In the past several months Ukraine has risen from quasi-obscurity to the front pages of newspapers worldwide. Ever since Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych’s surprise decision to pull out of signing a free-trade agreement with the European Union in Vilnius, Lithuania last month, massive street protests have rocked the country’s capital, Kiev. Several weeks after the demonstrations first began, protestors still occupy City Hall and the central Independence Square, or ‘Maidan’, demanding that the current government resign. Repeated efforts by the Ukrainian police to clear the square have been foiled by firm resistance from the well-organised protestors and largely decried internationally. The U.S. State Department has even raised the possibility of economic sanctions against Ukraine if the riot police continue to interfere in the protests.
The narrative that Western media outlets have unanimously chosen to weave around these events is clear and classic. The Ukrainian people were on the verge of signing a landmark agreement that would ensure their links with free and democratic Europe when their duplicitous leaders double-crossed the European Union, condemning them to infinite servitude at the hands of the despotic Russians. Luckily, the Ukrainian people rose up and refused to accept their leaders selling them to their former Soviet masters. The Ukrainian people are fighting for freedom in its purest, most justified form, and they need our help.
Such a narrative is tempting to accept at face value because of its flattery of the West. Like during the Arab Spring not so long ago, we in Western Europe and the United States enjoy feeling that our models of democracy and civil liberty represent the apex of civilization. It seems to be something we hear less and less since the end of the Cold War. Now, reports on the failings and atrocities of our own governments seem omnipresent. For those interested in a more objective, less sycophantic, version of the news, however, there are several ways in which Western media outlets are oversimplifying the current economic and political developments taking place in Ukraine. Here are just three things that the media’s not telling you:
1. Economically speaking, Ukraine made the right decision
One key fact that is often omitted in articles on Ukraine’s failure to sign the Association Agreement with the EU is that, if the deal had been signed, the Ukrainian economy would have collapsed. This is, to a certain extent, because of internal economic reasons. The country currently needs more than $17 billion just to make it through next year, has a projected growth rate of 0% and a default risk that is higher than any time in the last 4 years. On top of this, Ukraine faced harsh trade sanctions from Russia, which wanted the former country to join the Moscow-led ‘Eurasian Union’ instead of the moving closer to the EU.
Trade with Russia, which represents more than a quarter of Ukrainian exports, fell by 25% in the months preceding the Vilnius Summit and there is no reason to think that Russia would not allow trade to fall even further if the deal with the EU was signed. Moreover, Ukraine is entirely dependent on Russian gas, which has also been used by the Kremlin in the past to put political pressure on Russia’s smaller neighbouring countries. In 2009, Russia shut off all gas transfers to and through Ukraine over a price dispute, resulting in the latter paying 13.5% more than the European average.
Yanukovych consistently urged European leaders to engage in “tripartite negotiations” with Russia or promise financial aid that would shelter Ukraine from Putin’s wrath after the deal was signed. The EU refused both of these demands and Yanukovych promptly suspended negotiations. While one can freely speculate as to the government’s ulterior motives for refusing to sign the agreement, the statement of Ukrainian Prime Minister Mykola Azarov that the decision was “purely economic” holds water.
2. The protestors are not all tolerant democratic types
Moreover, while the protestors currently camping out in City Hall and on the Maidan are widely portrayed in the Western media as freedom fighters akin to Nelson Mandela, the reality is slightly more unsettling. Though the party with arguably the largest presence in the protests is the Fatherland Party of Yulia Tymoshenko, currently in prison after having been convicted of corruption charges, the party that has played the most instrumental role in energizing the demonstrations and holding off the police is the far-right Svoboda party.
Svoboda is an official partner of the British Nationalist Party, as this BNP press release confirms, and has regularly been cited for anti-Semitic sentiment. In April 2012, a large coalition of Ukrainian professors and journalists co-signed an op-ed in the Kyiv Post that denounced the nationalist movement, claiming that “[Svoboda] is a fundamentally anti-liberal party that has frequently, openly and explicitly rejected core political and economic freedoms. It was Svoboda that took responsibility for the most iconic moment in Ukraine’s protests so far, when a statue of Lenin in Independence Square was pulled to the ground and battered with sledgehammers.
3. Ukraine is far from unanimous on joining the EU
Finally, Kiev is not Ukraine just as many capital cities are not truly representative of the wider socio-demographic characteristics of a country’s population. If one judged the United States purely on what happens in New York, for example, one would think that all Americans were pro-abortion, anti-gun and pro-gay marriage. Take the country at large, and this is clearly not the case. Ukraine is in fact a deeply divided country, with a Ukrainian-speaking Western half of the country that feels extremely European and a Russian-speaking Eastern half that generally favours closer ties with Russia. This series of maps courtesy of the Washington Post goes a long way in explaining Ukraine’s divide.
The country is equally divided over whether or not to sign the free trade deal with the EU. According to a poll by GfK Ukraine, 45% of those polled were favourable to the EU deal while 14% wanted to join Russia’s Eurasian Union and 41% rejected both trading blocs.