Originally Published 2014-01-30 06:31:09 Published on Jan 30, 2014
There have been fears expressed that if the situation in Ukraine worsens, it could spread across the border to Russia. While that appears highly unlikely at present, an escalation of the confrontation raises the spectre of a civil war in Ukraine.
Ukraine: Heading towards civil war?
"The situation in Ukraine has deteriorated sharply with violence marring the anti-government protests. Opposition activists claimed that five people were killed in clashes, while government has acknowledged the death of two and a police officer.

The sudden deterioration has led to Leonid Kravchuk, Ukraine's first president after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, to warn that the country was on the "brink of civil war" while asking the parliament (Verkhovna Rada)to "act with great responsibility". Political forces in Ukraine are engaged in talks aimed at diffusing the situation. As part of the compromise measures outlined by President Viktor Yanukovych, the Parliament (Rada) is debating an amnesty for protestors arrested during the agitation.

In the last week, 10 of the 27 regional governments have been overturned and government buildings taken over by the protesters in a direct challenge to the President's authority. President Yanukovych's supporters have termed these as violations of law and claim external support is being provided to the protesters.

The sticking points for a final compromise are, however, Yanukovych's insistence that the protestors immediately leave their current camps in Kiev and elsewhere, while the opposition maintains that the barricades will be pulled down only when the President steps down, announcing early parliamentary and presidential elections.

These waves of demonstrations started in November last year after Yanukovych decided not to sign the association agreement with European Union. This, followed by acceptance of the Russian $15 billion economic bailout package coupled with lowering of prices for natural gas supplies, created the public perception that Ukraine was moving away from the EU towards the Moscow-promoted Eurasian Union.

The Ukrainian government justified the decision on economic grounds, arguing that the Russian offer was more beneficial to Ukraine than whatever the EU had offered, because the Russians did not impose any conditions similar to the IMF conditions embedded in the EU financial offer. Additionally, there were fears that the EU insistence on elimination of tariffs and monopolies would lead to the decimation of Ukrainian manufacturing, which would buckle in the competition with more efficient European producers.

Ukraine has a population of around 45 million and current GDP of 176 billion US$. In 2012, 26 per cent (about $17.6 billion) of its exports went to Russia and 25 per cent to EU. Ukraine is also a key transit route for Russian energy supplies to Europe.

Ukraine, juxtaposed between the East and the West, has been trying to work out its internal cleavages. The 2004 "Orange revolution" in protest against a rigged presidential election is a reminder of the political divisions present in Ukraine. The Western part tilts towards Europe and the Southern and Eastern parts historically feel much closer to Russia.

There have been fears expressed that if the situation in Ukraine worsens, it could spread across the border to Russia. While that appears highly unlikely at present, an escalation of the confrontation raises the spectre of a civil war in Ukraine. Even if the political elites are able to arrive at a compromise, the government will still be faced with choices - EU or Russia - that could lead to the division of the country.

It was not surprising, therefore, that Ukraine was at the centre of the recent EU-Russia summit in Brussels. If Ukraine is to avoid a division, it is important that Russia and EU agree on reconciling their differing perceptions about Ukraine's future. Russia has declared that it is going to maintain a $15 billion loan to Ukraine even if the opposition came to power, but it is going to wait for the new government before releasing more aid.

Whichever government emerges in Ukraine, it would have to first deal with the economic crisis afflicting the country. Ukraine is Europe's second poorest country with a state debt of about $73 billion, of which about $37 billion is foreign debt.

Considering that both Russia and EU are competing within the Ukraine space, the best way forward for Ukraine would be to strike out a deal with both the East and the West. It cannot afford to accept one-sided deals that provide only partial economic improvement while being a pawn in the geo-strategic designs of major powers as this in the long run will lead to splintering of the country.

(The writer is an Associate Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Delhi)

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