By RACHEL HARRIS ‘14
In 1948, following World War II, the United States led the effort in the United Nations General Assembly to adopt the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The document declares “Everyone has the right to take part in the government of his country, directly or through freely chosen representatives … The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government.” This ideology is core to conservative values, and I believe that it is the duty of American citizens to protect and defend anyone who desires these individual liberties.
President Viktor Yanukovych of Ukraine doesn’t have a good track record in upholding that declaration. He has a history of criminal convictions including assault, battery, rape and falsification of official documents forgiving these charges. In 2004, his association with electoral fraud in the presidential election spurred a nationwide protest known as the Orange Revolution, which sought an end to the government’s competitive authoritarian regime. Ultimately, the Orange Revolution was considered successful. Democracy had been championed when a publicly-demanded runoff election yielded Yanukovych’s defeat to Western sympathizer Viktor Yushchenko. Nevertheless, Yanukovych managed to fairly assume the presidency in 2010, although one can argue that his victory was due in part to corruption of which he accused his opponent Yulia Tymoshenko while she served as prime minister.
But speaking of corruption, recent actions by Yanukovych have once again incited revolution in Ukraine. By deciding to maintain economic ties to Russian in lieu of signing an association and free trade agreement with the European Union, Yanukovych has ignited EuroMaidan, the ongoing protests in Ukraine. For three months now, Kiev has borne daily witness to hundreds of thousands of anti-government protesters calling for an end to widespread government corruption, abuse of power and violation of human rights. At least 100 people have been killed, including 13 police officers. During the past week, Yanukovych fled the capital for the eastern city of Kharkiv. Meanwhile, Ukraine’s parliament conducted a quorum in Kiev and passed laws to impeach the president, restore the 2004 constitution, remove police from the city and free political detainees. A new presidential election is scheduled for May 25.
Unlike the Orange Revolution, the recent turn of events with EuroMaidan cannot yet call a decisive democratic victory. The country continues to teeter on the edge of civil war between the pro-European Union West and Russian-sympathizing East. Furthermore, Yanukovych still refuses to recognize recent parliamentary action, asserting that he will not step down from power. But Yanukovych is not the real threat to Ukrainian liberty. He has merely acted as a political puppet, and Russian President Vladimir Putin has been pulling the strings in an attempt to maintain control of the neighboring country.
Yanukovych has always had close ties to Russia. He is a native Russian speaker from eastern Ukraine, the region that most closely favors economic and cultural ties to Russia. During Ukraine’s 2004 presidential elections, Putin came to campaign for Yanukovych twice and even congratulated him on three separate occasions for winning the election, despite his knowledge of electoral fraud. Putin is noted to have been especially wary of the Orange Revolution, and is even reported to have disagreed with Ukraine holding a runoff election. I can believe it; he seemed to punish Ukraine for being progressive by cutting off gas deliveries twice between 2006 and 2008.
Russia has already lost several former Soviet satellite states to the European Union, including Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland. To lose Ukraine, especially Kiev, would be to lose the crown jewel and cradle of the Russian Empire. For this reason, Putin has placed immense pressure on Ukraine in recent months. Not only has he bribed Yanukovych with $15 billion to oppose the E.U. partnership agreements, but he’s also threatened to impose trade sanctions and gas price hikes, which would cripple Ukraine’s already delicate economy. In a phone conversation with president Barack Obama on Friday, Feb. 21, Putin was adamantly against the constitutional reform and early elections recently passed by the Verkhovna Rada, Ukraine’s parliament. That shouldn’t be surprising. If Putin loses Ukraine to the European Union, he not only reduces his sphere of influence but loses his connection to the west.
Though Putin agrees with Obama that steps must be taken to restore stability in Kiev, he is also reported to have emphasized that the United States and European Union “must give up [their] accusatory attitude towards Ukraine’s incumbent leadership” and “condemn the opposition forces liable for organizing unlawful extremist and terrorist activities.”
I do not believe that the United States should ever condone violence, but I do believe that we should always impart our longstanding support unto people who desire a free and democratic society. What that support may entail cannot and should not be decided upon at this moment, though I am curious as to what Obama means when he tells the government of Ukraine that “there will be consequences” for denying the right of peaceful protest. The citizens of Ukraine have already succeeded in taking the future of their country into their own hands, and it is their right to appropriate a new government according to their collective will. For now we must encourage the citizens of Ukraine to pursue their right to self-determination.
Though both Obama and Putin have expressed that they do not want to see the state of Ukraine break up, a split may be inevitable given the deep east-west political divide. But the potential for this schism in and of itself creates complications. Eastern Ukraine is grossly dependent upon Kiev for economic assistance; losing the capital’s monetary support would almost certainly result in its downfall. This is a perfect opportunity for Putin to revive his undying imperialist dreams. I suspect he would have no problem annexing the region. However, his absorption of former the satellite territory may trigger some neo-Cold War anxiety from the West.
At this point, there’s no need to start practicing your “duck and cover” technique, but I urge you to pay attention to Ukraine. The next few months have the potential to become a flashpoint. If you think EuroMaidan doesn’t affect you now, you may want to reconsider.