Borderland Blues

Geopolitic troubles haven’t abated for Ukraine ever since it was formed from the debris of the Soviet collapse, but the recent crisis is simply a symptom of the East-West confrontation
Sabika Zehra Delhi

It all began when hundreds of Ukrainian protesters, mostly students, who camped at the Independence Square in Kyiv, woke up to the beating and manhandling by the riot police in the early hours of November 30, 2013. Videos and images of this violent crackdown and clearing of the national monument by the government authorities served as a battle cry that spread across the country, gathering hundreds of thousands of masked anti-government protesters into the city centre. Similar to the anti-Morsi protests in Egypt, the Independence square in Kyiv was reclaimed by the public and the allegedly ‘corrupt’, albeit democratically elected president, Viktor Yanukovych, pulled a disappearing act. Since that momentous day, the country has been at war with itself, resulting in loss of territory–Russia annexing Crimea–and a civil war in Eastern Ukraine. Worse, it has become a bloody battleground between Russia and the Western world over issues of energy and hegemony.  

Ukraine continues to sit on the cannon of chaos after new and frenzied elections on 25th May 2014, and amid expectations from the popular ‘messiah’ – the West-backed billionaire the country mandated to take it out of political and economic instability. Restoring stability appears to be a mammoth task, especially after the violent change of its government, annexation of Crimea by its formidable neighbour, chronic economic lethargy, an emptying sovereign coffer, and most recently, the fierce separatist wave gripping the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. Billionaire Petri Poroshenko, who was declared President after he secured almost 56 per cent votes, reiterated that his priority would be strengthening ties with Europe, citing it to be the appropriate pathway to getting Ukraine back on the track of progress. However, his victory has not elicited a collective sigh of relief on the streets of Ukraine. Many separatists in the eastern parts have refused to recognize him as the new president, just as Poroshenko publicly refused to cut any deal with the armed groups in the Russian-speaking East, and instead adopted a tough line with the “insurgents.”

Furthermore, the elections themselves have received a mixed response from various international monitors. Oleksandr Turchynov, Uraine’s acting President, declared the voting to be “free, without artificial restrictions and administrative pressure.” US President Barack Obama also issued a statement congratulating Ukrainians for casting their ballots “despite provocations and violence” and condemned the Russian-backed separatists for “disenfranchising entire regions.” Furthermore, a team of more than a thousand European observers, sent to Ukraine by Organization for European Security and Cooperation (OSCE), also gave the elections its stamp of approval. However, the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, voiced his displeasure arguing that not all candidates were given equal opportunity to campaign properly. In addition, he said that many candidates even faced threats to their lives, while others were assaulted.

(Dis)advantages of strategic location for weak states

Violence and instability is on the rise as clashes between forces from Kyiv and the armed pro-Russian separatist groups intensify in the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk in Ukraine. Kyiv accuses Russia of supporting the separatist movement and covertly providing assistance to the militants in the form of weapons and other supplies. These protesters proclaimed their break from Ukraine and announced their own “independent” country, People’s Republic of Donetsk. They have blocked 80 per cent of the voting centres in the Sunday elections in these regions and taken over the Donetsk airport. As a response, Kyiv launched airstrikes at the sites occupied by eastern rebels and undertook its most visible and vigorous government military operation against the separatists, plunging the regions further into a state of mayhem.

All of this leads to the question whether Ukraine has ever remained stable since the post-Soviet independence.  Even a cursory look at the political evolution of this country, aptly called “The Borderland” (literal translation of “Ukraine” into English), reveals an inherent lack of political autonomy. Ukraine has served as the playground of Western and Russian interests to a point that there are deep fractures within its domestic constituencies – the pro-European, Catholic, ethnic Ukrainian-dominated Western province and the Russian-speaking Orthodox people with a neo-Soviet tilt in the Eastern province. Attempts by one wing of Ukraine to dominate the other have historically been the reasons for conflict. In the wake of aggressive global realpolitik, a strategic geographic location for weak states turns out to be a curse, as is evident in the cases of Afghanistan, Syria and now, Ukraine. These countries have become a chessboard for grand power-politicking games. The Ukrainian crisis could be seen as a part of a larger East-West confrontation.

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: JUNE 2014