A week ago Europe was furious, and Putin once again glorious, after Europe’s “bread basket”, the Ukraine, under president Yanukovich decided to terminate its pro-European stance, and instead in a very symbolic shift, chose Moscow as its future trading partner hub. “This is a disappointment not just for the EU but, we believe, for the people of Ukraine,” EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said in a statement. Yanukovich said he had declined to sign the EU pact as the cost of upgrading the economy to meet EU standards was too great and that economic dialogue with Russia, Ukraine’s former Soviet master, would be revived. Today, tensions in the Ukraine finally spilled over when following the break up of a pro-Europe protest by local police, the opposition announced it would call a countrywide general strike to force the resignation of president Viktor Yanukovich.
Helmeted police bearing white shields stormed an encampment of protesters in Kiev’s Independence Square as they sang songs and warmed themselves by campfires, the opposition said. Tension had been building since Friday, when Yanukovich declined to sign a landmark pact with European Union leaders at a summit in Lithuania, going back on a pledge to work toward integrating his ex-Soviet republic into the European mainstream.
Live bands had played earlier and the presence of mainly young people, some of whom were in their teens, had brought almost a party spirit to the demonstration when police moved in, first firing stun grenades and then wading in with batons. TV footage showed police beating one young woman on the legs and kicking young men on the ground. Several people were given emergency treatment on the spot for cuts to the head.
The Interior Ministry said the riot police moved in “after the protesters began to resist the (ordinary uniformed) police, throwing trash, glasses, bottles of water and flares at them”.
Opposition leaders, who late on Friday had urged protesters to continue campaigning for a European future for the ex-Soviet republic, condemned the police crackdown and said it would call a country-wide strike. “We have taken a common decision to form a headquarters of national resistance and we have begun preparations for an all-Ukraine national strike,” former economy minister Arseny Yatsenyuk, one of three opposition leaders, told journalists.
For jailed former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko this is just the political spark that might escalate and get her out of prison.
The protesters were mainly young supporters from the main three opposition parties – including that of jailed former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko – who are united in pressing for a westward shift in policy towards the European Union.
Tymoshenko, who the EU sees as a political detainee, issued a call for people “to rise up” against Yanukovich. “Millions of Ukrainians must rise up. The main thing is not to leave the squares until the authorities have been overthrown by peaceful means,” she said in a letter read to journalists by her daughter.
Police cleared away anti-Yanukovich posters and political graffiti and took down flags and banners, including the EU blue and gold standard, before sealing off the area.
Even the boxers (and potential future presidents)chimed in:
Heavyweight boxing champion turned opposition politician Vitaly Klitschko said: “After the savagery we have seen on Independence Square we must send Yanukovich packing…. They undermined the agreement (with the EU) so as to untie their hands for outrageous behavior which would be unthinkable by European standards,” said Klitschko, a likely contender for the presidency in 2015.
Things will likely get worse before they get better:
The events set the scene for possibly more confrontation on Sunday when a pro-Europe rally has been called. About 100,000 people turned out at a similar gathering last Sunday…. At least four people were beaten by police earlier on Friday, including a Reuters cameraman and a Reuters photographer, who was bloodied by blows to the head by police.
Of course, now that Putin has found his opening and the current Ukraine regime is instrumental in his plan of recreating the old USSR sphere of influence, this time with Gazpromia’s resource monopoly, so hated by Europe, the opposition’s work may be cut out for them.
For the clearest explanation of just why it will be next to impossible to shake the Kremlin off, watch the following silent Euronews clip showing Yanukovich’s body language explanation to Angela on just where his country’s relations with Russia currently stand.
Finally, for those confused what the Kremlin’s endgame here is, the NYT has some clues:
Today, a train car loaded with coal in Kazakhstan can rumble thousands of miles across the Eurasian steppes to a factory in Belarus, all without once clearing customs. Citizens of three former Soviet countries — Belarus, Russia and Kazakhstan — can work legally on the territory of one another’s countries.
And in a glass-and-steel skyscraper in Moscow, hundreds of officials at a new international organization have quietly taken over trade policy for these three governments.
After years of fits and starts, a Russian-backed idea to form a free-trade zone on the territory of much of the former Soviet Union is closer to fruition today than ever before.
Adding to the momentum was the decision last week by the Ukrainian government to hold talks on aligning with this group, called the Customs Union, rather than with the European Union. Two other former Soviet states, Kyrgyzstan and Armenia, have also committed to joining this group, a sort of Nafta of Eurasia.
“The main Russian point here is to formalize a zone in which Russia has preferential economic interests and privileges,” Alexander Kliment, a Russian analyst at Eurasia Group in Washington, explained in a telephone interview. “Russia has informally been trying to do that for the past 10 years. But the Kremlin wants a formal structure.”
Now, it has that structure. The decision by the Ukrainian president, Viktor F. Yanukovich, to halt talks with the European Union and turn to the Customs Union instead seems a pivotal moment. It also touched off protests in Kiev, illustrating how the choice was also about more than trade: The European Union deal was also supposed to help democratize former Soviet states and spread Western values.
So, first a customs union, then a monetary one? Happy ending, however, most definitely not assured – see Europe.