Q: In late January Ukranian President Viktor F. Yanukovych—in an attempt to quiet protests—offered top positions to opposition leaders in a (proposed) newly configured national government. The opposition declined, forcing a stand-off. Now the insurrection is heightening. Ukraine is the second-largest country in Europe: how does instability there affect the region?
A: The Ukrainian opposition leaders had solid reasons to reject this offer: they were promised fairly minor positions which carried with them little decision-making power but would have co-opted them into a government enjoying extremely low approval ratings due to the widespread perception of corruption, non-transparency, and a lack of checks and balances, not to mention the recent penchant for violence. One other important aspect of the current protests is that the opposition leaders have not been firmly in control of them: the protesters are a loose coalition of very diverse groups with different outlooks. The protests began when the government made an about-face, rejecting an association agreement with the European Union. For all of the EU’s problems, the course towards further integration with the EU was seen by the Ukrainians as a promise of a better future, of a life where personal dignity is respected and the legal system is transparent and not corrupt. The government’s violent, heavy-handed crackdown transformed the protests into a last-stand affirmation of human dignity and of the frustration with the current powers-that-be and with the ruthless crony capitalism system squeezing the nation’s economy dry.
The consequences of increasing instability in Ukraine could be manifold. Politically, it could lead to a massive refugee crisis on a scale the international institutions are likely not prepared to handle. Economically, it could seriously disrupt the global markets in many important commodities, including fossil fuels and other minerals, grain and other agricultural produce, steel, and numerous others. Symbolically, it would let other violent and corrupt regimes around the world feel that they have a free hand to brutalize their citizens. It could thus torpedo the image of the EU and the West at large as a beacon of democracy and respect for human rights and an effective mediator in global crises, creating a stain on the world’s conscience that would be hard to remedy. It is not an exaggeration to say that the future of Europe as an idea is now being decided in Ukraine.
—Vitaly Chernetsky, an associate professor at The University of Kansas, is the author of Mapping Postcommunist Cultures: Russia and Ukraine in the Context of Globalization, co-winner of the Prize for Best Book given by the American Association for Ukranian Studies. He holds a PhD in Comparative Literature from the University of Pennsylvania.