Friday, December 20, 2013

Putin's "Prize"

EuroMaidan protestors in Kiev
Nessa Gnatoush
On November 21, roughly 2,000 protesters convened in Kiev's Maidan Nexalezhnosti (Independence Square) to agitate for closer integration with the European Union after the Ukrainian government decided not to sign the Association Agreement with the European Union. A few days ago, Ukrainian President Victor Yanukovych accepted a financial deal from Russia which includes $15 billion dollars worth of Ukrainian bonds purchased and an agreement to sell natural gas to Ukraine at below market prices. While this may at first glance appear a political coup for Vladimir Putin, Russia has in fact only saddled itself with supporting a state even more dysfunctional than itself.
Putin in Moscow on Thursday
Getty Images

The modern Ukrainian state is saddled with corruption, aging infrastructure, and tumultuous domestic politics - EuroMaidan is the second large scale popular protest in the last decade, and the first (the Orange Revolution) led to the resignation of once again President Yanukovych. While the second largest country (by landmass) in Europe is certainly geopolitically desirable, it is hardly a top prize in its current state. The International Monetary Fund has refused to extend Ukraine further financial assistance without significant governmental reforms. While a large portion of the public seems willing to swallow the bitter pill of austerity (at least in the short term), the Ukrainian government does not.

Chemical factory in Armiansk, Ukraine
The EuroMaidan has not only thrown into stark relief the political divide within Ukraine, but casts serious doubt on Russia's grand ambitions for its Customs Union. Not only was it unable to force Ukraine to sign on to the Union (at least at this time), but the rest of the roster is less than inspiring. Neither Belarus nor Kazakhstan are exactly economic giants, and the list of prospective post-Soviet states is a parade of dysfunctional economies, endemic corruption, and various levels of political repression. The appeal of EU membership is in no small part aspirational - despite their many problems, the perception of EU member states as places where the rule of law prevails and the playing field is comparatively level is enticing to many, in Ukraine and elsewhere.

While Putin may be able to strong arm and bribe others into joining with Russia, its renewed position as a power player on the world stage rests on a precarious foundation of high energy prices. Unless Russia and its client states undertake serious economic and political reforms, the importance of their Union will be fleeting. The EuroMaidan may yet fail - but, be it in a year or a decade, the people of Ukraine and other kleptocracies will not be denied the dream of liberty.

Destruction of statue of Lenin in Kiev

No comments: