When a major crisis erupts in a country that does not interest us much, a quick visit through the annals of history becomes a must. Even if the country is far away, history may give a hint about the roots of the tensions, its complexity and the parties involved. The political sides involved in any crisis often reflect on the past when issuing their demands and formulating their positions.
This applies to Ukraine’s current crisis, which transformed from an internal political conflict into a situation threatening a major international crisis between the East and the West, bringing back the atmosphere of the Cold War. If a direct intervention by Ukraine’s neighbors does take place—especially by its largest neighbor, Russia, which has massive interests in the country—the crisis may take on additional dimensions.
Ukraine used to be an example of peaceful revolution and became known for its Orange Revolution of 2004 after a wave of months-long protests erupted in the country’s public squares against the rigging of that year’s presidential elections. Following the Ukrainian example, several protests and revolutions in different places were named after colors.
In the ten years since the Orange Revolution, which was a source of inspiration for similar political movements in other countries, the country has been beset by tensions and ups and downs. During these ten years, Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko—the icon of the revolution—went from power to jail, while economic woes continued and debts mounted. Most recently, the political tensions saw the removal of President Victor Yanukovych, who is currently in hiding. The recent political crisis also took on a bloody form, leading to over 100 deaths in Maidan Square, the locus of the protests. It became clear that the country has been divided into two main blocs: one looking forward to Europe, and the other linked to Russia in both culture and orientation.
The internal map of divisions between the East and the West can be explained by history, which is in turn governed by geography. This can be evidenced, for example, in some of Ukraine’s pro-Europe regions being adjacent to Poland, which was previously part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The pro-Russian regions are closer to Russia and, for the most part, are home to industrial centers, fertile lands. The most prominent example is Crimea, which was originally part of Russia and was annexed to Ukraine in 1954 by the Soviet Union. It is believed that the allegiances and dealings of Ukraine’s economic poles lie with Russia, even if some are setting their sights on Brussels in the long run.
Since history is shaped by geography, the state of dispersion and division has ruled over the country during the 10 years that followed the Orange Revolution. This is not to mention that social and economic transformation take time, as evidenced in all former Eastern European countries. Even within the EU there is a difference in terms of economy and development between the Eastern and Western European member states.
There is no question about the strong lure of the Eurozone, with its economic power and potential aid to foster development and improve living conditions for would-be member-states. However, these benefits do not come free. A certain price must be paid in the form of carrying out economic reforms that do not come to fruition overnight, but rather require sacrifices for generations.
Therefore, it is not strange that the Ukrainian president preferring a generous and easy aid package from Russia to an agreement with the EU was the spark that led to the eruption of the current crisis. In fact, Moscow was aiming to form, together with the former Soviet republics, a Eurasian economic union.
In the case of Ukraine, the tense state of polarization currently taking place is a recipe for destruction and fragmentation. Unless the events take on dramatic dimensions that help the country escape from its geographical reality, the future government must find the balance that suits Ukraine’s political map and internal makeup. The Ukrainian crisis has raised concerns within the international community, which has been calling for preserving the country’s unity and borders, out of fear that the regions with strong links to Russia, both culturally and linguistically, would secede if threatened.