Fanning flames

Unrest in Ukraine, which erupted in November, has assumed serious proportions. Over 70,000 people are estimated to have participated in demonstrations on Sunday calling for the resignation of president Viktor Yanukovich. It was over Yanukovich’s rejection of a trade deal with the European Union in favour of closer relations with Russia that protests first erupted last year.

 Initially the protests were peaceful. However, these turned violent on January 19 in response to the enactment of a tough anti-protest legislation by the government. Since then protestors have hurled petrol bombs and stones, and torched buses while riot police have resorted to firing and used tear gas and water cannons to disperse the demonstrators. Although the anti-protest legislation has been revoked, an amnesty law for detainees passed and a new prime minister and cabinet put in place, the opposition is not relenting. 

The unrest in Ukraine has been described as domestic strife. It is not. Increasingly, it is becoming evident that this is a conflict between Russia and the West over Ukraine’s future.  The president has been close to Russia, a relationship that was strengthened further in December when Moscow announced a deal under which it would purchase US$15 billion worth of Ukrainian government bonds and sell it Russian gas at a heavily subsidised rate. The protestors are pro-West. Most of them are from the Kiev area and western Ukraine, where support for integration with the EU is stronger. US Secretary of State John Kerry’s statement of support for “the democratic, European aspirations” has fanned the flames of the unrest.

President Yanukovich has solid backing in the eastern parts of the country. Thus, the calls for his removal in the ongoing demonstrations in Kiev and other cities cannot be interpreted as having country-wide support. The West’s stirring of unrest in Ukraine is thus mischievous and aimed at destabilising the country and ousting a pro-Russian leader. Several of the leaders of the ‘remove Yanukovich’ demonstrations are members of the far-right. Their xenophobic agendas could come back to haunt the West. Given the deep political polarisation in Ukraine, there is a danger too of the current unrest escalating into a civil war. Its negative impact will not remain confined to Ukraine’s borders. That should prompt the US and EU to rethink their decision to stir trouble in Ukraine.

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