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Walt Laws-MacDonald | Show Me The Money

Lenin falls, again, in Kiev

Published: Monday, December 9, 2013

Updated: Monday, December 9, 2013 09:12

Hundreds of thousands of protesters fill the streets, demanding the ouster of the old regime. A rope is attached around the neck of a statue of Lenin, the figurehead of communism in Russia. After taking a few tugs, the statue topples off its pedestal — protesters take hammers to Lenin’s head, smashing it to pieces.

This happened in Kiev, Ukraine, Saturday night. Though the images bring to mind scenes from 20 years ago, authoritarian regimes are still very much alive in numerous post-Soviet states. Though communism and Lenin have long faded from prominence, pockets of Soviet power remain throughout Eastern Europe.

The protests in Kiev display Ukraine’s struggle to break free from this past. Ukraine is led by President Viktor F. Yanukovich — who won in an election fraught with voter fraud. Though Yanukovich has been in power since 2010, the Ukrainian political scene has challenged his legitimacy for years, stretching back to  the “Orange Revolution” of 2004.

Two major spheres of influence exist in Europe. To the west lies the European Union — 28 states that include Germany, the United Kingdom, France, Italy and even smaller post-Soviet states like Romania and Slovakia. To the east lies Russia — the center of communist authority until its collapse in the early 1990s, and still the most influential and powerful state in the region.

Both politically and geographically, Ukraine is sandwiched between these two realms. On one side, free trade reigns, with (mostly) democratic systems of government and human rights protection. On the other, Russia and its oligarchs control a much more protected economy and a political system that has been slow to progress since the fall of the USSR.

Relations with the European Union began in the early 1990s, when Ukraine sought the political and economic protection the alliance offered. Despite numerous attempts and several different governments, progress has been incredibly slow. Though joining the European Union is a huge foreign policy undertaking for any government, it remains especially tough for Ukraine because of Russia’s influence.

Like most of its neighbors, Ukraine gets the vast majority of its oil and energy from resource-rich Russia. Without Russia, energy prices in Ukraine would skyrocket, likely causing an economic slowdown and unhappy citizenry. Without Ukraine, Russia would lose billions in oil revenue and a powerful trade partner.

Thus, Russia has a huge stake in Ukraine’s relations with the European Union. Though actually becoming a member appears to be off the table for now, President Yanukovich has been in talks with the European Union for over a year to create a free trade zone between the two powers. This would allow both goods and people to move freely over the EU border and set the stage for further negotiations in the long term.

This agreement appeared to be a done deal until Russia started a trade war with Ukraine over Ukrainian chocolates, banning their import for over five months. Though the embargo has since been lifted, Putin has made his influence known and given Ukraine a choice: Russia or the European Union. It cannot have both.

Yanukovich backed off from talks with EU and their trade agreement is now up in the air. In Kiev, however, hundreds of thousands of people have made their choice already, toppling symbols of Russian power and proclaiming that they will not stand for a Russian-backed government. Though the scenes on the streets of Kiev might not have been quite as crazy as what transpired at the 9:30 p.m. TDC show, they show that Ukraine is ready for change. Whether the government accepts that change — and whether it does so willingly — is yet to be seen.

Walt Laws-MacDonald is a junior majoring in quantitative economics. He can be reached at Walt.Laws_MacDonald@tufts.edu.

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