The scenes in Kiev over the past few days have been reminiscent of the “Orange Revolution” in the fall of 2004, which paved the way for Viktor Yushchenko’s eventual victory in the disputed presidential election. There are several significant differences, however, which make a similar outcome unlikely.
The first is that the trigger for the street protests in 2004 was the well-founded suspicion of electoral fraud. Now it is President Viktor Yanukovych’s decision not to sign an association agreement with the European Union, and to seek closer ties to the Russian-sponsored customs union which also includes Kazakhstan and Belarus (with Armenia slated to join the bloc next year). The accusation of fraud was credible enough nine years ago to paralyze the administration of former President Leonid Kuchma, already discredited by years of corruption and scandals. The current government, by contrast, is displaying an unexpectedly high degree of self-confidence, apparently convinced that in extremis it can count on the support of the plurality of Ukrainians who feel uneasy about the proposed EU agreement. The government’s ability to retain control was bolstered on December 3, when it comfortably survived a parliamentary vote of no confidence tabled by opposition deputies: there have been no desertions from government ranks, as expected by the opposition. Yanukovych’s departure for China on previously agreed schedule is counter-indicative of a beleaguered leader running out of options.
The demonstrators “won’t go back to their homes until they accomplish what they came here for,” an unidentified protestor told the CNN Tuesday, but the goalpost has shifted. They initially came to protest the non-signing of the EU deal, but by the weekend they started demanding a street-forced regime change. The shift was not spontaneous. It was agreed upon and launched on Sunday by various Western-financed “civic” groups, with the intention of repeating the scenario initially tested by “Otpor” in Belgrade in October 2000, and repeated in Tbilisi in the fall of 2003 and in Kiev a year later. (“The Democracy Small Grants Program enables the Embassy community in Kyiv to support unique and sustainable pilot projects fostering democratic reforms in a given field or geographic region,” the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine website announces. “Over 200 projects from Ukrainian NGOs have received funding…” The big grants remain undisclosed, but they are reliably estimated to go into tens of millions.)
The Western media narrative has been customarily one-dimensional: Ukrainians are protesting because they want to break free from the grip of “Putin’s Russia” and put their country firmly on the “European path.” The reality is more complex, as usual. Judging by the latest opinion poll, conducted by the politically neutral Kyiv International Institute of Sociology (KIIS) in mid-November, 40.8 per cent of respondents said they would vote in favor of joining the Customs Union in a referendum, with 33.1 per cent opposed. Support for joining the customs union was very high in the east of the country (64.5 per cent) and in the south (54 per cent), dropping to 16.4 percent in the west. Asked if they would vote in favor of Ukraine joining the European Union, 39.7 per cent were in favor and 35.1 per cent opposed, with regional balances neatly reversed. This reflects the traditional divide of Ukraine into the pro-Russian east and pro-EU west, but this time cultural preferences are mixed with economic issues.
The Western media coverage tends to ignore economic considerations behind Yanukovych’s decision not to sign the EU agreement. In addition to the high cost of systemic adjustment to EU standards, Ukraine would have opened its market to European goods with which its own industrial products would have been hardly able to compete at home, let alone abroad. As Le Monde Diplomatique commented on December 3, the EU demanded “sacrifices from the Ukrainians without providing their country with any significant financial compensation.” Yanukovych called an earlier EU offer of 600 million euros ($800 million) in aid “humiliating,” as indeed it was, considering that Ukraine’s estimated cost of upgrading to EU standards alone would amount to $19 billion (€14.7bn) a year. Ukraine is on the verge of insolvency, and the likely cost of signing the EU deal would have been a mind-boggling $200bn over the next decade – which is more than the country’s current annual GDP.
The EU wanted to woo Ukraine on the cheap, and failed. Had Yanukovych received an adequate financial incentive—matching the offers of cheaper gas, trade incentives and cheap credit from Moscow—he probably would have signed. He is not a dyed-in-the-wool Russophile, as the checkered history of his relations with the Kremlin over the past three years indicates. Brussels has made an offer he had to refuse, however, regardless of his ideological preferences. Heavy-handed Western insistence on the immediate release of Yulia Tymoshenko only added to his resolve. Weathering the ensuing unsurprising storm in Kiev’s streets entailed, in his estimation, fewer risks than risking bankruptcy and alienating his political base in the industrial heartland. He is a politician, after all, and his calculus in any key decision is therefore based on whether it will improve his odds of holding on to power.