The heart of the ‘Euromaidan’ faced with Ukraine’s geopolitical limbo

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

The political turmoil in Ukraine, which some analysts call a revolution, bears the support of a great part of popular opinion, which sees the protest movement as "justified and good". But the composition of what Western media still like to call “Euromaidan” is very heterogeneous, write Justina Vitkauskaite Bernard and Vira Ratsiborynska.

Justina Vitkauskaite Bernard is a Lithuanian member of the European Parliament, affiliated to the Group of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE). Vira Ratsiborynska, is a political analyst at the European Parliament.

After the de facto ousting of the what now has to be called ex-President of Ukraine Viktor Yanukovitch, the political situation in Ukraine is far from clear. While former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, who was imprisoned by Yanukovitch, was released on 22 February – and of course immediately returned to the stage as a political heavyweight – it remains to be seen how the situation will develop. Not all participating factions of the so-called “Euromaidan” seem to be extremely enthusiastic about the prospect of replacing the toppled corrupted regime of Yanukovitch with yet another old ruling elite. Also the current whereabouts and plans of Yanukovitch and the extent of his remaining power base are unknown at this moment.

The current political turmoil which some analysts even call a “revolution” has its beginnings in November 2013 when then President Yanukovitch rather surprisingly decided not to sign the long-planned Association agreement with the EU. This U-turn was initially met by a wave of spontaneous manifestations in Kiev and other Ukrainian cities. These protests quickly led several hundred thousand citizens throughout Ukraine going on the streets and protesting against the government. The regime attempted to quell the popular movement with brutal force: first police violently dispersed unarmed protesters, injuring many. When this did not prove to be sufficient, Euromaidan activists were arrested, some were kidnapped, some were found tortured and murdered, some simply remained “disappeared”. In addition, very tough new anti-protests laws were introduced by the regime – which was perceived by many Ukrainians as an unprecedented abuse of power and an attempt to establish an even more authoritarian rule. Unsurprisingly, a spiral of violence ensued when police violence triggered a radicalization of certain protest groups who went on to retaliate with violence of their own. The composition of what Western media still like to call “Euromaidan” is very heterogeneous with regard to political and civic factions taking part. However, what unites them is their overall aim to fight for a better life in Ukraine. One of the main obstacles for this in their opinion is the all-permeating corruption. Top priorities for most of the protesters are transparency, stability and justice in their country. All values which they feel are not represented by the Yanukovitch regime.

But this ongoing interior struggle in Ukraine for a cause that in the popular opinion is seen as “justified and good” is far from easy. It is difficult not only because people are tired of the regime, but because their expectations partially run afoul of many other geopolitical and economic interests of different internal and external players; their hopes and aspirations can remain unfulfilled or can even vanish. This battle uniting so many people with the aim to have a better life is not only one being fought inside of the country. There is also the ideological, economical and geopolitical struggle between important international players in the region such as Russia, USA and the EU. And Euromaidan plays a crucial role in that confrontation as this new form of national protest sits in the middle of a political triangle in which the EU’s and the West’s, the Russians’ and Ukrainians’ interests in the country may overlap and meet. The Euromaidan, which became a daily gathering for thousands of people in Kiev who were pushed to the streets by high expectations and their shared hope for a better future, could turn out to be a disappointment. This potential disappointment could take different forms as the interior situation of the country is too complicated to be solved both quickly and efficiently while satisfying and taking into account all demands and interests of the protesters at the same time. For this there are numerous reasons, as many factors have an impact on what is going on.

The geopolitical situation of the country is complicated. Ukraine is struggling to find its own model of relations with both the EU and Russia at the same time when Ukraine is undergoing heavy pressure on its geostrategic choice between the two. Now Ukraine experiences a deep interior political crisis and instability. The economic situation of the country is even more dramatic. The value of the Ukrainian currency fell drastically since the beginning of the manifestations at the end of November. The second tranche of the Russian aid package agreed on under a $ 15 billion bailout deal between Russia and Ukraine in mid-December will be released only when there is a stabilization of the current interior situation and when a new, stable government is formed. With Ukraine being on the brink of bankruptcy, the country needs international financial aid in order to stabilize its economic situation and to pay its debts.

Taking all this into account it is quite understandable that the situation of Ukraine is extremely difficult to solve. For this reason many international actors, amongst them especially the EU countries, try to contribute to a stabilization of the interior situation in the country. The example of Lithuania is very illustrative in this regard: the country which hosted the Vilnius Summit tries to mediate in the Ukrainian conflict. Lithuania, one of the most vocal advocates of Ukraine’s EU integration, is even admitting injured people from Euromaidan across its borders so that they can safely undergo necessary medical treatment and rehabilitation. Many Lithuanian officials shuttled to Kiev to help the Euromaidan leaders in their talks with the now toppled Yanukovych government. And on many occasions Lithuanian citizens also showed that they morally support the people of Euromaidan – one such event was Lithuanians forming a human chain from the European Commission offices to the Ukrainian Embassy in Vilnius.

The European institutions are of course also involved in the facilitation of the dialogue between the opponents and in avoiding a possible worst-case scenario in Ukraine. In the resolution issued on December 2013 the Members of the European Parliament called for a stop of the violence and for a punishment of the perpetrators of violence as well as to refrain from using force against peaceful demonstrations. On 20 of February at the foreign affairs council EU ministers agreed on sanctions against those individuals who were responsible for violence and use of excessive force in Ukraine. In general, the EU’s role in the process of stabilization and de-escalation of the situation is remarkable. Many high EU officials visiting Kiev have tried to assist the country in finding its way while convincing the ex-President of Ukraine of the importance of forming a new functional government that can be trusted by all sides. The officials also pointed out that an international financial assistance to Ukraine would be able to help the country to get through the difficult economic situation that it is in now.

In general the EU and other international actors and players take an active and coordinative role in solving the current political crisis. If this role is fulfilled efficiently the EU, international organizations and high ranking mediators could potentially bring a peaceful end to the political and economic unrest in Ukraine. But even then one question remains: would a de-escalation of the tensions that have been gripping the country for so many months satisfy the aspirations of those who risked their lives and health on Euromaidan? It may occur that while the political and economic situation could be stabilized that the concerns for the future of the country, for its geopolitical strategy and for its European perspectives could remain for a very long time. When so many interests are involved and no common strategy between all players is defined and agreed on, this country that is wedged between the EU and Russia can quickly experience a shift from the euphoria about the success of the popular uprising to disappointment with what was actually achieved for the people “on the ground”.

A stable and promising long-term perspective which would result in the demanded political change and an EU perspective can only be achieved if the ruling elites and the civil society of Ukraine are willing to actively shape the country’s fate and to point it in a direction eventually leading towards European norms and values. Stability in the region can only be achieved when all international players active in the region share the same objectives concerning the development of its partners. If such objectives are not agreed upon, the struggle for a mutually exclusive influence will continue and a disappointment of the Ukrainian population over this geopolitical limbo will almost inevitably be the result. And while this geopolitical game is not over yet, the window of opportunity will not be open forever.

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