February 21 / Politics

Ukraine 101: What’s Happening?

Western media has been on top of their game covering the riots in Ukraine. However, following the news requires a huge back catalogue of knowledge when it comes to the history and politics of the country. To break things down for ourselves and to help out others who want to know but can’t find a place to start with, here’s some basic background to what’s happening in Kiev.

The protests in Ukraine started on the 21st of November when President Viktor Yanukovych did a bit of a U-turn and pulled out from talks with the European Union, instead cuddling closer to Russia. The reason things have gotten as heated as they are at the moment came from the anti-protest laws the government introduced to end the demonstrations. At this point it’s no longer just driven by their want to join the EU but rather a fight against their corrupted government. It’s mind boggling as an outsider because if and when we protest, there won’t be snipers shooting at us. What we say isn’t always taken into account but there are people that listen, there is no death toll when people speak up. In Ukraine the latest official number is 77.

It’s important to understand Ukraine relies heavily on Russia as its source of energy and this is the most obvious reason why Yanukovych turned away from Europe. The country has seen gas cut off twice in the past and the one in 2009 is credited as one the key reasons for the country’s financial crisis. This affects the EU as well – a fourth of our gas is provided by Russia and 80 per cent of that is transported through Ukraine. Alas, kind papa Putin also gives – now they’ve offered the country 15 billion USD and a third off of gas prices. Yet, this isn’t all there is to it. Realistically this money injection won’t be helpful in long term and to come out of the crisis, things have to change. While this figurative hostage situation with gas isn’t helping, welcoming moody Moscow with open arms isn’t a lasting solution.

Orange Revolution was a peaceful demonstration against Yanukovych in 2004 as many people believed the elections had been rigged. The fall of the authoritarian state was a huge thing at the time but he returned to power in 2006 and again in 2010 only to screw the economy up even further than it already was. According to WikiLeaks, the word kleptocracy was a word used by some US diplomats to describe Yanukovych’s Ukraine and it rings accurate. It’s a country where the government is only a front covering for a corrupted business growing the wealth of its political elite. The rich get richer, the poor poorer.

Russia has its reasons to keep Ukraine close, too. Gazprom, the half state owned gas supplier is a huge source of money for Russia and the geopolitical thing with gas pipes going through Ukraine is definitely a factor. It’s also important to understand there are much deeper ties between the two countries with a huge number of ethnic Russians living in Ukraine and essentially half the country speaking Russian as their first language. The President himself didn’t even speak Ukrainian for the better part of his life. It’s almost hard to grasp how integrated the cultures are having been ruled by their Eastern neighbours for centuries.

But, this is just the obvious. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, most other former Eastern block countries have turned their backs to Russia. Ukraine is kind of like the last reminder of its former glory, if that’s how you can call it. Putin’s approach to foreign relations has always been, err, rather competitive… He doesn’t seek to be a part of the European Union but rather to create his own version of it, the Eurasian Economic Union. His long time pal Lukashenko from Belarus has hopped on board, Kazakhstan is in and former Soviet states Armenia and Kyrgyzstan have shown interest. Ukraine however is big. The second largest economy in the area, riddled by the crisis or not, is what would make his lil project a lot bigger. With Ukraine involved, it would no longer be a toy to humour Putin. Bullying them with gas or slowing down boarder traffic is a passive aggressive reminder of what would happen if Ukraine was to sever its ties with Russia.

These tensions are an issue to Russia’s own politics, too. Corrupted beyond belief (even more than Ukraine), it’s a country of the ultra rich and the painfully poor. It is a country where freedom of speech or press aren’t particularly popular concepts. With Pussy Riot’s international fame and the Olympic Games in Sochi at the moment, the world is well aware of how the country functions. Russian history is even more complicated than Ukrainian but simply put, since the Arab Spring it’s only a matter of time until more people start speaking up there. While Syria is distant enough, Ukraine is pretty much what they perceive as a mini me and no one likes fire near their home.

Back in Ukraine, things aren’t black and white. With the country being divided into two, there isn’t a simple solution to what is happening. Our thoughts are with all Ukrainians because the events are horrific for all, not just the EU supporters. The tyrannical approach the government has taken to those protesting is a sign of the deeply rooted corruption harming the country and its people. European Union isn’t the enemy here, even with all its downsides. It will not destroy cultures or change histories and though for now it is likely the situation will get worse before there is a turn for the better, there is hope that the brave men and women fighting for their future will open the eyes of those siding with Yanukovych and Russia.

Cover image via reddit.

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