidan right now protesting understand that. And in the wake of the 50th anniversary of JFK's assassination last week we're reminded that there was a time when the US might have understood that too.

But right now it seems America will just watch. The paralyzing political morass in Washington has seen to that. Who will step up and speak on behalf of Ukraine? The thousands of people gathered out in the squares seems to be the answer for now.

The words of the Ukrainian anthem read, "Shche ne vmerla Ukrayina, i slava, i volya" which translates to "Ukraine's glory has not yet perished, nor her freedom".

Let's hope the West's commitment to Democracy and free and fair elections hasn't perished either. 

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