Monday, March 10, 2014

Crisis in Ukraine and the Rise of the Eurasian Union

Funeral procession for Mikhail Zhiznevsky, 25, a protester killed in Kiev in protests against pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych (January 2014) (Photo courtesy of Mikola Vacilechko--Creative Commons)
Scenes of chaos in Kiev and across Ukraine dominated world news in January and February. Ukraine's president, Viktor Yanukovych, who had passed decrees last fall extinguishing freedom of speech and assembly in an attempt to consolidate his pro-Russian dictatorship, was forced to flee the country after failing to sign a trade pact with the European Union. This action was seen by many in Kiev as the last straw. The ensuing crisis has led to a consideration of where the future of Ukraine lies--as a part of Europe or as part of the Russian sphere of influence.

Timothy Snyder, professor of history at Yale University, wrote in a piece in The New York Review of Books that the future of the nation hinges on two possible paths Ukrainians may decide to follow if they are provided the freedom of choice. In Snyder's view, each path represents a legacy of the twentieth century that makes each path possible, with one potentially spelling trouble for Ukraine.

The first path leads toward Europe and the European Union. In the eyes of many, this means, more or less, the following: "...something like the rule of law, the absence of fear, the end of corruption, the social welfare state, and free markets without intimidation from syndicates controlled by the president" (Timothy Snyder, "Fascism, Russia, and Ukraine" in The New York Review of Books). Certainly, this potential path is not without its perils. The EU economies have struggled (with few exceptions) for the past five years to register even modest growth, and it is unlikely that European taxpayers will jump at the chance to bail out the Ukrainian economy after watching EU countries like Greece and Spain lurch toward some sort of permanent stagnation. However, Ukrainian entry into the EU, if it ever were to happen, wouldn't be the worst fate.

The real danger for Ukraine lies at the end of the second path, where Russia lies. Like the EU option, this path is also pockmarked with dangers that will take years to play themselves out. Russian president Vladimir Putin has been hard at work developing what Snyder calls a "rival project, based in Moscow, called the Eurasian Union." The ramifications of such a "union" on Ukraine would be immense. Whereas the EU does purport to stand for the rule of law (and its member nations largely do), the Eurasian Union " a hierarchical organization, which by its nature seems unlikely to admit any members that are democracies with the rule of law and human rights. Any democracy within the Eurasian Union would pose a threat to Putin's rule in Russia. Putin wants the Ukraine in his Eurasian Union, which means that Ukraine must be authoritarian..." (Timothy Snyder, "Fascism, Russia, and Ukraine" in The New York Review of Books).  In short, any movement toward a true democratic order in Kiev must be destroyed as part of Ukraine's integration into this new commercial and political union.

Putin's recent decision to occupy Crimea is a clear attempt to disorient the new government in Kiev and to prevent the consolidation of a democratic order in Ukraine. In a recent radio interview with the BBC, Snyder insisted that the divisions within the country between those who favor closer ties with Russia and those who seek entry into the EU can be dealt with through the democratic process and that the idea of an independent Ukraine remains strong on both sides. The question now is whether Putin has the wherewithal to force the nation toward Russia, the Eurasian Union and authoritarianism.

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