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Believe it or not, there are still countries in Europe where protestors enthusiastically wave the EU’s star-studded flag rather than burning it in anger. These days Kiev’s embattled EuroMaidan is as much the heart of the Union as the Schuman roundabout in Brussels. A refusal to deal with the European confederacy has sparked huge protests and riots on the streets of Ukraine – actions which show the EU has the support of the Ukranian people, if not its leaders.
The deal was proposed with seemingly good intentions. It sought to improve bilateral trade, streamline industry rules and bring about key democratic reforms in Ukraine not viable before. However, Ukranian President Viktor Yanukovych argued after rejecting the offer that the EU hadn’t offered enough in financial incentives to secure his signature. That being, it is no secret that Russia has threatened to impose excruciating trade sanctions and colossal gas bills on Ukraine in order to derail the agreement in order to keep its ex-Soviet brother under its thumb.
Many think that Ukraine took President Putins hostile threats too seriously at the peril of rejecting incredibly beneficial relations with the EU. But Ukraine knows first-hand the consequences of defying the Motherland. Arguments between Naftogaz Ukrainy and Russian gas supplier Gazprom have been alive and ongoing since 2005. In 2009, during another round of bitter pricing disputes, Moscow cut off 90 million cubic meters of natural gas per day of exports to Ukraine on New Year’s Day. A callously icy winter Ukrainians will not forget easily.
Fast-forward to present day, Gazprom is now offering Ukraine much-needed discounts for its natural gas in exchange for joining a Moscow-led Customs Union. Losing Ukraine to Russia was undoubtedly a blow for the European Union. “We may not give in to external pressure, not the least from Russia,” EU President Herman Van Rompuy declared in unusually blunt terms after Yanukovych refused to put pen to paper.
This unexpected U-turn from Yanukovych has sparked mass protesting in Kiev and its surrounding area which has no doubt unhappily reminded the President of the ‘Orange Revolution’ wherein his election victory was overturned because of fraud in favour of his pro-West opponent, Viktor Yushchenko. As a cause of popular unrest, “not signing a trade agreement” does not quite rank with “stealing an election”. However that Ukrainians protested is an indication not only of their desperation but also of the enduring value of the EU to those outside of it, despite its diminished reputation since the onset of the financial crisis.
Opposition leader and world boxing champion, Vitaly Klitshcko, has since called for more protests so the country doesn’t return to pre-1991 Eastern Europe. For Ukraine’s everyman, free travel and trade with Europe is much more appealing than weekend trips to Siberia. The EU model and its association agreements are being displayed as extremely attractive to the former Soviet country, and indeed to the rest of the world. The European Union have a far better reputation with human rights than Ukraine as well. Protestors marching across Bulgaria’s capital are seen carrying slogans “Ukraine is Europe” along with Ukraine’s yellow-and-blue flag. The EU claims to be a great and steadfast power, and no doubt it has been in the past. It needs to rediscover the courage to use that power or it will carry on losing desired partners to their anti-Western allies.