Roiled by Protests, Divided Ukraine Weighs Future Trade Relations with EU and Russia

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Posted Dec. 18, 2013

Interview with Stephen F. Cohen, author and professor emeritus in Russian Studies and Politics at New York University, conducted by Scott Harris


For weeks, tens of thousands of demonstrators have gathered in Kiev’s Independence Square to protest Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich’s recent decision to delay or drop plans to sign an association trade agreement with the European Union. The protests calling for the dismissal of Ukraine’s government and new elections are the largest since the 2004 Orange Revolution. U.S. Sen. John McCain, the GOP’s 2008 presidential candidate, traveled to Kiev on Dec. 15, where he spoke to protesters strongly expressing his support for their cause.

Tensions rose soon after President Yanukovich put off signing the EU agreement, and instead began talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is putting together his own custom union trade bloc. On Dec. 17, Putin and Yanukovich announced a joint economic plan of action, that included plans for Moscow to buy $15 billion in Ukrainian debt and a reduction by almost half of the price Ukrainians pay for Russian-supplied gas.

The Ukrainian nation is divided by language, culture and religion, where the eastern half the country identifies with Russia, and the western half believes its future is brighter with closer ties to Europe. The concern among many Ukranians is that signing an agreement with the EU would mandate austerity policies that could trigger high unemployment and diminish the market in Russia for its eastern-based heavy industry and coal mining. Since the demise of the Soviet Union, Moscow has expressed concern that the eastern expansion of the EU and the NATO military alliance constitutes a grave threat to Russian security. Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with Stephen F. Cohen, professor emeritus in Russian Studies and Politics at New York University and Princeton, who takes a critical look at U.S. corporate media’s one-dimensional coverage of Ukraine’s trade issues and Sen. McCain’s provocative actions during his recent visit to Kiev.

STEPHEN F. COHEN: It's gone beyond irony with (Sen. John) McCain. I think it's kind of an obscenity and a disgrace for American elected officials to behave as they do. It's not only McCain, he's been accompanied by the Democratic senator from Connecticut, I think his name is Christopher Murphy. And the Democratic senator from Connecticut said he was with McCain to show bipartisan support for this. In fact, almost all of America's unwise policy toward Russia since the Soviet Union ended in 1991 has been bipartisan. It began with Clinton, it went to Bush, Congress has pretty much backed anything the president, whether Republican or Democratic did.

But in the case of McCain, there is something just whacky about this. He liked to go to the former Soviet republic of Georgia before 2008 and the things he said there, not only McCain, but others, the late Richard Holbrooke, certainly encouraged President Mikheil Saakashvili of George to attack the Russian enclave in Georgia, to kill a number of Russian citizens and some UN observers and lead Russia to come to into Georgia in 2008.

And if we know fully the story of what happened, we probably came – we the United States, because that was kind of a proxy war – as close to war with Russia as we have since the Cuban missile crisis. Yet, these people take no responsibility for their action.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Professor Cohen, the U.S. media generally parrots the State Department line and people like John McCain and saying that Russia is bullying Ukraine into dropping its original predilection to go ahead with the European trade agreement. Now Russia's offering some money here; on the other side, the European Union deal offers austerity of the kind that has plagued many of the Western European nations where austerity has been in place with very high unemployment figures. But maybe you can talk about the conflict here in terms of decisions the Ukraine has to make.

STEPHEN F. COHEN: Let's back up just a minute because you mention the American media, and look at the narrative that virtually every American is stuck with. If that American watches the mainstream television or reads mainstream newspapers. (There are four pieces of the narrative that we find in the American media about what's going on in the Ukraine.)

First of all, the signing with the EU would bring democracy to Ukraine, and therefore the protesters in the street are pro-democratic.

Secondly, it would bring economic prosperity to Ukraine because Ukraine would have access to Europe's markets, all the perks of the Economic Union.

Thirdly, it's a civilization choice – that's a phrase often used – if they would escape the Slavic Russian civilization and become like us, part of Western Civilization.

And fourth, this is being prevented by Russia's bullying and meddling. The fact is, all four of these bits of the narrative are false or misleading. The protesters in the street are now calling for the overthrow of Yanukovich’s government. And they're being supported by the American representatives in Kiev. That was a democratically-elected government, both the Parliament and president. And everybody agreed that election was pretty fair, a pretty clean election. It is not democratic to overthrow a democratically-elected government. It's the opposite of that. There's an election scheduled for 2015. So to the answer to these people is, "If you feel that strongly, that you've been betrayed by the government you elected, and the Parliament you elected, then in the year 2015, get your electoral act in order and go out to defeat them."

But to tell them to try to overthrow and turn this into a regime change, which has become the policy of the European Union and apparently the State Department, that is anti-democratic. So we're the promoters of anti-democratic action in Ukraine. Not the Russians in this stage.

As for prosperity, Ukraine is an absolute economic basket case. It needs $18 billion in the next 16 months to avoid going belly up, defaulting on its sovereign debt. The IMF, the International Monetary Fund, will give it part of that, but only, as you just said, on the conditions in an act of an austerity program, which means cutting social services, letting people go, ending subsidies to people who don't make a sufficient wage, and most Ukrainians make about $150 a month. It would have the kind of impact, but worse, because Ukraine is poor, as it has in Spain and Greece. Moreover, do we really believe, does anybody really believe the Ukrainian goods – goods produced in Ukraine are going to be successful in Italy and France and Spain and Germany? This is utter nonsense.

And finally there's a very strong anti-immigration movement spreading across Europe. It's highly unlikely that unemployed Ukrainian workers will be welcomed into the European Union. The only country that can help in a practical way, and maybe it would be bad because maybe there would be political conditions. But if we're talking about prosperity, we're talking about economic well-being, it's only Russia. Russia's in a position to give Ukraine very favorable access to all of its markets and to give it discounted energy.

What Russia's done is exactly what the EU has done. It's playing economic hardball. Ukraine is for sale. That's what's going on. The government of Yanukovich has been saying, who makes me the best offer? And Russia's making an offer, and the EU's making an offer, and when we last turn the page, Russia's offer was better.

Stephen F. Cohen is the author of "Soviet Fates and Lost Alternatives: From Stalinism to the New Cold War.” Find more of Cohen's perspectives on the crisis in Ukraine by visiting The Nation magazine.

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