Just as Ukrainians are no strangers to Russia’s (and before that, the Soviet Union’s) heavy-handedness, they are no strangers to the heavy snows, biting wind and extreme temperatures of their country’s winters. Yet, hundreds of thousands of them filled the streets of Kiev, now focused more on highlighting their government’s subservience to Moscow and their nation’s corrupt political system, than on the Association Agreement with the European Union (EU) — the original intent of the protests.
Quite a challenge, this, to Russia, a nation that still harbours delusions of grandeur as a big power and considers Ukraine one of its satellite states — read vassals — whose political destiny will be determined by Kremlin diktats. It is reminiscent of the challenge the Ukrainians presented Moscow nine years ago when, again, hundreds of thousands took to the streets, during the Orange Revolution, to protest Russia-orchestrated rigged elections that would have elevated Viktor Yanukovych, an old-style apparatchik, as president — the very same Yanukovych, who, in 2010, again ran for president but won narrowly and now has spurned his people’s wish for closer diplomatic and economic ties with the EU.
And it was not merely threats from Moscow to suspend trade with Ukraine that prompted Yanukovych to ignore his people’s demands for closer ties with the EU. (Reportedly, 75 per cent of Ukraine’s 45 million citizens consider it time to turn their back on Russia and set their country on a course towards integration with the West.) Rather, with his goal set on re-election, Yanukovych finds that the conditions set by Brussels for a free-trade agreement are unacceptable. Those conditions include the release from jail of his principal opponent, Yulia Tymoshenko and the abrogation of a law stripping the eligibility to run for elections in 2015 by yet another one of his opponents — Vitali Klitschko.
Effectively, the man, whose rule has morphed into a venal autocracy, is placing his personal ambitions above those of his country.
Both Tymoshenko and Klitschko are striking figures. Yulia, as she is known by her supporters, is leader of the largest opposition party in the Ukraine and many remember her as the folksy and demure 53-year-old economist and academic who, briefly as prime minister in 2005 and again 2010, wore her hair in a crown braid, in the traditional Ukrainian wrap-around style. She has already, while incarcerated, gone on three hunger strikes. In April 2013, the European Court on Human Rights ruled that her arrest and conviction were “politically motivated” and her rights were violated.
Klitschko is no less interesting. Born in 1971, he is the former heavyweight champion of the world and the only boxer in the whole history of the sport to have a PhD. The dour Yanukovych cannot hold the candle to either.
The last time around, the Ukrainian president was voted to power in relatively free elections, though the victory margin was narrow. Thus it will be unconstitutional to demand his removal mid-term — by demonstrators or others — not to mention that it would invite chaos and set a bad precedent. Elected leaders are, well, elected — we presume freely and democratically — and toying with that process could subvert a nation’s stability. We know of the turmoil unleashed in politics in recent history that removed elected leaders, via military coups, or CIA subversion — in places like Chile, Palestine, Egypt and most recently Thailand.
Russia, however, sees any political opposition in countries subject to its hegemonic influence as plots hatched by the West to undermine it (a frame of mind inherited from the Cold War) and will likely continue to encourage its protege in Kiev to abuse the democratic process and disregard his people’s human rights — including their basic right to choose a European future rather than remain a vassal of the Russian bear.
Ukraine, which, throughout its history, has been one of the powerhouses of world agriculture — world’s third-largest grain exporter, due to its extraordinarily fertile land — deserves the right to turn to Brussels, and away from Moscow, if that is its people’s wish.
Fawaz Turki is a journalist, lecturer and author based in Washington. He is the author of The Disinherited: Journal of a Palestinian Exile.