The Daily Nexus’ Senior Staff Writer David Jackson sat down with political science professor Cynthia S. Kaplan to discuss the deteriorating situation in Ukraine, the reasons behind it and its ramifications. Since late November, protests have rocked the country, particularly the capital city of Kiev, as part of a growing movement of civil unrest currently termed “Euromaidan” by Twitter users following the discord.
The death toll in Ukraine soared to over 100 Thursday as police cracked down on protesters in the worst violence seen since the opposition began months ago. Police snipers fired live ammunition at protesters in a marked escalation of violence that killed dozens in Kiev. Protesters responded by storming police lines and government buildings, killing several riot police as they expanded their grip on the capital. Negotiations between the government and opposition forces recently broke down without any positive results.
Daily Nexus: Can you provide any background or insight into the divide or the current situation?
Kaplan: The area that is further west has had influence of Ukrainian nationalism but also it was the area in which there was a drive for independence. In the eastern parts there has been a population that has tended to be ethnically Russian, often coal-mining in that area has been associated with a view towards Moscow. The area of the center is much harder to judge, its much more fluid, it’s a mixed population. So the divide, if you want to think of looking east or looking west, is one with which we can find historical roots that predate even the Soviet era. An element of this also has to do with different traditions, in the west there is Catholicism, in the Eastern areas there’s Russian Orthodoxy, but also there’s the stimulus of the economy…the question of whether billions of dollars that Russia under Putin is willing to lend, or provide Ukraine. There’s a real tag here between those that are driven by cultural values on one dimension, and those who are driven by economic concerns.
DN: In the East of the country are there closer ties to Russia, while in the West are they closer to the European Union?
Kaplan: Not necessarily closer ties, but values that are more consistent with those regions. Part of Ukraine only was joined to the area we think of Ukraine now, after World War II, so its not some sort of distant history. It’s something that people could have been socialized in their families, in terms of values.
DN: What in your mind do you think is the primary cause for such vigorous protests?
Kaplan: I think it’s a consequence of the overturn of the [2005 Ukrainian] Orange Revolution. There was an election and Yanukovich was elected. The fact that he ignored a large portion of the country I think is the root of this. I think the spark was the unexpected hubris of the president suddenly changing direction. It wasn’t a secret that Yanukovich has close ties with Moscow, — he was elected with that understanding — but I think this juxtaposition of an ongoing process that was about to begin with the EU, one might think of as even almost undermined by the offer of financial aid from the East [Russia].
DN: The Russian aid package outweighed anything offered by the West?
Kaplan: Well in the eyes of Yanukovich, but not in the eyes of part of the population, a vocal part of the population. The financial assistance did not come without strings. The idea is that Ukraine would perhaps in the mid-term join a customs union with Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan. The countries in this custom union tend to be more authoritarian than the EU. So for those people really driven by democratic rights that also a concern, it’s not just a geographic orientation. There is a portion of people who live in Ukraine who are probably torn by the question of having an orientation towards the East or the West. It seems to be an unnatural division that’s been forced. You can have differences in preferences but that doesn’t mean you want a civil war in your country.
DN: Do you think there is realistic potential for the protests to degenerate into a Syrian-like civil war? I think it is different, but could one have broad civic conflict?
Kaplan: Yes and that actually is a great worry because that would allow the president to issue a state of emergency and use the armed forces, and then your talking about the potential for widespread repression.
DN: The U.S. and Western Europe have been contemplating sanctions, in your opinion do you think that’s a prudent decision?”
Kaplan: At the moment if we’re just talking about the denial of visas for 20 individuals, basically it’s a warning to elites. It’s a country that already in economic turmoil before these events, because after all the negotiations were about who’s going to provide capital to deal with debt and restructuring. Given the current state of the economy in Western Europe one can understand the reticent to take that on. On the other hand there are consequences and Russia stepped up to the plate, but not without understanding spheres of influence. There is a very real concern by Russia against the spread of the colored revolutions, which includes the Orange Revolution in Ukraine. Continued discontent is something that is seen as threatening for Moscow.
DN: Even today the protests were spreading throughout Ukraine.
Kaplan: What’s interesting is when you have things happening in Eastern Ukraine. It’s in an area where you wouldn’t expect that sort of protest. The question is do you get movements that support Yanukovich and Russia or are you in a situation where people are protesting the fact that the country could dissolve into civil war?
DN: Regarding that possibility, do you think that there is any chance that Russia or European countries should be prepared to get more involved to prevent that kind of situation?
Kaplan: This is purely speculation but I certainly don’t think that the EU would become militarily involved, nor of course NATO, because there’s no threat outside the country. Whether there was assistance given to security forces — and they would be most likely from Russia, if it was necessary, if there was the threat of instability — it might be possible. The fact that there might be encouragement of the use of the military wouldn’t be surprising, giving the phrases of an attempted coup or that the people in the streets might be terrorists, these are terms that aren’t used lightly.
DN: The opposition is calling for early elections. Do you think that would be a productive way out of violence?
Kaplan: Elections would be a way to find out what people preferred as long as they are free and open. Under those circumstances, if that could be assured, ostensibly with international observers, but that’s hard to imagine at the moment, but you know if it’s domestically determined within Ukraine and the question is if its a civil war or having an internationally supervised election, from a popular perspective I would suggest that a supervised election would be strongly preferable.
Part of the spark for all of this was the attempt in parliament to change the authority of the president, that’s when protesters went over to the parliament building. It really takes a new election, not simple a change a figures, which may be marginalized given the preponderant power of the presidency.
The Russian’s might decide that it’s to their advantage to find a way out of this without more bloodshed. And if that were the case, there might be something amenable, particularly if they could take ownership of it, so that they would be credited in defusing conflict.
DN: Yeah they seemed eager to do that in the Syrian situation.
Kaplan: That’s a different type of interest, that’s their strategic role in the world; this is their backyard, in which many people in the Russian regime feel like there’s virtually no difference between Ukraine and Russia. As Putin said one of the tragedies of the 20th century was the collapse of the Soviet Union. There’s a very different view between those people who look towards independence and those people who look back towards empire and an intertwined history.
DN: Why do you think this is important for UCSB students to know what’s going on there?
Kaplan: To ignore the use of force, in a sense allows it to happen. It’s part of the world in which we live in. I think it’s a stark reminder that violence can happen in areas that we identify as developed urban areas where you least expect it. To the degree that we can envision that as part of our everyday world, it’s shocking.
I think for our own national interest it is really important, it is an element that could determine our relationship with the Russian Federation. It really has very wide repercussions and I think that’s important for all of us. The stakes are very high both for the United States and for the EU. And I’m sure for Moscow the stakes look very high as well. People are willing to lay down their lives for freedom, and that’s what’s happening now.