The Tragedy of Ukraine (Part Three) – A look at the recent origins of the crisis

Earlier I presented a summarised version of Ukraine’s history, as relevant to the current crisis, in an attempt to lay the foundations for understanding the current crisis.

In it I noted how the country’s east/west divide has evolved in terms of ethno-linguistics, industrial development and political histories, which have led to (in simplistic terms):

  • The west being orientated towards Central Europe, both pre-Soviet and during the Soviet (where the countries to Ukraine’s west were part of the Soviet Bloc);
  • There is a historical fascist legacy in the west;
  • The east has long been orientated towards Russia, both pre, during and post Soviet times;
  • The bulk of Ukrainian industry has been developed in the east, as a defensive measure against western aggression (a legacy of the Nazi offensive and fears of NATO offensives during the Cold War).

All of this however only lays the foundation for the current crisis, it provides the ground for fault-lines.

The true cause of this current crisis is due to the internal tensions within the Ukrainian oligarchy and external tensions of competing EU and Russian imperialism regionally, and US imperialism globally.  I’ll try and give a summary of these here.

The Ukrainian Oligarchy

As in most post-Soviet states a class of oligarchs emerged out of the ‘shock-therapy’ capitalist reforms that were imposed on the former Soviet Union by the West.

Essentially, huge swathes of industry and public services, all hitherto assets of the State, were rather dubiously ‘obtained’ by various private individuals who thus became the oligarchs, incredibly wealthy individuals who became the de facto power brokers, despite the emergence of superficially liberal democracies.

However, primary difference between Ukraine and other post-Soviet oligarchic states was that this new class was almost equally divided between those orientated (due to business interests, previous economic orientations from the Soviet system and before) towards Central and Western Europe and those orientated towards Russia.

In other post-Soviet states one orientation tended to dominate – in Russia itself, now ruled by its own oligarchic class, Russia was big enough to be the focus alone.  Only in Ukraine (I’m simplifying) was the oligarchy divided more or less equally.

Former Ukrainian President Kuchma.  Photo by Reuters.

Former Ukrainian President Kuchma. Photo by Reuters.

The office of the presidency, in this situation, served as the arbiter between these conflicting tensions.  Since Ukrainian independence the presidency has adopted (particularly under former president Kuchma) a balancing act strategy of ‘multi-vector policy’.

This ‘multi-vector policy’ was an attempt of Ukrainian active neutrality as regards the EU and Russia, and involved balancing concessions between both eastern and western oligarchic tensions.  While this policy frustrated both the EU and Russia, as well as both sides of the oligarchy, in practical terms it did the job at containing the tensions and maintaining a united Ukraine.

The Orange Revolution

This unity, the balancing act between eastern and western tensions, fell apart as a result of the 2004 Orange Revolution.

Technically, even before the Orange Revolution itself the equilibrium had been lost.  Of the candidates for the presidential election that year the proponents of continuing the multi-vector policy, were trailing behind the the candidates that represented the eastern oligarchs (Yanukovych) and the western oligarchs (Yushchenko).

And just as these two candidates represented different oligarchic interests, so were they backed by external forces – Russia backing the eastern candidate and the US/EU backing the western candidate.

Leaders of the ;Orange Revolution', Yushchenko & Tymonshenko.  Photo from AFP.

Leaders of the ;Orange Revolution’, Yushchenko & Tymonshenko. Photo from AFP.

The West, Russia and the respective oligarchies had grown weary of the active neutrality policy and set about resolving the issue of Ukraine, one way or another.

There is abundance of evidence that the campaign of Yushenko (the western candidate) was actively supported by the West, with Western officials visiting Ukraine to support him and his supporters receiving funding and training.  The campaign of Yanukovych was similarly supported by Russia.

In the subsequent Orange Revolution, the ‘revolutionaries’ were directly supported by the West, both in terms of external ‘solidarity’ and instruction, training and funding.  It’s not really open to dispute academically – the Orange Revolution was a textbook ‘velvet revolution’ with Western fingerprints all over it; regime change without invasion.

And so the equilibrium was broken and the W(w)estern (both external and internal) interests captured the State, albeit only narrowly.

A Rotten Orange?

Under the rule of the western backed oligarchies Ukraine did begin reforms that re-orientated Ukraine more and more towards the West and away from Russia – including beginning the path which led to the current issue, the EU Association Deal from late last year.  That deal was a direct result of initiatives launched under the Orange government.

However, the eastern interests didn’t exactly just roll-over.  They regrouped and formed a formidable opposition, and due to the very narrow victory of the western candidate (the result was 52% for Yushchenko and 44% for Yanukovych, although this was itself disputed) the new Government could not make as radical a departure from active neutrality as they liked.

As it turned out, the new Orange Government were also quite unstable and prone to corruption.  Fractures emerged within the new government, further inhibiting the westward reforms.

Less than a year after coming to power the Cabinet led by Yulia Tymoshenko was dismissed amidst corruption scandals, and it took a few tries before a new Cabinet led by Yuri Yekhanurov was established in its place.

There followed a series of political crises and snap elections in an attempt to break the crises (none of which succeeded), and key members of the Orange Revolution (particularly Yulia Tymoshenko) were found guilty of serious corruption.

Power to the East

In the midst of the mass disillusionment with the Orange Revolution government, the eastern oligarchs triumphed in the subsequent 2010 elections, elections that international observers agreed were free and fair.

And so Yanukovych assumed power as the democratically elected government.

Four key maps of Ukraine.  From the Washington Post.

Four key maps of Ukraine. From the Washington Post.

The balance between west and east was lost in 2004 and Ukrainian politics has become increasingly unstable as a result, with both Western and Russian interference in the internal politics using their respective oligarchs as proxies, while corruption has continued like a red thread through every government since the formation of independent Ukraine in 1991.

All through this tug-of-war and the resulting instability Ukraine has seen its economy decline, accelerating with the global economic crisis of 2008 – which at the same time has also deepened the interests of both the West and Russia in securing Ukraine to their respective spheres of influence.

With the historical board now roughly set out, I’ll seek to explore the exact catalyst for the current Ukrainian crisis…

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