Ukraine’s Orange Revolution, Part 2

Russia’s Vladimir Putin has obtained a Pyrrhic victory in forcing the Ukraine to reject a free-trade agreement with the European Union that would have eliminated 95 percent of custom duties on its exports to those 28 countries and, more importantly, institutionalized its ties to the Western world. The move has triggered protests that have grown in numbers and intensity ever since president Viktor Yanukovich unleashed brutal repression on the citizens who demanded his resignation in Kiev. The crisis has hardened the deep contempt in which the Ukraine’s western regions hold Russia’s autocrat and strengthened the resolve of other countries that are trying to resist Moscow’s pressure to reject further association with the EU—namely, Georgia, Moldova and Armenia.

What is at stake is simply this—Putin is trying to reestablish the Soviet empire by bringing six republics into a Eurasian Economic Union that would turn them into satellites. Two of them, Belarus and Kazakhstan, have already caved in by forming a customs union with Moscow that will automatically turn them into members of Putin’s system in 2015. The other four have been under major economic and political blackmail to do the same, including the imposition of high tariffs on their exports to Russia, drastic border controls, limited supplies of natural gas to those countries that depend on them and open interference with their domestic politics.

Of those four countries, the Ukraine is Putin’s most coveted prize. The Orange Revolution of 2004 was a big setback for Moscow’s despot, who supported a rigged election that favored the same man who currently holds the Ukraine’s presidency. Since then Putin has done almost everything in his power to bring that country to its knees. Given the split between the Ukraine’s western and eastern regions, he has counted on a significant chunk of that country’s establishment and public opinion to steer it back towards Russia. An electorate that became increasingly impatient with the leaders and heirs of the Orange Revolution (who seemed more interested in fighting among themselves than governing) brought Yanukovich back to power in 2010. He soon jailed many of the people who had played a key role in the revolution, including former Prime Minister Yulia Timoshenko, on trumped-up charges, and concentrated power in his own hands. Meanwhile, the economy tanked. The central bank´s reserves have dwindled.

For a while, Yanukovich played Brussels and Moscow against each other, sending contradictory signals about his intentions. He seemed interested in pursuing the EU’s Eastern Partnership, an initiative originally pushed by Poland, itself a former Soviet puppet, to bring some of Moscow’s former satellites into an association with Western liberal democracies. As time passed, it became increasingly obvious that he was only trying to extract more promises from Putin and to strengthen his position vis-à-vis his real objective—to be re-elected in 2015. He has now decided that those personal interests are better served by caving in to Russia.

Or so he thought until the masses took to the streets in Kiev in what is rightly being perceived as the second part of the unfinished Orange Revolution. Whether Yanukovich will be able to hold on to power through repression is an open question. But he has unleashed a force that will make it extremely difficult for him to win re-election in 2015 and is fueling Russophobic sentiment not just in the Ukraine but also in the other republics currently suffering the embrace of the Russian bear. His move may now even strengthen the EU´s hand in future negotiations with the countries that are still indicating they are interested in becoming associated with the European bloc.

Alvaro Vargas Llosa is a Senior Fellow at the Independent Institute. His Independent books include Global Crossings, Liberty for Latin America, and The Che Guevara Myth.
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