As the political turmoil in Ukraine gathers in intensity, Russia Direct presents a roundup of how Russian and Western media are reporting the political crisis in Kiev.
A Ukrainian supporter of the trade association agreement with the EU at the Maidan square in central Kiev Source: RIA Novosty / Alexey Kudenko
Ukrainian President Viktor F. Yanukovich’s decision not to sign a far-reaching political and free trade agreement with the European Union, combined with the resulting crackdown on the large-scale opposition protests in response to this decision, has fueled a growing international debate about the future of Ukraine.
Russian and Western media have focused on Russia’s influence in Ukraine as well as the long-term geopolitical consequences for Kiev. While there is consensus that Yanukovich’s stance is bound to affect his image in the West and might increase anti-Russian sentiment, they disagree on the root causes and consequences of the protests.
In addition, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s comments that the anti-government protests in Ukraine were organized and planned by the West as an attempt to overthrow the country’s legitimate government have called into question the fate of the 2015 presidential elections.
While Russian media are hesitant about calling for the ouster of the current Ukrainian authorities, their foreign counterparts appear more confident and decisive about the impeachment of the government and some even call for political sanctions.
Ukraine’s future in limbo
The New York Times argues that Yanukovich rejected the integration with the EU and turned forcefully toward Moscow, “which had exerted heavy pressure on him to derail the accords.” The newspaper shifts the focus from the personality of Yanukovich to the protests in Ukraine and the crackdown.
“Thousands of protesters, many of whom have remained in the city center since the huge rally, marched to the Parliament building, which was shielded by lines of buses and deep columns of riot police officers,” it reads. “More to the point, the protesters are taking unusual measures to assure they will not easily be routed, building booby traps designed to make riot police officers think twice about storming the building [of the City Hall near Independence Square].”
At the same time, the New York Times cautions that we may not see the ouster of the current Ukrainian government and its president anytime soon.
“Unlike the Orange Revolution of 2004, which forced a new round of voting in a presidential election after 17 days of protests, this uprising could well be a protracted affair, with protesters pushing for the dismissal of the entire government as well as the ouster of President Viktor F. Yanukovich.”
Foreign Affairs magazine is also cautious about Ukraine’s future and the implications of its U-turn toward Russia.
“If Ukraine doesn’t sign it [the Association Agreement with the EU], Yanukovych may have to fashion himself as an anti-Western autocrat with a political future bound to Russia… [Ukraine] will be thrown into a geopolitical no man’s land between an indifferent EU (and NATO) and a Russia eager for Ukraine’s inclusion in the Moscow-led Customs Union,” Alexander Motyl, Foreign Affairs author, warned long before the Eastern Partnership summit in Vilnius.
Given The Economist’s series of articles on Ukraine, the forecast of Foreign Affairs seems to have come true. The Economist makes no bones about its disappointment with Yanukovich’s choice. It sees his stance on the integration with the EU as a selfish move of “hijacking Ukrainians’ European future.”
“Unwilling to launch economic reforms, cut spending or tame the appetite of his cronies, Mr. Yanukovych proceeded to trade the country’s most valuable asset: Ukraine’s geopolitical position,” The Economist states in an article with the colorful title – “Stealing Their Dream”.
The magazine is even more blunt in its attitude to the Ukrainian government’s crackdown of the opposition protests. “Never in its 22 years as an independent country has Ukraine seen such violence. It was a cowardly and treacherous act by a government that behaved like an occupying force in its own capital,” reads another article of The Economist called “Battle for Ukraine.”
Likewise, the magazine’s editorial is very tough on the Ukrainian authorities, viewing Yanukovich’s decision as “a choice made more in his own interests than in his country’s.” “History is often shaped by courage, zeal and evil of titanic leaders,” the editorial reads. “Less famously, it is sometimes swayed by the venality and self-interest of pygmies. That is frequently the case in the countries of the former Soviet Union, and seemed this week to be the tawdry fate of Ukraine.”
At the same time, The Economist tries to look at the problem from another perspective.
“Yet for all the dismay he [Yanukovich] caused, this might prove a better outcome than it looks – if the Europeans stick to their guns,” the article reads, calling for imposing political and economic sanctions, threatening and enacting “severe penalties if he uses force against protesters. Travel bans and frozen banks accounts have proved effective weapons against post-Soviet kleptocrats.”
Forbes’s contributor Greg Satell argues that the Ukrainian political turmoil matters - and not just because of what it bodes for the future of Europe and “an increasingly desperate Vladimir Putin, but [also] because this is a story that will continue to resonate in the years to come."
“So keep an eye on how the events unfold in Ukraine, because it will be a bellwether for the years to come. The question being debated really isn’t about “spheres of influence” or geopolitical chessboards, but whether we truly live in a global marketplace of ideas that transcends the selfish presumptions of an earlier age,” the Forbes article reads.
A Ukrainian supporter of the integration with the EU. Photo: RIA Novosti / Alexey Kudenko
Meanwhile, Russia’s politically influential Kommersant published a series of comments from experts and politicians who were divided about Ukraine’s future.
“Ukraine is becoming more and more unpredictable,” said Alexander Torshin, Chairman of the Russia’s Federation Council, the upper house of the Russian parliament in his commentary for Kommersant. “I am very cautious about reckless conclusions… There is the process of coming up with decisions, the opposition process and people are behind this.”
At the same time, he describes the protests as an example of democracy, Ukraine’s “inside job.”
Sergey Zeleznyak, Deputy Chairman of Russia’s State Duma, is skeptical about the success of the protests against Ukraine’s refusal to integrate with the EU.
“Those who support the integration with EU are idealists, while those who oppose it are realists,” he commented for Kommersant. “The protesters will not achieve desired results, because old Europe is not ready to be spendthrift in terms of the crisis.”
Likewise, Konstantin Zatulin, Director of the Institute of CIS Countries, is hesitant about the increasing protest sentiment in Kiev and the desire for repeating the Maidan scenario [Maidan is Independence Square in central Kiev – editor’s note]. Unlike the 2004 Maidan revolution, people are tired of Maidans and revolutions, according to him.
“In 2004 the authorities were doubtful and hesitant, [then-Ukrainian] President Kuchma realized that he would have to resign and give up,” he commented for Kommersant. “That’s why didn’t show any tenacity to fight with the opposition unrest. Today the President wants to be re-elected in 2015. In addition, the authorities are more consolidated and well-aware of the fact that even though nobody likes them, they are more likely stick together because of this.”
Zatulin sums up that these two factors – the confidence of the authorities and Ukrainians’ political fatigue – will spare Ukraine from another Maidan revolution. He predicts that people’s unrest will fade away by the end of the year.
In addition, Kommersant argues the lack of enthusiasm stems from the split in the Ukrainian opposition, which now includes radical nationalistic sentiments from some participants of the protests. In addition, there is a different historical background. In 2004, the country was frustrated with vote rigging in the presidential elections, while now, there seems no reason to orchestrate another revolution based simply on the decision not to integrate.
The events are disproportionate, Kommersant argues, citing Alexey Vlasov, Director General of the Information and Analytical Center for Post-Soviet Studies and Deputy Dean of the History Department at Lomonosov Moscow State University.
“There is no such factor now that would legitimize these events before public opinion,” he said.
Likewise, Vedomosti points out differences between the unrest in 2004 and 2013. New technologies and social networks drive the protests and make the situation less predictable, according to the newspaper.
“A new Ukrainian Maidan exactly coincided with the Orange Revolution [in 2004],” wrote the Editor-in-Chief of the Dozhd opposition TV channel in his column for Vedomosti.
“During these 9 years, a lot has changed, including technologies. Today it is difficult to imagine, but in 2004 V Kontakte [Russia’s largest social network] and Twitter didn’t exist – it remained two years before they would appear. Facebook at that time was a closed social network for students of some American colleges. The real tools of mobilizing were mass media and classic propaganda instruments – handouts, newspapers and merchandise with political symbols.”
“Today the relative freedom of Internet can create an alternative system of informing and mobilizing, which is just impossible to fight with traditional methods like repressions,” he added.
Although the situation seems to be out of control and another “Orange Revolution” might take place, the Ukrainian authorities have already taken all measures to prevent it, according to Alexander Rahr, a German journalist who wrote for Russia’s Internet media outlet Actual Comments.
“It’s important that the Ukrainian President and the Interior Minister formally apologized for the crackdown [of the opposition protesters] and pledged to punish all those who dispersed the protesters on Nov. 30,” he wrote. “… [It] indicates the authorities respond to the events and show this to the protesters.”
At the same time, Rahr doesn’t rule out another revolution in Ukraine. “It is not ruled out, if the authorities make grave mistakes and refuse a dialogue with protesters,” he wrote. “Now the authorities try to avoid further confrontation.”