Divided Ukraine roiled by protest, love-hate with 'Mother Russia'

When, three weeks ago, Ukraine President Viktor Yanukovych renounced the European Union in favour of closer economic ties with Russia, he set off a series of street protests reminiscent of the country's Orange Revolution. Why is history repeating itself?

Yanukovych will do 'anything he can' to stay in power

Riot police gather near a barrier set up by Ukrainian supporters of EU integration in central Kiev on Monday. President Viktor Yanukovych is looking for ways to defuse the three-week-old crisis. (Vasily Fedosenko / Reuters)

For the past two decades, Ukraine has been torn between competing impulses.

Should it preserve its historical connections with 'Mother Russia' to the East or seek greater economic ties — and possibly full membership — with the European Union in the West?

Three weeks ago, Ukraine President Viktor Yanukovych renounced the EU in favour of closer economic ties with Russia, a move that led to roiling street protests and a feeling among many Ukrainians and foreign observers alike that the country is headed down a precarious path.

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"This is the beginning of the end, in my view, of an independent, stable Ukraine," says Stephen Larrabee, the Washington-based distinguished chair in European security for the Rand Corporation.

Though other Ukraine watchers aren't so sure of that outcome, and see the current turmoil as part of a delicate balancing act that reflects the country's inherently divided loyalties.

"We have to understand that Viktor Yanukovych is neither pro-Russian nor pro-European – he's pro-Yanukovych," says Taras Kuzio, a research associate at the Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies.

"He's going to do anything he can to try and stay in power."

Eugene Chausovsky, a Russia analyst for the global intelligence firm Stratfor, says that had Yanukovych opted for the EU association agreement rather than the Russian custom union, "we would have probably also seen protests, except from a completely different segment of society.

"It shows the difficulty of ruling Ukraine. It's a split country."

Three weeks of protest

The street protests erupted after Yanukovych renounced an "association agreement" with the European Union on Nov. 22 in favour of a "customs union" with Russia.

While the former deal would have fallen short of full EU membership, it would have brought Ukraine into closer trading relations with Europe.

But after Russian President Vladimir Putin exerted economic pressure of his own, Yanukovych switched course, in the process riling a large segment of the Ukrainian population, which feels the country is jeopardizing its autonomy in order to please its former imperial master.

Since Yanukovych made the announcement, Ukraine has seen three weeks of protests.

On Saturday, half a million people took to the streets of the capital, Kiev, to convey their anger, which culminated with the toppling of a statue of former Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin.

The outcry has been the biggest show of public opposition since the 2004 Orange Revolution, a pro-democracy movement that denied Yanukovych the presidency amid allegations of voting fraud.

He was finally elected president in 2010, narrowly beating Yulia Timoshenko, one of the leaders of the revolution who was subsequently imprisoned on corruption charges, which her supporters say were trumped up.

Complicated relationship

Home to 46 million people, Ukraine has long held a contentious place in European geopolitics.

For several hundred years, it was part of the Russian empire. After the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991, Ukraine became independent and began to cultivate greater economic ties with the European Union, angering Russia.

Even now, more than 20 years after Ukraine's independence, many Russians don't accept its autonomy, says Larrabee.

"They don't see the Ukraine as an independent state. They've never accepted it psychologically."

Zbigniew Brzezinski, the former U.S. national security adviser to president Jimmy Carter, famously wrote that "without Ukraine, Russia ceases to be an empire, but with Ukraine suborned and then subordinated, Russia automatically becomes an empire."

But the connection between the two nations isn't merely historical. Russia is Ukraine's largest trading partner, and supplies the country with oil and natural gas.

Over the years, Russia has reduced the price of gas in exchange for Ukrainian concessions, including extensions of leases on Russian naval bases in Ukrainian territory on the Black Sea.

Russian President Vladimir Putin dangled the promise of lower natural gas prices if Ukraine joined the Russian customs union, a grouping that also includes former Soviet republics Belarus and Kazakhstan.

Putin also suggested that were Ukraine to sign the EU association agreement, many of the country's goods would be effectively shut out of the Russian market.

"Ukraine has a complicated relationship with Russia, and it's hard to pin it down as positive or negative," says Chausovsky.

A divisive figure

A controversial figure, Yanukovych is largely blamed for the political persecution of Timoshenko, who is currently serving a seven-year prison sentence for abuse of power for signing a gas deal with Russia. Critics say her conviction was a case of political revenge.

Many observers see Timoshenko's incarceration, as well as a number of unfulfilled political reforms, as reasons Europe hasn't offered Ukraine full membership in the in the EU.

Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, caught between a rock and Russia's Vladimir Putin. (Reuters)

But Chausovsky says it's unlikely that Yanukovych would even risk applying for EU membership.

"From Yanukovych's perspective, he doesn't want to make a choice between the EU and Russia."

Ukraine "has to balance those two sides in order to maintain its sovereignty, its independence," Chausovsky says. "Moving towards one side, either Russia or the EU, would damage its relationship with the other side."

While it's difficult to gauge public sentiment, polling suggests that about 60 percent of the Ukraine population is pro-EU, Chausovsky estimates.

But that figure becomes skewed in eastern Ukraine, which is generally more sympathetic to Russia.

On Monday, Yanukovych said he would meet with a number of former Ukrainian presidents to look at ways to defuse the current crisis.

Kuzio says that if Yanukovych decides to forcibly quell the protests, the country could be "on a slippery slope to civil war." He believes that unlike neighbouring Belarus, Ukraine will not bow down to Russian demands.

"Fifty or 60 per cent of the population will never agree to some kind of authoritarian, pro-Russian regime," he says.