Most people have a basic understanding of the Arab Spring uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa, but the most recent uprising in Ukraine comes as a surprise to some.
As the situation continues to unfold, it’s important to keep in mind where it came from.
So why is an Eastern European country experiencing protests that resemble the beginning of the Arab Spring in Tunisia and Libya?
- Distrust of President Viktor Yanukovych
- Disagreement with Yanukovych’s rejection of a free trade deal with the European Union
- Disapproval of economic bailout deal struck with Russia
Out with the old, in with the older?
Elected to office in 2010, Yanukovych was no stranger to the presidential race. He was a candidate and in the controversial 2004 election. Ukraine requires the winner of a presidential election to win 50% of the vote. No candidate accomplished this, and therefore the two highest scoring candidates continued onto a second round of elections.
Yanukovych won the second round, but his opponent opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko disputed the conclusion, claiming Yanukovych supporters rigged the election. The result was a peaceful protest, the Orange Revolution, calling for a re-election.
The Ukraine Supreme Court agreed to this, and the final winner of the 2004 election was Viktor Yushchenko.
The former prime minster Yanukovych did not give up, however. In the 2010 election he beat out political rival Yulia Tymoshenko by 3%. Ukrainians claimed Yanukovych supporters used everything from voter intimidation to refusing absentee ballots to stop Tymoshenko supporters once again, but this time there was no re-election.
A failing economy led by an former communist and criminal is an easy target for any opposition. Many were uneasy with Yanukovych’s ties to Russia in the first place. That unease rose exponentially when he jailed his former opponent, Tymoshenko, for a clear case of political retribution.
Compounded with these previous offenses, Yanukovych’s backing out of a deal with the European Union catalyzed the protests raging in Independence Square.
Denial of the EU
In November 2013 Yanukovych walked away from the final stages of a free trade agreement with the EU.
A country split between two languages (Ukrainian and Russian), half the nation revolted. The Ukrainian speaking west had seen this deal as preliminary steps towards joining the European Union.
Yanukovych claimed the deal with the European Union would have destroyed the economy, triggered Russian trade restrictions, and exposed Ukraine to dangerous competition. He promised to pursue the European Union at a later date, which most people wrote off as a false statement to pacify the West.
Instead, he signed a deal with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Strengthening Ties To Russia
Yanukovych angered his people once again when he signed a $15 billion economic bailout deal with Russia. The deal also included a discount on natural gas, cutting the original price of $400 to $268.50 per cubic meter.
Ukraine and Russia share much more than a border. Ukraine’s ties to Russia date back to the 9th century, during the Russian Empire. The affiliation carried over into the Soviet Empire, and today the countries are bonded by energy. Ukrainian pipelines provide transit for Russian natural gas to the European Union.
Putin also claims to offer Ukraine a “Customs Union”, which he hopes will become the Eurasian Union by 2015. Currently made up of Russia, Kazakstan, and Belarus, it looks an awful lot like the Soviet Union.
Naturally, the United States opposes this political coalition and therefore has thrust its support behind the protesters in Independence Square.
No matter the outcome, Ukraine’s position in the international arena remains a pawn between the West and Russia.