An antigovernment protester clashing with a police officer in Kiev (Photo by Konstantin Chernichkin)
Two weeks after they first took to the streets protesters in Kiev have upped the ante. Those gathered at the city's Independence Square have enclosed themselves behind a barricade. Some hold signs and chant slogans: “Out with the gang!” or “Ukraine is Europe!” Others have occupied City Hall. And “We know,” says Ukrainian Prime Minister Mykola Azarov, “that a plan is being prepared to seize the parliament… this has all the signs of a coup.” Ukraine’s leaders, evidently, are setting the stage for a crushing reprisal. Baton-wielding police officers are already playing their part, unleashing a salvo of flares, tear gas, and stun grenades.
But this story is much bigger than Ukraine.
Demonstrations in Kiev kicked off last week after street-thug turned Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych turned down a sweeping free trade deal with the European Union. The move was unexpected (and, from the point of view of the Ukrainian protesters, unwelcomed), coming days before the agreement was to be signed. Indeed, Ukraine looked good to go until early November, when Yanukovych boarded a plane and flew to a military base near Moscow for a secret meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Nobody knows exactly what was said during the encounter, but shortly thereafter the Ukraine government changed course, citing a need to “normaliz[e] relations with Russia.”
Now observers speak of an Iron Curtain redescending across the continent. Speaking before the German Parliament last month, Chancellor Angela Merkel bristled at the idea, warning that “the Cold War should be over for everyone.” Whether or not a Cold War metaphor is justified, one fact seems clear: Eastern Europe and the Southern Caucasus are up for grabs—and both Moscow and Brussels know it. As the EU works to extend its reach eastwards, Russia is fighting to retain influence in the former Soviet republics. All this has come to a head in Putin’s most ambitious project to date: a rival to the European Union—a "Eurasian Union," to come into effect by 2015.
In a now-famous television broadcast in 2005, Vladimir Putin referred to the Soviet Union’s collapse as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.” But all is not lost, Putin assured listeners. For “a single historical destiny” still binds Russia to its neighbors. Eight years later, Putin’s eye is still on the prize. In September, he announced: “tight integration with our neighbors is our absolute priority.”
For just as long, the EU has been courting the same countries. Its "Eastern Partnership" project was launched in 2009, and focused on building economic and political ties with six ex-Soviet states: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine. Between 2010 and 2013, the EU spent €2.6 billion (about $3.5 billion) on the Partnership.
Russia didn’t like that at all. So in 2010, Moscow fought back, formalizing a "Customs Union" with Belarus and Kazakhstan. Two years later, the bloc formed a comprehensive “Single Economic Space.” Now, Kyrgyzstan and Armenia say they’re ready to join. And Moscow is believed to be wooing others: some, like Turkey and India and Syria, outside its old Soviet sphere. Putin is genuine when he says “there is no talk of re-forming the USSR,” because this about much more.
Putin sees this customs bloc as a precursor to a full Eurasian Union: largely modeled on the EU, and with economic, legal, judicial, and possibly military components. And he wants it all by 2015.
All along, Ukraine—Europe’s second largest country—has been seen as the clincher in an emerging East Vs. West power play. And Kiev—which, in 2012, exported nearly equal amounts in trade volumes to the EU and Russia—has relished the attention, flirting unabashedly with both sides. Still, until that fateful meeting with Putin, President Yanukovych's heart seemed to belong to Brussels.
What’s sure is that Putin threw Yanukovych a few carrots. Ukraine is heavily in debt to Russia and dangerously dependent on Moscow for natural gas. Putin likely offered Ukraine steadier trade and a deal on loan repayment.
But the sticks were out, too. Because when it comes to bulking up Russia’s economic influence in the region, Putin holds nothing back. His preferred weapon is the retaliatory economic sanction against any country looking cozy with Brussels. In July, Russia banned chocolate, candy, and cake imports from Ukraine, alleging health and safety concerns. Crates of chocolate piled up at the border and the New York Times wrote that “a chocolate wall has descended across the continent.” Russia has similarly banned potash from Belarus and wine from Moldova. And dairy from Lithuania, inspiring talk of a continental “milk curtain.”
In September, as Moldova moved towards an EU “association agreement,” Russian deputy prime minister Dmitri Rogozin remarked that he might switch off Moldova’s gas supply this winter: “We hope that you will not freeze,” he said.
Amidst the recent tumult, however, an important question has escaped scrutiny: Just how viable would a Eurasian Union be? “I don’t think there is much potential there at all,” Judy Shelton, economist at the US National Endowment for Democracy, told me. “Putin comes out of that old Soviet Model. He bought into Western ideas of finance… but Russia’s economy is very dependent on the price of energy. That doesn’t seem like a real promising future.” As for Ukraine? Shelton thinks Kiev will soon find itself wrung dry by the Kremlin: “Access to foreign capital would have been Ukraine’s saving.”
Either way, the EU is pissed off. In a recent statement, Brussels “strongly disapprove[d]” of Russia’s pressure tactics. Peter Stano, spokesperson for Štefan Füle, European Commissioner for Enlargement and European Neighborhood Policy, told me that “Russian measures” were “baseless, unjustified, and illegal.” The question is whether Russia, hot on a spate of political victories (brokering a chemical weapons deal in Syria; granting asylum to NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden) even gives a damn.
Meanwhile, protests continue in Kiev. Things turned especially violent on Sunday, when demonstrators and riot police clashed before a statue of Lenin, which the protesters were trying to topple. Dozens were beaten and taken into custody.
And despite the protesters’ best efforts, the statue of Lenin remains standing.
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