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The geopolitics of the Ukraine crisis

How the power vacuum will reshape the balance of power in the region between Russia and the European Union.

Last updated: 23 Feb 2014 13:29
Remi Piet

Remi Piet is Assistant Professor of Public Policy, Diplomacy and International Political Economy Department of International Affairs College of Arts and Sciences Qatar University, Doha, Qatar
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It remains unclear how each opposition force will manage to govern the country in coalition until the next elections or with which legitimacy, argues Piet [Reuters]

Ukraine experienced the most dramatic weekend in European history since the fall of the communist regimes. Twenty-four hours after unprecedented violence in the streets of Kiev, which claimed the lives of 80 demonstrators and more than a dozen policemen, the situation remains uncertain.

The Ukrainian president, Victor Yanukovich, has fled the capital, leaving behind him a power vacuum that will potentially reshape the balance of power in the region between Russia and the European Union. As governmental forces disappeared from the streets of Kiev, several key questions remain: Who can claim legitimate authority?  Is there a future for a united Ukraine? How will the current evolution impact Russian and European presence and control over their shared neighbourhood?

Analysis: The fall of Yanukovich and the future of Ukraine

Although contested by Yanukovich's supporters, the immediate political next steps have been swiftly and overwhelmingly agreed on by the Parliament: A return to the 2004 Constitution that reaffirms the authority of the Parliament (the Verkhovna Rada) over the president and new presidential elections in May. If this ensures a return to a well-known institutional framework established 10 years ago after the first ousting of Victor Yanukovich - a president that now has on his record not one but two destitutions - it does not ensure long term stability by any means.

None of the opposition parties can claim to legitimately represent the popular uprising by itself. "Fatherland", a coalition of parties behind former president Yulia Tymoshenko and led by Arseniy Yatsenyuk during her imprisonment, has traditionally been at the forefront of the contestation to Yanukovich.

However, the party was rejected by the population during the 2010 elections and the return of Tymoshenko - a polarising figure in Ukraine - on the forefront of the political stage comes with its fair share of liabilities in the attempt to reunite the country. Although it is the largest opposition political force in the Rada, "Fatherland" is also flanked by two other opposition parties who took a central part during the popular revolt on the Maidan: "Svoboda" and the "Democratic Alliance for Reform".

"Svoboda", a nationalist party led by populist leader Oleh Tiahnybok, was at the frontline of the resistance to Yanukovich's Special Forces (the Berkuts) during the last weeks of the contestation and its momentum culminated yesterday when police forces from Lviv (the birthplace of "Svoboda") joined the movement. Similarly, former heavyweight boxing champion Vitali Klitschko, who heads the Democratic Alliance for Reform, emerged as a key opposition leader and gained credibility over the last weeks.

It remains unclear how each opposition force will manage to govern the country in coalition until the next elections or with which legitimacy since more than a hundred parliamentary members supporting Yanukovich did not take part in the most recent votes.

On the bright side, recent attempts by the recently deposed president to divide the opposition by proposing governmental positions to Yatsenyuk and Klitschko were unsuccessful. This tends to show the capacity and will of opposition leaders to work together during the conflict. Yet, now that the conflict seems to have tipped in favour of the opposition, agreeing on a common political platform including "Svoboda" will be another challenge. The opposition to the lavish lifestyle and corruption of Victor Yanukovich cannot be the only common denominator to agree on a sustainable political transition.

From instability to geopolitical fractures

Inside Story - Is a proxy war being waged in Ukraine?

The political instability in Kiev is limited however in comparison with the ever-growing rift between the Eastern and Western parts of Ukraine. The country is deeply divided between two regions which have very few in common. One is resolutely turned towards the European Union and advocates for a liberal market economy. Its majority Christian Catholic and well educated population speaks Ukrainian and has supported opposition leaders throughout the Yanukovich end of reign.

On the other side of the country, Crimea and the Eastern provinces still firmly back the former president. The population there is in majority orthodox, speaks Russian and looks confidently towards Moscow for the stability and economic security it provides to Ukraine thanks to its discounted gas prices and its strong presence in the national economy.

The division of the country is nothing new. The Western part of Ukraine has long been under Polish control while the Eastern part was governed by Russia. The very existence of Ukraine as a unitary country has been contested throughout modern history, as shown by the treaty of Riga in 1921 dismantling the country, and the emergence of a common Ukrainian identity only gained momentum in the 19th century.

The result is that while half of the country cheered yesterday over the destitution of the president, advocating for an alliance with the European Union and away from a corrupted Russian influenced regime, the other half of the country, which followed the Kiev uprising through Russian media, still calls for a return of Yanukovich and protection from the Kremlin against fascist forces.

This division also answers a wider geopolitical fracture between the European Union and Russia. What is at stake in Kiev has ramifications in the fields of energy security, regional integration and international balance of power. Ukraine is a central card in Putin's hand to revitalise the Russian strategy, hoping to renew with its status of leading geopolitical power in Europe and Asia.

What is at stake in Kiev has ramifications in the fields of energy security, regional integration and international balance of power. Ukraine is a central card in Putin's hand to revitalise the Russian strategy...

If Ukraine drifts towards Europe, the political project of Eurasian Union defended by Putin will be strongly challenged. More importantly, Ukraine also controls most of the transit of Russian gas towards the West and thus Putin's energy grasp over the European Union. A day after the Russian hockey team, which concentrated the hope and pride of the whole country, faced an embarrassing elimination in the Sotchi Olympic Games, Putin suffered a salient geopolitical defeat underestimating the European Union capacity to intervene.

Indeed, the current evolution in Ukraine has shown that the European Union could finally lead an effective common foreign policy. After the stammering and hesitations shown over the last few months and the incapacity to agree on an ambitious European support to Ukraine, the visit to Kiev of the foreign ministers of France, Germany and Poland has been essential in stopping the violence and in drafting a truth agreement between both parts of the conflict.

By agreeing on common sanctions towards Ukrainian oligarchs, who had much more to lose than their Belarussian counterparts three years ago in a similar situation, the European Union isolated Yanukovich from its domestic support.

As a conclusion, if the future of Ukraine remains uncertain both in terms of the sustainability of its political transition and its capacity to remain united, what this crisis has demonstrated is that when united, the European Union is able to be an effective foreign policy actor and stand in front of Russia.

Remi Piet is Assistant Professor of Public Policy, Diplomacy and International Political Economy Department of International Affairs College of Arts and Sciences Qatar University, Doha, Qatar.

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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