Lenin’s fall in Kiev is likely to reverberate all the way to Moscow. The toppling of the communist leader’s statue in Ukraine’s capital on Sunday was one of those moments that neatly encapsulate the essence of the popular mood and a moment in history. The massive protests, triggered by Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych’s sudden refusal to sign political and free trade agreements with the European Union (EU), are rooted in the twin rejection of Moscow’s influence and Ukraine’s dysfunctional political and administrative systems — both inextricably linked in public perception.
Since Russia’s revival as a regional power — and increasingly, global player — after the post-USSR slump, Ukraine, with its natural resources, human capital and geographical advantages, has been the lynchpin of its quest for expanding and consolidating its sphere of influence. In geopolitical terms, this is an understandable objective. But the manner in which Moscow has gone about it has been tone-deaf. When a man has only a hammer, everything looks like a nail — and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s policies are about as hammer-like as diplomacy gets. This is a lesson that should have been learnt in 2004-05 when current Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych ran afoul of the Kiev street. Then a presidential candidate, he was the beneficiary of widespread electoral fraud engineered by the authorities and Moscow. The Orange Revolution followed with massive protests and a campaign of civil disobedience that ultimately saw another election called. That time around, Yanukovych lost; he had to wait until 2010 to finally become president. But Moscow adopted the same tactics in the lead-up to the Vilnius summit late last month, exerting pressure via squeezing Ukrainian exports.
The reality of the Vilnius deal was that it would not have been a panacea for Ukraine’s ills. The terms the EU set — fiscal discipline, cutting subsidies and so on — would have caused a certain amount of short-term pain and would have started to bear fruit only in the long run. But that is almost irrelevant at the moment. For the Ukrainian people, the EU now represents an aspirational ideal — transparency in governance and clean politics — and remaining in the Russian sphere of influence means perpetuating the current rot in Ukrainian politics. There is good reason for this.
Putin’s modus operandi for building and maintaining a sphere of influence has been to influence the elite in neighbouring nations by establishing client-patron relationships and to build networks of corruption, thus ensuring that it is the latter’s interests to stay close to Moscow.
Resolving this impasse will not be easy. The historical and cultural ties between Russia and Ukraine are a reality and cannot be wished away; Moscow will not give up easily on Kiev. But neither, judging by the Orange Revolution, are the protestors likely to back down. Thus far, the EU has stood firm and backed the protestors. It must continue to do so, employing all the diplomatic tools in its arsenal to ensure that Yanukovych does not unleash his security forces on the protestors as he had at the end of November. Ukraine’s people must be free to decide their country’s future without external influence.