Professor Examines Protests in Ukraine

Europe expert Robert Orttung explains why Ukraine’s failed EU agreement made protesters take to the streets.

December 09, 2013

By Julyssa Lopez

Swelling crowds of protesters have been flooding Ukraine’s Kyiv Independence Square over the last two weeks after the government decided against signing an agreement with the European Union.

Robert Orttung, a professor of international affairs, will attend a conference in Kyiv this week to examine political and economic issues in the country. The George Washington University Institute for European, Russian and Eurasian Studies, where Dr. Orttung serves as assistant director, is organizing the event and convening scholars from GW, North America and Europe.

Dr. Orttung spoke to George Washington Today about what protesters are demanding and what the failed EU agreement would have achieved. He is currently working on a book that will take a cross-national look at issues in Ukraine and describe how other countries address the same problems. Key topics will include the constitution, judicial institutions, corruption, ethnic politics, national identity and economic transformation. Dr. Orttung said he hopes the book will help scholars and policymakers alike.

Q: What would the EU deal have done?
A: The EU Association Agreement would have marked a civilizational choice for Ukraine, showing that it wanted to develop stronger ties with the West rather than Russia. The agreement would have abolished customs tariffs between the EU and Ukraine, opening up a market of 500 million consumers and a GDP of 12.9 trillion euros to Ukrainian companies. It would have pushed Ukraine’s regulations much closer to the European model by initiating the adoption of 350 EU laws, and it would have enacted extensive economic reforms that would have made Ukraine more efficient and competitive in the long term. The deal did not provide for EU membership or extend significant financial aid.

Most prominently, it would have required that President Viktor Yanukovych release former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko from jail. He considers her to be his most dangerous political rival, and a release would allow her to compete in the presidential elections scheduled for March 2015.

Everything President Yanukovych does now is aimed at ensuring he will win a second term, but the agreement would have required significant changes in the Ukrainian political system to prevent democratic backsliding. He feared political reforms would hurt his chances to control the voting, which is the main reason he refused to sign.

Q: Rejecting the EU deal may lead to closer economic ties with Russia—why are protesters against this idea? Do they have other concerns
A: In contrast to the EU, Russia basically offers short-term gains, namely removing trade restrictions it has recently imposed on Ukrainian products and the possibility of lower natural gas prices. However, the cost would be that Ukraine would have to ally closer to Russia and potentially join the Eurasian Union, a rival trade bloc to the EU that is dominated by Russia and includes Belarus and Kazakhstan. The protesters would rather tie Ukraine's future to the West.

Fear of Russian domination is not their only complaint. Many of the protesters are angry at President Yanukovych because he has ruled in a corrupt and politically divisive manner. His family and friends have become extremely wealthy since he came to office. Protesters fear that the upcoming presidential elections will not be democratic and that street protests are the only way to remove him from power.

Q: Are the protests likely to change the government’s decisions or result in any power changes in the country? What would this conflict look like if it were to escalate?
A: The protests most likely will not fundamentally change government policy. The current president is deeply corrupt. President Yanukovych put his main opponent in jail. If he lost power or weakened his grip, he would have to worry about being incarcerated himself by a new leader. Therefore, the president will use every means possible to remain in power.

Q: Ukrainians demonstrated during the Orange Revolution in 2004, and some Orange Revolution leaders have emerged in recent protests. How do they and what happened in 2004 relate to what's happening now? 
A: The leaders of the Orange Revolution are not really involved today. Former President Viktor Yushchenko performed poorly in office and has little credibility left. Ms. Tymoshenko is in jail. Now there is a new generation of leaders, but they have much less influence than the older leaders did in 2004. Even though the Orange Revolution brought new people to office, it did not deliver on its promise. In that sense, it is surprising that so many people are willing to try again by taking to the streets.

Q: Given the U.S.'s delicate relationship with Russia, what is our approach to these demonstrations? Is this something President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry are likely to address?
A: The U.S. has been careful to avoid alienating Russia. Ultimately, Ukraine is an independent country and should be free to choose its alliances. While the protesters have been getting the most attention, many Ukrainians have a different opinion. Although few would want to subjugate their country to Russian interests, many would support a policy of balancing between the West and Russia and maintaining good ties with both sides. President Obama and Secretary Kerry have not been visibly involved in Ukrainian developments, but the U.S. interest is in a Ukraine that adopts Western-style political and economic reforms while maintaining friendly political and robust trade relations with its Russian neighbor.