Vidya Ram

Too many wicks feeding the Ukraine fire

VIDYA RAM | Updated on March 12, 2018 Published on March 06, 2014

But the culturally and politically divided country may not burn forever. Neither Europe nor Ukraine can afford it

Visit the Crimean seaside town of Balaklava — up until a few weeks ago — and at a cursory glance, it would be easy to mistake it for a standard holiday resort, with its pretty waterfront cafes overlooking an azure blue bay, surrounded by hills with breathtaking views.

However, it would soon become apparent it was no ordinary seaside town. After all, few could boast to having, as one of their main tourist attractions, a former secret Russian submarine base, which makes the visitor feel as though they’re stepping into a Bond film.

Or to have given its name to the famous woolly face garb, the balaclava, during the Crimean War that pitted Russia against France, Britain and the Ottomans. Or even to have been the site of a bloody battle, on which Alfred Tennyson based The Charge of the Light Brigade.

State of affairs

While signs of its Soviet and Russian past have always littered Ukraine, in few places are they as apparent as on the Crimean peninsula, even before the recent standoff. Crimea holds a special status within Ukraine, as an autonomous republic with its own parliament, and an ethnic Russian-speaking majority.

Sevastopol, which holds a separate, special status to the rest of Crimea, and was out of bounds to foreigners till 1995, has long been a base for the Russian navy, and according to a 2010 agreement, is set to remain so till 2042.

Ever since Ukrainian independence in 1991, tensions with Russia over the region, have repeatedly surfaced, particularly during the period when the Orange coalition came to power, with a distinct pro-Western tilt and (now-shelved) plans to join NATO.

Then President Viktor Yushchenko’s attempts to impose increased regulations on the Russian fleet stationed in Sevastopol in 2008 was met with an angry response from Russia, and, according to reports at the time in the Russian press, a warning from Russian President Vladimir Putin, that Ukraine “isn’t even a state.”

Speculation that Russia was issuing Crimean residents with Russian passports ran rife, alongside questions about whether relations between the two nations could descend to war the way they did between Georgia and Russia that very year.

Six years on, as tensions ratchet up to what some have equated with Cold War levels, following the overthrow of the Yanukovych government in Kyiv, the movement of Russian troops in Crimea, and Russian parliamentary approval of troop deployment in the region, there should be little surprise that the situation has reached conflagration point.

There has been a steady stream of increasingly aggressive rhetoric from both the West and Russia, with each side blaming the other for destabilising the country; the tone bears a depressing similarity to that over previous conflicts, such as most recently Syria.

“European television stations tell you one story, Russian ones an entirely other one, and Ukranian yet another,” a Ukrainian friend in London said recently, struggling to make sense of what was happening in a country he grew up in.

Right wing concerns

That there were fundamental problems with the Yanukovych government is indisputable. While, as he and Russia have repeatedly pointed out since his ousting, he was the legally elected president, his claims to legitimacy must be tempered.

His dubious electoral track record (it was accusations of large scale electoral fraud against him that triggered the Orange Revolution of 2004), the country’s pervasive corruption problem (it ranks 144th out of 175 in Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index), and the treatment meted out to protestors in recent months, are factors that cannot be ignored.

A number of European nations have also frozen assets belonging to him and his entourage amid accusations of large-scale money laundering, currently under investigation.

At the same time, no matter how many photos of his opulent life style and chandelier-ridden homes circulate through social media, its hard not to feel a sense of disquiet at what has replaced him and, in particular, the involvement of right-wing nationalist forces in the interim government, ahead of elections in May. The far right party Svoboda has gained a number of key positions, including that of deputy prime minister, while the new deputy national security leader is from the paramilitary Right Sector.

With no representative from Yanukovich’s Party of Regions, it is far from the government of “unity” that many had hoped for.

Some of the decisions taken so far do not give much comfort, including the repeal of a “regional language” law passed two years ago that allowed other languages such as Russian, Romanian and Hungarian to be used officially, in courts, and government business, a huge matter for Ukraine’s substantial Russian speaking population in the east and south.

The return of Yulia Tymoshenko, the flaxen-braided darling of the Western media — whose track record as a businesswoman and politician has left much of her country cold towards her — provides a reminder that Ukrainian politics stands every chance of returning to the past, instead of progressing as it needs to.

The road ahead

The trouble is that there is much that Ukraine must get on with, even setting aside the larger issues of whether to favour trade links with the European Union or its eastern neighbours.

The country is in grave need of external financial assistance as it faces the consequences of decades of economic mismanagement, including an energy policy that heavily subsidised retail consumers, and recent propping up of the currency.

The finance ministry has put its needs over the next two years at a whopping $35 billion. The interim government has pledged to make necessary reforms for IMF assistance, but Ukraine’s history with the agency — a programme in the 1990s was eventually suspended following the country’s failure to meet targets — will mean that any assistance will come with strict conditions attached.

Conditions that could inflame an already precarious situation. “The austerity measures could lead to the spread of the existing turmoil and social discontent beyond eastern and southern Ukraine,” says Lilit Gevorgyan of IHS Global Insight. “Protestors who were demonstrating for EU integration didn’t expect the revolution to lead to a drop in living standards.”

If there are positives to cling on to they are this: Europe, heavily dependent on Russian gas, is by and large shying away (with the more aggressive stance being adopted by the US), as is Putin, who has said Russian intervention would only be a “last resort.”

But the true tragedy of the situation is that a country with a complex identity and tragic history that few can rival is unlikely to be given the kind of space it so desperately needs to consider its new political reality.

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Published on March 06, 2014
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