Following the Ukraine government’s sudden reversal of plans to pursue integration with the European Union, Kiev’s Independence Square now resembles Egypt’s Tahrir Square. There are calls for bringing down the government of Viktor Yanukovych and for “independence” from Russia’s influence. After months of negotiation with the EU that raised the hopes of Ukrainians for a better future, Mr Yanukovych is being blamed for having stolen a dream by veering towards Russia. For many Balkan nations, personal ambitions of political leaders continue to hold the future at stake as much as the great power rivalries that are yet to cease years after the formal end of the Cold War. Russia, unwilling to let Ukraine become a part of the EU, and thereby the West, has been pushing it towards a customs union with Belarus and Kazakhstan. Having used force in Georgia three years ago to prevent Western expansion into its territory, Russia has not shirked from forcing Ukraine to bend to its will. It has done this mostly through sanctions — that prevented even Ukraine-made chocolates from entering Russia — and the threat of cutting off the cheap gas supply that Ukraine enjoys thanks to Russia’s benevolence. In fact, it is the threat of a cold winter that is believed to have made Mr Yanukovych step back from the EU’s embrace. Integration with the EU would make Ukraine eligible for the full market price of gas, apart from the acceptance of the EU’s infamous austerity drive.
From the protests on the street it seems that the people were willing to pay the price so long it gives them the hope of a better livelihood through EU’s expansive markets and a better political culture. Mr Yanukovych’s unilateral action — which is suspected to have been caused by considerations of private business interests and the greed to retain his political leverage against rivals such as the jailed former prime minister, Yulia Tymoshenko — is being seen as a betrayal of these hopes. Once in Russia’s fold, a country that sets no great standards by way of political integrity and human rights, Mr Yanukovych would be able to suppress dissent and head steadily towards political victory in the 2015 elections. If that had been his calculations, he seems to have gone wrong. He will now have to seriously reconsider his options, but so would the people of Ukraine, whose eastern and western regions appear to have very different ideas about both Russia and the EU.