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Ukraine Recap: Economic Upset or Cultural Powder Keg?

The crisis in the Ukraine has developed far beyond minor public protest. What at first seemed like the passing frustration of an economically depressed people, has ballooned into one of the largest episodes of civil unrest that the European continent has seen in over ten years. The media is bursting with images of Molotov cocktails and spaghetti colander helmets, and there are stories coming out of the Ukraine of police brutality and the questionable treatment of human rights.

The president’s decision to reject a key integration deal with the European Union, opting instead to strengthen ties with Russia, has spurred protests, riots, and a brand of political uncertainty that can only exist in a country on the verge of bankruptcy. However, it is important to note that the crisis in Ukraine is far from being one of purely economic origin. To fully understand the reasons for the European country’s current state, one must examine the region’s long and politically turbulent history.

Ukraine has two primary linguistic groups- the Ukrainians, who primarily live in the west where the country’s capital of Kiev is located, and the ethnic Russians which are concentrated in the country’s east, near the border with Russia. While the Ukrainian-speaking west is more European and shares both borders and cultural overlap with Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and Romania, the east is more culturally singular. In the west there is an undercurrent of bitterness towards Russia which can be traced all the way back to the days of Catherine the Great, but which finds its power in the region’s treatment by the former Soviet Union. This has placed Ukraine at ground zero of a tug of war between Europe and Russia since the collapse of the USSR.

The country’s president is from the country’s east, making it clearer why he would decide to accept Russia’s bailout over the seemingly more popular European integration deal. The largely Ukrainian does proextender work capital city of Kiev has seen this as a betrayal to the Ukranian identity, and has strongly resisted further ties to their eastern neighbours. Protesters are now calling for  the immediate removal of president Viktor Yanukovych and the formation of a new government, one which would presumably would be more open to the prospect of further integration with the EU.

Anti-demonstration laws which were forced through the Ukrainian legislature only proved to stoke the fire, deepening the country’s cultural division and adding more fuel to the argument for a more European friendly government. Comparisons between the Ukrainian President and the much-maligned Vladimir Putin are commonplace, and there are hysterics being expressed by both sides. Although the anti-demonstration laws have since been relaxed, the damage has already been done, and the intensity of the street manifestations in central Kiev increases daily.

The cultural and economic situation in Ukraine rests carefully on an unstable ethnic powder keg. Keeping the country unified will require careful diplomacy and almost certainly the formation of a new government. Yanukovych claims protesters are dangerous nationalists bent on dividing the nation, an attitude which makes the possibility of negotiations seem unlikely. He lost his presidency in 2004 due to the allegations and protests of the Orange Revolution, a factor which has no doubt influenced his uncompromising stance against demonstrators. Holding on to a political career marred by corruption, bribery and unpopular decisions, Viktor Yanukovych can only stand his ground against protesters who demand nothing less than his immediate resignation.

All signs point to escalation, and over the next few months we will likely see further turmoil coupled with sweeping changes to Ukraine’s political landscape. An issue so deeply engrained  in Ukraine’s curtural fabric will now take an immense amount of mending to restore any measure of peace to the polarized European country.

– David Hughes

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