Hundreds of thousands of protesters in Ukraine’s capital, Kiev, are braving cold weather to demonstrate against President Victor Yanukovych’s refusal to sign two European Union association agreements that would have facilitated trade, finance and travel between Ukraine and Western Europe. Twenty-two years after independence, Ukrainian protesters are waving the yellow and blue emblem of the European Union alongside the Ukrainian trident. The EU flag is not one you would expect people to fight and die over, but indeed they are doing just that — about 100 Ukrainians have ended up in hospitals. Unlike those of the early 1990s, today’s protesters are more concerned about their economic health than national autonomy.
Ukrainian protesters, in other words, are willing to jettison the country’s economic independence in this global economy. In 2012, Ukraine’s national debt was a sizable 36 percent of GDP. Seeking its place in the global economy, Ukraine has been pulled between Europe and Russia. Along with Georgia, Ukraine is one of the last to hold out from joining the Russian-dominated Customs Union, which is economically piecing back together most of the nations of former Soviet Union.
Last fall, as Yanukovych’s administration pursued negotiations with the EU, Vladimir Putin’s government sought to make a show of Ukraine’s dependence on the Russian economy. Moscow slowed freight traffic between Ukraine and Russia and paused Russian orders of Ukrainian steel, autos and machinery. Persuaded by this demonstration, in November, Yanukovych pulled back from signing the EU agreement. Ukrainians took to the streets in protest. A public opinion poll late last year found that 45 percent of Ukrainians wanted closer association with the EU while only 14 percent wanted to join the Customs Union, which many fear would lead to a renewed Russian domination over the Ukrainian little brother.
The anxiety over economic well-being is not limited to Ukraine. Citizens in almost all the ex–Soviet republics are registering displeasure with their states’ autonomy at a rate that just about matches the indebtedness of those countries. In Armenia and Belarus, the national debts were 37 percent of GDP, while Moldova came in at 22 percent last year. The three states in the Gallup poll where residents were happy with their self-determination — Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Azerbaijan — are oil-rich countries with very low rates of national debt, ranging from 7 to 11 percent.