Ukraine: What about surrounding countries?

Political situation Ukraine
President Yanukovich disappeared a few days ago after months of clashes between his government and the opposition. In order to stabilise the country an interim government needs to be formed before February 26, acting president Turchinov said. To this backdrop the presidential election campaign has already started: candidates can register until April 4. The elections are scheduled for May 25.

The hiding place of former president Yanukovich is unknown. He is wanted by the police for “mass murder of peaceful civilians”, according to an arrest warrant. The US does not longer recognize Yanukovich as Ukraine’s president. Together with the EU they are discussing financial assistance. However, a comprehensive package is only likely after the elections in May. Also, it needs to be in coordination with the International Monetary Fund, IMF. In order to survive 2014 and 2015 the country needs $35 billion. The first payments need to be made in a few weeks, Ukraine’s finance ministry said.

The media constantly discuss the events in Ukraine. But what are the effects of Ukraine’s events on surrounding countries?

Following the events in Ukraine, neighbour Russia’s internal policy is sharpened. Furthermore, external policy could change.

Russia internal
In Russia dissatisfaction with the government is expressed in protests as well. In order to make these activities less attractive the government sharpened some laws. First, Non Governmental Organizations, NGOs, will face more strict supervision. President Putin signed a law that enhances power to conduct snap inspections of NGOs. Grounds for such surprise inspections are very broad, which basically means inspections can take place at any time. The law even permits “heads of authorized agencies to order surprise inspections and gives powers to prosecutors and election commissions to request them.” NGOs need to operate carefully, in order to avoid punishment.

The Russian government also keeps a close eye on opponents. Yesterday hundreds of Kremlin opponents were protesting outside a court house where activists were being convicted of allegedly attacking police at a rally against Putin in 2012. The protesters made references to the protests in Ukraine. The Russian riot police detained over 200 of them. Meanwhile, inside the courthouse a judge sentenced seven men to prison for rioting and violence against the police at a protest the day of Putin’s inauguration for his third term as president. The sentences lie between 2.5 and 4 years in jail. This raises questions about the rule of law and the exercise of freedom of expression in Russia, a spokeswomen for EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton argued. Critics say the tightening of laws and the mass arrest are connected to a fear of a spill over effect from Ukraine.

Russia external
This internal tightening of policy has consequences for the relationship between Russia and the West and puts pressure on it. Pressure is also likely to increase due to different reactions to Ukraine’s interim government. Dmitry Medveved, Russia’s Prime Minister, said that "if you consider Kalashnikov-toting people in black masks who are roaming Kiev to be the government, then it will be hard for us to work with that government." While the West is more than willing to work with the interim government. Russia’s Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov warned the EU and US that they should not try to shape the ex-Soviet state’s future through forcing Ukraine to choose between close ties with the West or with Russia. Critics say that it is, in fact, Russia that forces its neighbours to make that choice.

Even if Ukraine focuses more on the West, Russia could still hold a tight grip on the country. In December Russia offered Ukraine a $15 billion loan, which has now been suspended. In addition, reduced prices on Russian gas could go up again, plunging Ukraine into an even deeper economic malaise. Ukraine is in dire need of financial assistance now. However the EU, US and IMF want to see the outcome of the upcoming elections first, before they hand over large amounts of money.

Russia wants to solidify its position in the region with its Customs Union trade block, which will be transformed into a political Eurasian Union. Because the former Ukraine government is gone, which was in favour of cooperating with Russia, Russia is currently putting more pressure on other surrounding countries like Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan to join the Eurasian Union, some analyst argue.

Next to Russia, Belarus sharpened its legislation as well. A few days ago the Council of Ministers approved provisions which oblige political parties and public associations to register their organizational units. This makes it easier for the government to clean the political space from opposition parties and associations that refuse to cooperate with the regime.

A second sharpening of policy is visible in an amendment to martial law, which the house of representatives will discuss. When adopted, law and enforcement bodies are allowed to use weapons against civilians without punishment. These two measures make it less attractive to protest against the government.

Other surrounding countries
On February 19 it was announced that the leaders of Moldova and Georgia, the two other countries in the region that have made a clear choice of closer rapprochement with the EU, are due to visit Washington in the upcoming weeks. This seems to be a message that the US stands by these two countries during the events in Ukraine. Next to this perceived US support, Moldova and Georgia are negotiating a trade pact with the EU, the refusal of which by Yanukovich started the Ukrainian popular protests in the first place. In both Georgia and Moldova there have been expressions of solidarity with the protests in Ukraine.

It seems that all surrounding countries are taking a side in what is becoming more and more a Russia vs. Western atmosphere. This side taking makes the distinction between a Russian and a Western bloc more visible.

By Laura Ritter

Sources: Aljazeera I, Aljazeera II, BBC, Reuters I, RIA Novosti, Reuters II, The Guardian, Reuters III, Reuters IV, Charter 97 I, Charter 97 II, Reuters V

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