Wednesday, February 26, 2014

While we watched the Olympics . . . .

I have a confession to make: I watched the Olympic Games nearly every day for two weeks. I did not watch every sport, but I especially enjoyed watching the Canadian and Dutch athletes (I hold dual citizenship). I admit that I was unable to keep abreast of what was happening elsewhere in the world as much as I usually do, and thus there were many things that I missed, if not entirely, at least in detail. If you followed the Olympics closely, you may have had a similar experience.

The list of countries where a lot has happened during the Olympics is a long one: Syria, Turkey, Nigeria, and Central African Republic are only a few; the list could go on and on. In many countries these developments are the continuation of earlier ones, but in some cases matters came to a head during these two weeks, as it did in Ukraine (note absence of "the").

As the Olympics drew to a close, the crisis in Ukraine culminated with the departure and deposition of President Viktor Yanukovich. As I am writing this, his whereabouts are uncertain, as is the future of his country. The good news is that the slaughter, in which more than 100 protesters and police died, has ended, at least for a while. But the unrest continues with pleas from the protesters in Independence Square that the new government be instituted as soon as possible. Unfortunately, there have been numerous delays in naming the cabinet, which illustrates the divisions within the protest camp.

Ukraine, meaning "borderland," is where Russia started historically and spiritually. The baptism of Vladimir the Great in 988 marks the turn to Byzantine Christianity. Russia considers this event as both the beginning of Russia and of its association with Orthodoxy. The millennium of this event was celebrated in 1988.

This intimate connection with Ukraine is why Russia to this day refuses to concede that country to the West. Ukraine is still considered an integral part of a greater Russia. Russians have never accepted the dissolution of the Soviet Union entirely; they regard Ukraine and other former USSR states as the "near abroad." In other words, these states enjoy a special status in the Russian scheme of things.

The protests in Ukraine increased in scope and violence ever since Yanukovych, late last year, under great financial pressure from Russia, refused to sign a trade agreement with the European Union. Polls conducted then showed 43% of Ukrainians approved of closer links with the EU. His bowing to Russian pressure was seen as a betrayal by many Ukrainians. It provided further evidence that he favored the Kremlin over the western provinces of his own country. But the protests eventually went far beyond this issue. The men and women who gathered in Independence Square wanted the ouster of Yanukovich and his government.

At the risk of oversimplifying Ukraine's complex geographical and historical situation, the western part of the country is largely Ukrainian-speaking and has a pro-European stance, whereas the eastern and southern parts are Russian-speaking and are oriented to Moscow.

Some people surmise that Yanukovich has fled to the Autonomous Republic of Crimea, from where he might be able to stage a return to power or to promote secession and its reabsorption by Russia, from where it had come during Khrushchev's time (who was supposedly drunk at the time of the transfer). Yanukovich was reportedly seen in Crimea over the weekend. The Russian Black Sea fleet has for many years leased a base in Sevastopol in the Crimea. This is where the Ukrainian fleet is also based.

During the Olympics the government and the protesters continued fighting in Independence Square in Kyiv (this is the newer transliteration), which all sides recognize as the capital of Ukraine. This square, also known as Maidan, is very large, as I know when I visited it about twenty years ago. It became the main battle zone between protesters and the government, but has become quieter since the departure of Yanukovich.

I won't write much about these protests, since they were well covered even during the Olympics. After all, Ukraine is just down the coast of the Black Sea from Sochi. Yanukovich attended the Olympics, and Putin must have kept more than a single eye on developments in Ukraine. What Putin will do now is still uncertain.

Putin can cut the gas supplies to Ukraine, but that would hurt Russia economically, since two-thirds of its gas exports to Europe go through Ukraine. Military options are very limited. Sending Russian troops to Ukraine would be tantamount to war. But Russia is staging military exercises on the border with Ukraine.

Over the weekend, Ukraine’s parliament voted overwhelmingly to send Yanukovych and others before the International Criminal Court for “serious crimes.” MPs passed a resolution linking the ousted president to violence against protesters which caused the deaths of more than 100 people. The resolution said the former interior minister and prosecutor-general should also be sent to The Hague.

Ukraine's acting president, Oleksandr Turchynov, who is also a Baptist pastor, has warned of “dangerous signs of separatism” in parts of the country, amid anger at the removal of Yanukovych. His comments echo those of MPs who have voiced fears that Ukraine could split because of anger in the east and south at recent events in Kyiv. 

Putin cannot afford to lose Ukraine, however. If Yanukovich can be ousted, then Putin can too, is the logic that drives him. Yet Putin has to tread carefully, lest he upset Western countries. But Putin can count on the support of China, which is the largest foreign landowner in Ukraine and hardly in favor of people's power.

One action he might take is to give Russian passports to Russian speakers in Crimea, and then move into Crimea in order to protect them. There have already been marches in Sevastopol and elsewhere in Crimea where people chanted, "Russia, Russia."

This is what he did in Abkhazia in 2008. Such an action might provide a slight cover for Russia, but it would nevertheless be condemned by Western countries that have already called for sanctions against Russia as a warning to stay out of the Ukrainian crisis..

As for the eastern part of Ukraine, Putin's options are even more limited. Yet his own future is threatened by the developments in Ukraine. There have already been protests in Moscow. As the Pussy Riot protesters have demonstrated, it is easy to gain the attention of the world, whether in Moscow in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior or in Sochi at the Olympics.

The rest of the world will not sit idly by as the situation in Ukraine resolves itself. Putin should be warned that Ukrainians of every ethnicity must be allowed to choose their own future. There must not be any interference from Russia nor should there be any from the West.

As John Kerry, the US Secretary of State, correctly observed, "This is not a zero-sum game, it is not the West versus East. This is about the people of Ukraine making their choice about their own future."

Canada is sending Foreign Minister John Baird to Ukraine with a large delegations of MPs and Ukrainian-Canadians to meet with the new leaders there. There are many people of Ukrainian descent in Canada and a federal election is expected in Canada sometime in 2015.

On the one hand one must admire Canada standing with the Ukrainian people in this time of crisis, yet on the other hand there is more than a whiff of politics involved. Canada must be careful not to feed the suspicion of Russian-speaking Ukrainians that West is meddling in their affairs. And Putin can use Canada's action as an excuse for Russia to interfere in Ukraine. Interference must be avoided by all sides.

Yet Western countries must show their support for the fledgling democracy in Ukraine. Yanukovich is gone, but it is still far from clear who will form the new government. There are many factions in the country. The crisis cannot be reduced to a conflict between the western and eastern parts of the country or between the two main language groups. 

Therefore the world must wait and pray until great clarity is achieved. In the meantime, Putin especially must be warned to keep his hands off Ukraine while it is in crisis. The West, however, must also be careful as the situation unfolds not to aggravate it and precipitate the division of Ukraine or even war. At the same time, the West must stand up to the Russian bully.

The West too must carefully find a way to encourage those who risked their lives for months in Independence Square to regain freedom for their country. But Ukrainians alone can decide whether to align themselves with Europe or with Russia, or both, or neither. Everyone must demonstrate a lot of wisdom.

While we watched the Olympics much happened in the rest of the world. Ukraine is only one example; there are many more, as I will show in a future post.

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