Ukraine has trod a precarious political tightrope since it emerged as an independent country from the rubble of the collapsed USSR in 1991. Balancing between Western Europe and Russia, successive Ukrainian presidents have conducted their high-wire act with varying degrees of political acumen and cynicism, playing off the European Union's desire for a closer relationship against Moscow's efforts to bind the country into some form of Russian-led bloc. Current Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych's performance has been increasingly wobbly since his election in 2010, and this year could well see the acrobatics end with a painful plunge. But the West cannot look on with passive bemusement. Ukraine, which boasts a population of 47 million, is Europe's largest country by territory, and its eventual choice will determine Europe's geopolitical complexion for decades hence. (The image above shows a man clad in a Yanukovych mask protesting the customs union.)
It's getting harder for Kyiv to play the old game. Last month Russia slapped a $7 billion penalty gas bill on Ukraine, continuing its recent tradition of using crippling gas prices to push the Ukrainians into entering a Kremlin-led Customs Union of Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan. At the same time, the clock is ticking on the completion of a historic association agreement with Brussels called "a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement." The agreement is actually more far-reaching than its title suggests: Aside from stipulations on trade, it also entails a commitment to extensive reforms to harmonize Ukraine's economy with the European Union's as well as to establish democratic standards in the spheres of politics, human rights, and the rule of law. Passing those tests would represent Ukraine's most significant step towards eventual E.U. membership. (Needless to say, membership in the Customs Union -- which consists entirely of authoritarian states -- entails rather different preconditions, making it well-nigh impossible for Ukraine to choose both options at once.)
Many experts originally predicted that an array of internal and external pressures would stifle the young nation almost at birth. Internally there are significant linguistic, religious, cultural, and ethnic differences between the central and western parts of Ukraine and its eastern and southern portions. Western (not under Russian or Soviet rule until World War Two) and central Ukraine are home to most Ukrainian-speakers (as well as to Ukrainian Catholics and the adherents of an independent Ukrainian Orthodox Church), while the eastern and southern areas contain a majority of Russian-speakers and followers of an effusively pro-Moscow brand of the Orthodox Church. Although Russian-speaking does not equate to pro-Russian, most of Ukraine's estimated 17 percent ethnic Russian population, which naturally leans towards Moscow, is concentrated in the east and south, giving it a disproportionate share of political leverage in those regions.
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Kyiv has also had to deal with the destabilizing role played by Moscow, which has never reconciled to the notion of an independent Ukraine. The Kremlin has exploited Ukraine's complex composition to sow division. Moscow's policies towards Kyiv are crafted to elicit obedience and control rather than neighborly cooperation.
Despite all this, however, Ukrainian statehood has proven remarkably resilient. Ukraine's first president, Leonid Kravchuk, was the former Soviet republic's chief communist ideologue -- and yet ended up being the man who presided over Ukraine's embrace of sovereignty. During his 1991 election, he garnered the support of pro-democracy and independence groups as well as a floundering Communist Party desperately searching for a way to survive. Kravchuk's rival for the presidency in 1994, Leonid Kuchma, exploited the regional differences to win the presidential election twice -- the first time relying on support from the communist nostalgists and Russian-speakers of eastern Ukraine, and five years later scaring the pro-democracy and pro-western Ukrainian nationalist minded electorate of central and western Ukraine to vote for him to ensure that his communist chief rival did not win. Kuchma made it a routine election-year practice to stir up ethnic, religious, and linguistic issues.
As Kuchma's tenure was ending in 2004, he chose a political strongman, Viktor Yanukovych, as his successor. Yanukovych hailed from Donetsk, eastern Ukraine's most important industrial center. Kuchma's rule was characterized by rampant corruption, and he needed a successor that would not attempt to prosecute him or go after the billions of dollars worth of formerly state-owned assets acquired by the president and his associates. In Yanukovych, who twice served jail sentences for street robberies, he identified a person who could look after his interests.
Yanukovych was the chief representative of the Donetsk clan, an alliance of local bigwigs in the coal-rich Donetsk region, or Donbas, that is home to Ukraine's most lucrative industries. (It is Donbas that produces most of Ukraine's steel, the country's biggest export.) The Donetsk clan rose to ascendance after a series of bloody gang-wars involving dozens of murders of criminals, businessmen and politicians during the 1990s. Rinat Akhmetov, now Ukraine's (and perhaps Europe's) richest oligarch, emerged from the turmoil as the Donbas's most powerful business and political force. Despite considerable efforts to clean up his image, he continues to be dogged by his past acquaintance with criminals, some of whom met with spectacular and violent ends.