It is no small fault of the EU that protesters, politicians and international media have painted the Ukrainian crisis as the crisis point of an ultimatum between west and east. Even our own FAR online poll posits this dichotomy, asking, ‘Will the Ukrainian government survive the protests and pro-EU pressure, following its pivot toward Russia?’ Questions like these are utterly redundant and serve no purpose in the attempt to understand the protest movement currently occurring. In fact, Ukraine has a plethora of issues to rectify within its own existing political structures. Should President Viktor Yanukovych turn to the EU and beg for another agreement, few in Ukraine would be satisfied with the outcome. Economic alliances are, contrary to international popular opinion, the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Ukraine’s economic situation is complex, and any decisive moves towards either ‘bloc’ would be detrimental to the state’s fragile emerging economy. Ukraine is an independent, so-called democratic state, and needs to begin acting like it.

Image courtesy of Mstyslav Chernov, © 2014, some rights reserved.

Image courtesy of Mstyslav Chernov, © 2014, some rights reserved.

Ukrainian protests were sparked in late November after Ukrainian President Yanukovych performed a now infamous backflip on an association agreement with the EU. Taras Ilkiv, a journalist writing in Ukraine, notes that Yanukovych’s refusal to sign the EU agreement was only cause for local rallying. The real anger from the Ukrainian population, he says, came from the violent crackdown on a student protest in Kiev on 30th November.[1] The protesters are fighting not for EU membership, but for their rights and freedoms, something that has been stagnant in the decade since the Orange Revolution. It is not purely because of Putin that the Ukrainian state remains corrupt and ineffective – Ukraine stopped being a Soviet proxy state long ago.

Shifting the focus: where the problems really lie

Ukrainians, primarily, are upset with their own government. “In Ukraine, the term “family” is making the rounds, in reference to the corrupt network of relatives and close friends which surrounded Russian President Boris Yeltsin in the 1990s.”[2]  The presence of ‘the Family’ – the elite Ukrainian oligarchy (most who are legitimately related to the President) with an all-access pass to the government and its policy decisions – is a constant source of frustration for the masses. The President has done little in power except to benefit his own family and friends. President Yanukovych’s son (Alexander Yanukovych) has, at the age of 40, earned himself over $500 million in assets through business deals on behalf of public procurement – that is, on behalf of government. For many protesters, it is this flaunting of wealth at the expense of a struggling population that matters most:

Many of us have seen the luxury mansion where Yanukovych resides. And when you have golden toilets and chandeliers for $80,000, helicopter pad and all this luxury, the question is very obvious, where is it coming from? And the answer is, of course, corruption and abuse of office.[3]

Thus, what the Ukraine needs urgently is not a deal with the EU or Russia. It is a swift and calculated change in government. Opposition leader Arseniy Yatsenyuk has also called for constitutional change, arguing it would “cancel the dictatorial powers of the president and transfer the right of governing the country to the Ukrainian people.” Dmytro Bulatov, a leading protester of the group Automaidan, made up mainly of drivers who would protect the protest camps and blockade streets, turned up after eight days missing. Bloodied, bruised, and reporting he had been crucified, he has been forced to Lithuania to receive treatment for his injuries. His experience, and the arrest of beloved former PM Yulia Tymoshenko, proves there is more at stake than west versus east.

The economic dilemma

Russia and Ukraine’s relationship is tenuous, but important. Ukraine unquestionably, and rightly so, wants to assert its independence away from Russia’s old Soviet sphere. The tearing down and desecration of Lenin statues proves that there is at least some element of this protest that is aimed at rehashing old identity woes. Yet Ukraine cannot afford to let its economic relations with Russia sour. Ukraine cannot just ‘go west.’ To do so would be detrimental to Ukraine’s economic sector, as experienced by Roshen, the chocolate manufacturer Russia recently blocked imports of in response to the Ukraine-EU association agreement.  Sixty per cent of Ukraine’s exports already go to Russia, with Belarus and Kazakhstan benefitting with the majority of remaining Ukrainian exports. Not only does Ukraine source most of its energy from Russia, but Russia exports energy through Ukraine to the West. Antagonising a neighbour, particularly one with which a state shares so much economic interest as well as a political border, is utterly unwise.

Having said this, Ukraine does need to expand its economic interests beyond the CIS states, Russia in particular. To be a fully viable economic independent state, Ukraine requires more complex economic relations. Ukraine’s opaque energy sector is a problem for the EU under the current government, but Ukraine is still independent in some sectors, such as in its electricity, agricultural and transportation production. It is in these areas that Ukraine can capitalise in better relations with the west.

Ukraine’s shadow economy is ranked sixth in the world for percentage of GDP relative to the rest of its economy – an alarming 58.1% of Ukraine’s GDP is based in the black market. Again, it is this that needs the most attention nationally and internationally. Ukraine will find it difficult to make any legitimate and helpful deals when so much of its economy remains so opaque. National economic reform should be the goal before any alignment with the European or (future) Eurasian Union.

Sadly, it looks like Ukraine will be forced to align itself soon. The EU has all but forgotten its human rights and corruption clauses in order to get Ukraine to join the EU and avoid Russia. The US and EU are now considering a package of aid and investment to counter Russia’s $15 billion in aid. While the EU and Russia play out this economic tug of war, let’s hope Ukraine can focus on and tackle President Yanukovych’s abject corruption and appalling human rights record to the ground.