By Patricia H Kushlis
Kiev is engulfed in the largest anti-government protests since the 2004 Orange Revolution and the unrest is not likely to end soon. They are aimed at President Viktor Yanukovych who recently caved to the Russian stick of short term fixes as opposed to succumbing to the European Union’s longer term carrot of associate status as the majority of the population wants and as he had previously promised to support.
This former Soviet Republic has had a rough time of it since the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991: popular aspirations for democracy, rule of law and a European standard of living have been thwarted by endemic corruption, high unemployment, bad government and a 45 million population in decline of which 77.8% are ethnic Ukrainians and 17.3% ethnic Russians, the latter concentrated in the Crimea and along the far eastern border that lies next to Russia.
Ukraine’s geostrategic position is not disputed nor is its history as the ancient capital of Kievan Rus. Founded in the 9th century AD, Kiev is claimed as forerunner of Ukraine, Russia and Belarus – the three Slavic majority republics which once dominated the former Soviet Union - but unlike Russia, Ukraine had also been part of a powerful Polish/Lithuanian Empire. Ukrainian emotional ties to the west re-emerged during the unrest that destroyed the Soviet Union.
In today’s tug-of-war between a Putin government determined to return “wayward republics” to the Russian fold – or at least back under Moscow’s domination – Ukraine is a strategic piece of coveted real estate.
The Russians – whether under the guise of the Soviet Union and its Communist fraternity or under an old Cold War warrior-dressed-in-muscle-man-clothing – have made it a priority to maintain or regain control of their “near abroad” or as many contiguous territories that were once part of the Soviet Union as possible. The primary inducement? A Customs Union plus the continuation of the flow of gas, cheap energy prices and elimination of the threat to erect a trade embargo against certain Ukrainian goods. The problem is that Russian disappointment at the loss of Ukraine in 1991 remains core to Russian external ambitions.
Even the prospect of losing the three small northerly Baltic Republics was anathema for the Gorbachev government in the late 1980s. Rather than grant them independence to which they were legally entitled, Gorbachev refused to let them go. If he had, perhaps he might have kept the rest of the giant country otherwise intact. Or perhaps the Soviet Union would have just disintegrated a year or two sooner.
When the Lithuanians declared independence in 1990, a furious Moscow cut off gas supplies to the small Baltic republic and blockaded access to foreigners including journalists and diplomats – or perhaps especially journalists and diplomats.
Soviet bullying intensified. The Soviets sent in tanks, occupied the main television station by force and murdered 14 young Lithuanian demonstrators who went out into the cold to support independence the following frigid January. The Lithuanians promptly proclaimed martyrdom for their deceased.
When we visited Vilnius over Midsummer’s weekend in 1991, the situation remained tense, the parliament was engulfed in walls of rolled barbed wire in an effort to keep Soviet internal security troops and tanks at bay. Anti-Soviet protest posters had been hung on the barbed wire fence, shrines for the martyrs were on prominent display and Soviet OMON cockily but warily patrolled the streets with machine guns slung over their shoulders while young Lithuanian militia kept a distance away armed only with hunting rifles.