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Beyond the East-West divide: Ukraine searches for new identity

In Kiev, the “Maidan”, the local name given to Independence Square which was the centre of anti-government protests that started in November and eventually toppled former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich.
By Vera Von Kreutzbruck
Herald Staff
Right-wing expert Alina Polyakova talks about troubled country’s future, Putin’s policies and the oligarchs

Tomorrow’s presidential election in Ukraine will most likely be won by billionaire chocolate-maker Petro Poroshenko, according to the latest opinion polls. However, the vote merely represents the first chapter of a still unwritten future, with the troubled country torn between Russia and the European Union.

To better understand this conflict, the Herald spoke with Kiev-born Alina Polyakova, an expert on radical right-wing parties in Europe. Currently in the Ukrainian capital, working for Berlin-based non-governmental organization European Platform for Democratic Elections, Polyakova will provide analysis of these elections to foreign journalists.

What is Vladimir Putin’s strategy in Ukraine? Many describe this moment as the beginning of a new Cold War.

Russia’s actions have been — not just in Ukraine but in previous conflicts as well, like Georgia in 2008 for example — driven by domestic politics. Since the annexation of Crimea, Putin’s approval ratings have gone through the roof. He does not respect any of the previous agreements he has signed. For instance, with Crimea, Russia broke an international agreement signed in 1994, in which Kiev, in exchange of giving up its nuclear arsenal, ensured its sovereignty would be preserved.

To expand on Putin’s discourse, he is blaming the West for NATO’s expansion to the East — by that he means the West would be violating commitments made after the fall of the Iron Curtain. So neither side is respecting previous international agreement?

Russia sees that as a threat, however there is a big difference between countries seeking to join NATO versus annexation by force. Ukraine is not a member of NATO and membership is voluntary. One of the things that the West hasn’t realized is that the Kremlin lies. On May 6, he said that he would remove troops from the border and they are still there. Nobody knows the final goal but the Kremlin’s main interest is to destabilize Ukraine, which is what they have done, to such an extent that it becomes almost ungovernable.

Is the energy issue the essence of the conflict in Ukraine?

Yes, clearly Ukraine would not be in the situation it is today if it was not for the gas and oil pipelines that run directly from Russia to the EU. Ukraine has always been very important geopolitically for Russia. We saw this play out previous years, when in 2006 Russia shut off gas to Ukraine, accusing them of stealing.

But Russia does need the Ukraine to transport gas.

Yes, but Russia is building pipelines that go to the north and south which would allow it to bypass the Ukraine.

Who is benefiting economically from the conflict in Ukraine? The United States and/or Russia?

I don’t see the US benefiting economically from all this. In many ways Russia is benefiting, in terms of re-establishing itself as a key geopolitical player. The sanctions are having an effect, but let’s be honest, Russia is an energy economy, as long as the price of oil remains high, they will likely be fine.

Who will win the presidential election?

The most recent polls show Petro Poroshenko, “the King of Chocolate,” as the winner. He was not in the government previously. I think he’s popular because he comes from outside the political system. Even though he is an oligarch, people see him as somebody that doesn’t have alliances with the old regime.

What is Poroshenko’s motivation for becoming president?

He was very involved in the Maidan protests. He was a visible figure because in December he stepped in to shield activists from the police. He also gave a lot of charismatic speeches. Maybe his motivations are genuine and he thinks he can change the country for the better with more transparency and less corruption.

You were born in Kiev but have no Ukrainian citizenship. If you did, would you vote for Poroshenko?

(Pauses). An interesting trend is that a lot of Ukrainians are not planning to vote. This is much higher in the eastern regions because they do not see a real choice.

Would you say that there is a parallel between Ukraine and Russia, where the oligarchs are very much involved in politics?

Yes, definitely. A lot of what has happened in Ukrainian politics has to do with whom the oligarchs have supported. They have a lot of influence. One reason we see resistance in the east against separatism is that all those steel factories are owned by one oligarch, Rinat Akhmetov, who I believe is the richest man in Ukraine. These economically powerful individuals are hedging their bets. It’s all very secretive and we don’t know where allegiances are.

Maybe this is a transitional period for Ukraine in which its defining its identity and deciding which path to take politically?

Exactly right. Every day something new is happening that nobody saw coming, so I may be wrong in what I say. My hunch is that after the September parliamentary elections there will be some sort of resolution. I don’t think that there will be an escalation that leads to a civil war. The solution that many Russia-Ukraine observers are coming to is that Ukraine cannot stay as centralized as it has been.

So there will not be a Balkanization of Ukraine?

I hope it doesn’t go that way. It is becoming clearer to the east that being an autonomous republic will not work.

At present there is a lot of misinformation about what is going on in Ukraine. What would you say is the biggest misinterpretation?

The Russian propaganda machine is the cause of this, to the point where television is reproducing whatever the government line is. The result is an unbalanced view and unfortunately this has been picked up by the Western media, especially with the extreme right. The result is that the Maidan protests often appeared as a non-democratic movement, as if they were co-opted by neo-Nazis, neo-fascists and extremists groups. This is not the case. We know that the far right has been a very visible minority in the Maidan and, in terms of political influence, they continue to be a minority.

So what kind of people were at Maidan square?

The Maidan started small, just a few hundred Kiev residents who were students and professionals. But when the government started repressing peaceful protests, it quickly exploded. In December, at one point it reached one million people, and then it was quite mixed, they came from all over Ukraine, from a wide range of social classes.

How important is the far right, specifically the political party Svoboda and the Right Sector movement?

The far right is not the most interesting trend happening in the Ukraine now. What is more interesting is how these very complex identities in the east and west are evolving and manifesting themselves. It has brought out the complexities of identity in the post-Soviet region.

@vkreutzbruck
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