Sunday, 17 November 2013
Epic Drama In Ukraine: Do Villains Turn Into Heroes?
KIEV, Ukraine -- Over the past months Ukraine has been popping up in the news more frequently than ever. The Eastern European country, torn for years between Russia and Europe, has finally come close to signing the EU Association Agreement — a trade and political cooperation treaty with the European Union. However, Ukraine’s struggle to meet the EU requirements and resist pressure from a Russia that wants to retain the country in its orbit, has turned into a Hollywood movie ripe with villains, heroes, conflict and desire. It’s an interesting saga, even to those bored by international politics. The signing of the historic pact is scheduled for November 28th during the Eastern Partnership Summit in Vilnius, Lithuania. The agreement represents the hard work of European and Ukrainian officials; and intrigue, false promises and Ukrainian political maneuvering have all played a part up to this point. It may all have been for nothing, as nobody can say with any certainty whether the parties involved will sign the dotted line when the moment of truth comes. But let’s start from the beginning. Events of the past few years have played out like a Hollywood screenplay penned in a furious collaboration between Tom Clancy and Aaron Sorkin. The set up: Ukraine, a post-Soviet country of 46 million, has always been a subject of interest for both Europe and Russia. It is fortunately positioned in Europe, has high economic potential, a well-educated population, rich agricultural lands and access to the Black Sea. The main character: the country’s reportedly corrupt and authoritative president, Victor Yanukovych (who, in his younger years served two sentences in prison for robbery and assault), is motivated by greed and power and the desire for more. Not once during his presidency has he demonstrated a ‘country-first’ attitude. Act I. Since becoming president in 2010, Yanukovych centralized power and money around his family and a few close allies, privatized a large federal mansion by the river outside of Ukraine’s capital Kiev, and grabbed a piece of a national park near the Black Sea to use as his summer residence. His son, a former dentist, is now head of an opaque corporation with a fortune that exceeds half billion dollars. Two years ago, a Ukrainian court, with the president’s blessing, imprisoned his main political opponent, ex-prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, the blond-braided heroine of the Orange Revolution in 2004. She is also, allegedly, corrupt and greedy, but quickly adopts democratic slogans when it suits her. Tymoshenko was accused of signing “bad” gas contracts with Russia. Her arrest drew outrage from the West, who perceived her imprisonment to be political persecution. Refocusing on the international stage, Yanukovych declares that Ukraine will move towards European Integration, and sign the EU Association Agreement, which makes Russian president Vladimir Putin furious. Putin had seen Ukraine as part of a Russia-led economic bloc with Belarus and Kazakhstan called the Customs Union. The European Union made it clear that Ukraine can’t join both teams, and Putin’s vision of creating a neo-Russian Empire started to falter. Act II. European politicians pressure Yanukovych to release Yulia Tymoshenko as a sign he’s ending political persecution in Ukraine and committing to democratic values. Yanukovych promises to handle the situation. Meanwhile, Russia begins a brief but aggressive economic war with Ukraine, attacking the smaller country’s businesses, saying that Ukraine’s economy would collapse without Russia’s trade support and that EU benefits wouldn’t be enough to stabilize the nation. Putin’s ambassadors bombard Ukraine with the suggestion that Ukraine is nothing without Russia. Nothing. What will Yanukovych do? Will he give in to Putin? Will he release Tymoshenko and continue toward the open arms of Europe? Now the story reaches perhaps its most important crossroad: one man has the chance to recast his legacy, to change from an unpopular, semi-criminal president to a savior that makes the historic decision to light the path to a long-term, positive future for his country. Can a villain become a hero? It happened in the Star Wars Saga. Act III. The deadline for Tymoshenko’s release, set by the EU, rapidly approaches. Yanukovych carefully calculates his strategy, maneuvering without setting Tymoshenko free. After all, he’s up for re-election in 2015, and Tymoshenko, once out of prison, might steal his job. Yanukovych may have his own plans and motifs (greed, power, reelection), but the majority of his “electorate” wants him to sign the treaty with the EU. According to a recent GFK poll, 45% of Ukrainians support the EU pact, while only 14% favor joining Putin’s CU. Ruining the relationship with Russia is not anyone’s goal, but people in Ukraine are craving life in a society that values human rights, democratic freedom and fair business opportunities. Russia can’t offer any of that. Europe has said there is no way the treaty could be signed without resolving “the Tymoshenko issue.” The imprisoned ex-prime minister has long been complaining of back problems and Germany offered her treatment in one of its clinics. European officials came to a possible solution that could solve the issue and avoid hurting Yanukovych’s pride — bring her to Germany to get her out of her Ukrainian cell. Tymoshenko – flailing in prison, disconnected from the outside world – is ready to agree to anything. But our main character – our potential hero – seems to be choosing the villain’s path. Tymoshenko’s treatment abroad is impossible without Yanukovych’s signature. And while Yanukovyh says that he intends to let her go, his parliament repeatedly fails to agree on the text of the bill, putting the EU deal in jeopardy. It’s understood that in today’s Ukraine the parliament doesn’t make truly independent decisions. Procrastination and quibbling over the bill smells like Yanukovych playing games. The most popular view, it seems, is that he’s been using the EU pact as leverage in his negotiations with Putin. On November 9th, Ukraine’s president met up with Vladimir Putin in Moscow. That scene is cut out of the movie and we don’t know what agreement they made. Is Russia giving Ukraine more loans? Is it forgiving Ukraine’s enormous debt? Is Putin promising to finance Yanukovych’s re-election campaign? All we know is the signing date with the EU is two weeks away and no one can tell the president’s intentions for sure. The final push and the climax will take place in Parliament next week. The EU extended the deadline for the final decision to November 19th, with the summit scheduled in Vilnius on November 28th – 29th. Taking into an account the events of the past months, and the lack of transparency in Yanukovych’s plan, the gathering in Vilnius may already be doomed. A scene that took place behind closed doors is where our main character made his decision and chose what’s best for himself, determining the geopolitical future of the region and the futures of those he is sworn to represent. Villains almost never turn into heroes in real life. After all, Ukraine’s president’s main goal is to get reelected in 2015, and he’ll do whatever it takes. But the movie is not over yet and an unexpected twist is still possible.