Monday, December 30, 2013

Protesters put Ukraine on edge

Protesters put Ukraine on edge
By JAMES J. COYLE / For the Register
Published: Dec. 3, 2013 Updated: 2:28 p.m.
The largest crowds in Ukraine's history descended Sunday onto Independence Square, scene of the 2004 Orange Revolution. Demonstrators closed off the city center, using Christmas trees, city benches, metal fences and barricades. Protestors occupied City Hall and the trade union headquarters.
Kiev was not the only forum for unrest: demonstrations took place throughout the country, including in President Viktor Yanukovych's home town of Donetsk. Former interior minister Yuriy Lutsenko said what was happening was not a protest, but another revolution.
The government is in disarray: at least two parliamentarians from the ruling Party of Regions have resigned, as well as the chief of the presidential administration staff. The Kiev chief of police attempted to resign but was slapped with a suspension. The president is considering declaring a state of emergency, while the parliament is considering curtailing his powers.
It didn't have to be this way. On Thursday and Friday in Vilnius, Lithuania, the European Union welcomed Georgia and Moldova into the EU's Eastern Partnership.
Ukraine was supposed to be accepted as well, but the cabinet canceled the country's preparations to sign an association agreement after coming under heavy pressure from Moscow. The citizenry was outraged. Opposition parliamentarian Arseniy Yatsenyuk charged the ruling party with hindering Ukraine's movement towards the EU.
President Yanukovych had little room to maneuver. Even though he had been negotiating with the European Union for months, the odds have always favored his alignment with Moscow. Russia supplies Ukraine with 60 percent of its natural gas, and the two countries have been squabbling for months over price for the commodity. The EU has pledged to sell Ukraine natural gas through a reverse flow pipeline from Slovakia, but the quantities are insufficient to replace Russian gas. Russian First Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov offered a carrot: cheaper gas if Kiev halts free trade talks with Europe.
Russia is not afraid to also use a stick: it cut off natural gas flows in the winters of 2006 and 2009, and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev threatened tariffs on the importation of Ukrainian goods to Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan, if the country aligned with the West. Ukrainian Prime Minister Mykola Azarov subsequently told the parliament this would cost the country 400,000 jobs.
Yanukovych is trying to keep his options open, stating he has not abandoned the idea of joining the European Union someday. Equally telling, he has not agreed immediately to joining the rival, Moscow-backed Eurasian Customs Union.
These half measures have not appeased the crowds, however, who are demanding his resignation. Ukraine and Russia are supposed to set the natural gas price for 2014 in the next two weeks: a strong enough price cut might shore up Yanukovych's support – if the news doesn't arrive too late.
James J. Coyle is the director of Global Education at Chapman University and is the chair of the Eurasian committee of the Pacific Council on International Policy. He has also held various positions in the federal government, including director of Middle East studies at the U.S. Army War College.