In its strategic position between Europe and Asia with a population of about 45 million people, Ukraine is a very important country to both the European Union and Russia. This importance is at the forefront of all of the bloodshed in Ukraine. Primarily, both trade regions would benefit from Ukraine economically, but Russia also stands to gain some power and influence with ties to Ukraine. In order to understand the escalating situation in Ukraine and Russia’s influence, it is essential to take a look at Ukraine’s political system and its modern ties with Russia (post-independence from the USSR in 1991).
Parliament, Prime Ministers and Presidents
The President of Ukraine is elected by the population for a 5-year term, but they are also eligible for a second term. Prime ministers are appointed by the president with approval from Parliament. The Parliament must have constitutional majority. Parliament in Ukraine is called the Verkhovna Rada or just Rada. It’s meaning can be said to be “Supreme Council”. Parliament meets in the Verkhovna Rada building in Ukraine’s capital Kiev and has a unicameral (one-chamber) parliament of 450 deputies. The Parliament determines domestic and foreign policy, approves budgets, designates elections for the President, impeaches the president, appoints the Prime Minister, appoints parts of the Constitutional Court of Ukraine and declares wars and peace.
Background on Ukraine: How They Broke Free from Russia
During the 18th century, most of Ukrainian’s territory was absorbed by the Russian Empire. Following the collapse of Russia in 1917, Ukraine had a brief period of independence from 1917-1920. However, they were forced back into Russian rule which also engineered two famines in the area from 1921-22 and 1932-1933 where over 8 million people died. Final independence was achieved in 1991 when the USSR dissolved.
How Viktor Yanukovych rose to power:
There was a mass protest, albeit peaceful, called the “Orange Revolution” in November 2004 where authorities overturned a rigged presidential election. Official count said that Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych won the poll, but many believed it was rigged. Viktor Yushchenko, opposition candidate, (Note: This is a different Viktor Y than the Prime Minister) challenged the results and led to the streets in mass protest. The Supreme Court annuls the result of the poll. In December 2004 there is a new poll and Victor Yushchenko wins. Viktor Yanukovych challenged the results while resigning as Prime Minister. The Supreme Court rejects the challenge and Viktor Yuschenko is sworn in January 2005. The president nominates Yulia Tymoshenko as Prime Minister and the Parliament approves. In September, Yulia Tymoshenko is ousted and Yuri Yekhanurov is her successor.
In January 2006, Russia briefly cuts Ukraine’s supply of gas. In March 2006, Viktor Yanukovych’s party tops polls in Parliamentary elections with Yulia Tymoshenko taking second and incumbent Viktor Yuschenko taking third. Viktor Yanukovych allies his party, Party of Regions, with the Socialist party rather than the Socialist Party team up with the Orange Revolution supporters (Yuschenko and Tymoshenko ), who are in the the Our Ukraine party. This helps to empower Yanukovych. President Yuschenko accepts Viktor Yanukovych’s nomination for Prime Minister rather than have Parliament call for new elections in August 2006. In December 2007, Yulia Tymoshenko is appointed prime minister, again.
In March 2008, Russia’s state-owned natural gas company, Gazprom, agrees to supply Ukraine’s industrial consumers directly. In January 2009, Russia stops all gas supplies to Ukraine after unpaid bills due to the financial crisis. In December, Ukraine and Russia sign a deal on oil transit for 2010.
In February 2010, Viktor Yanukovych is declared winner of the presidential election (5 years after Yuschenko served his full term). His main rival in the elections, Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, claims the election is rigged. She steps down from Prime Minister as many of her Parliament supporters switched sides and gave her a no-confidence vote. President Yanukovych appoints Mykola Azarov to succeed her. In December 2010, former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko is charged with abuse of state funds. She denies the charge and says it is due to political motivations. The Supreme Court jails her after saying she abused power in a gas deal with Russia in 2009.
Why Ukraine is important to Russia & Russia important to Ukraine:
It has very fertile black soil and generates substantial amounts of meat, milk, grain and vegetables. It also has a heavy industry which provides machinery to Russia for mining and drilling. However, Ukraine depends on Russia for energy supplies. To be clear, 75% of its oil and natural gas comes from imports. Ukraine agreed to a 10-year gas supply and transit contracts with Russia in January 2009, but due to strict terms of the contract Ukraine’s state led gas company was not able to develop.
The Weak Economy in Ukraine Leads to a Need for Aid
Steel prices dropped during the financial crisis and exposure to financial borrowing lowered growth in 2008. In November that year, Ukraine made a deal with the IMF for $16.4 billion dollars. However, the Ukrainian government stalled and did not implement reforms. As a result of the lost deal, Ukraine’s economy contracted 15% in 2009. A new agreement with the IMF was reached in 2010 and Ukraine negotiated a gas discount with Russia to continue to allow them to use a naval base in Crimea. The IMF agreement was stalled again in 2011 due to the governments lack of implementation of gas tariff increases. This was a result of opposition activists protesting in the street against tax reform on businesses. 2012 ended in a recession.
The Trade Deal the EU Proposed and Russia’s Push Back
The European Union wanted an Association Agreement with Ukraine in early 2013 which contained a free trade component with the EU as well as allowing for the existing free trade agreement between Ukraine and Russia to continue. A country may have more than one free trade agreement, but Russia does not want to work with Ukraine if Ukraine works with the European Union. The EU trade agreement would lead to lower customs, non-tariff barrifs, higher export quotas and EU standards on products. In an effort to encourage Ukraine not to work with the EU, Russia blocked all imports to Ukraine in August 2013. Import flows resumed a week later, but Russia also sent another signal to Ukarine by making Ukrainian exports to Russia go through a longer check process. This was not a blockade or embargo, but rather what Sergei Glaziev, an advisor to President Putin, said is:
The tough application of customs procedures was a pilot test for future customs practices, should Ukraine decide to make the ‘suicidal step’ of signing the Association Agreement with the EU.
Russia’s fear with an EU and Ukraine trade agreement is that Ukrainian goods will face increased competition from EU goods and cannot compete with the standards of goods of those exported to the EU. As a consequence, they will be ‘dumped’ on the Russian market, which will undercut producers. “Dumping” in trade terminology is when a country or business prices their goods lower than the price abroad in order to sell them quickly and hurt foreign producers by driving them out of business. Further, President Putin fears that EU goods would be re-branded as Ukrainian goods and then shipped to Russia. Ukraine stands a lot to lose if Russia cuts free trade ties, specifically because they import a large portion of natural gas from Russia.
Why People Revolted in Ukraine
Russia badly hurt Ukraine by stopping natural gas supplies in 2006 and in 2009 and the people of Ukraine did not forget this or their long history with Soviet rule. As President Yanukovych continued to work with President Putin of Russia, Ukrainians felt that continuing ties with Russia distanced them from the economically strong European Union. In November 2013, President Yanukovych favored strong ties with Russia in rejection of the European Union trade agreements. Remembering the success of protests during the “Orange Revolution” which helped force a revote for President, Ukrainians took to the streets in Maidan Square in Kiev.
How It Got Bloody & Where it Stands Right Now
With Russian support, President Yanukovych called for police attacks on protestors, enacted severe anti-protests laws and supposedly abducted opposition activists. This intensified demonstrations against the government. Russia and the European Union have made statements calling for negotiations between protestors and the government. However, Russia has also made strong statements saying that President Yanukovych was elected fairly and should remain in office. After massive gunfire from February 17-21, where about 100 protestors were killed, a cease fire was enacted. This came after support from European, Russian, and Polish leaders. The deal was accepted and the Parliament called for new elections.
However, protestors did not believe that the government was done turning their weapons on its own citizens. Confrontations continued until February 22 where the heavily armed guard in Kiev around the president was weakening. The President fled to southeast Ukraine and gave a TV interview saying he was still in power. February 22, Parliament voted to impeach the president. Opposition leader, Yulia Tymoshenko is released from prison.
Where does Ukraine go From Here?
Political turmoil is not over, but hopefully the violence is. New elections should be pursued earlier than 2015 by Parliament and perhaps a deal with the European Union will reemerge. The problem is although a majority of the population does want a closer relationship with Europe, the south and east of Ukraine still want a close relationship with Russia. However, Russian does not want to cede power to anyone and does not want a Ukraine-European Union deal to occur. One thing is clear–President Putin likes to push western democracy to a breaking point by encouraging Ukraine’s former government to push back against its “unruly” people. The problem is Ukraine is the ultimate loser in this bloodshed as it will take time and trust to rebuild its government and economy. However, the European Union and the United States also look weak for allowing conflict to persist so long, while Russian President Putin may be grinning for not only winning the most gold medals in the Winter Olympics in Sochi but also because he still has power of influence, even if it is by controlling badly needed natural gas to Ukraine.
Like Ukraine’s national anthem says, ““Shche ne vmeria Ukraina”. Ukraine has not yet perished.
Below is a timeline of events in 2013 that includes the start of the protests, deaths of civilians and police and an impeached president.
November 2013-Current: Timeline of Events
On November 21, Viktor Yanukovych announced that Ukraine would seek a trade economic agreement with Russia rather than the European Union.
This event started the protests, yet the Ukrainian people were already upset with the government due to slow economic growth during and after the financial crisis as well as corrupt politics.
December 17, Russia already starts to take care of the Ukrainian gov’t by cutting the price of Russian natural gas to Ukrainians and buying $15 billion worth of the troubled Ukrainian bonds.
January 22, the first tragic incidents between protestors and the police occurs. Two die by ammunition. Anti-protest laws are put into place.
January 28, the prime minister resigns and parliament repeals the anti-protest laws that sparked violence in the first place.
February 16, protestors end their occupation of Kiev City Hall after 234 jailed protestors are released.
February 18, 26 people are dead, including 10 police officers after protestors attacked police lines and set fires outside of parliament. This is in response to parliaments hesitation on constintutional reform to limit presidential powers.
February 22, Parliament impeaches President Yanukovych. He takes flight to Crimea, an island in Ukraine, with heavy Russian influence. Acting Interior Minister, third in command after the President and Prime Minister, have an arrest warrant out for the former President for “mass killings of civilians”.