Anti-government protesters clash with policemen in Kiev. (AFP photo)
Hope and fear could be found in equal measure in Ukraine after President Viktor F Yanukovych’s flight and ouster on Saturday, following the deadliest violence in the country’s history in the recent past.
The interim leadership issued an arrest warrant against Mr Yanukovych for ‘mass murder of innocent civilians’. Amidst fears of a civil war, it pledged to put the country back on course for European integration and stressed they wanted relations with Russia on a ‘new, equal and good-neighbourly footing that recognises and takes into account Ukraine’s European choice’. Following this, on Sunday, Russia recalled its ambassador in Ukraine for consultations.
So far violence in Kiev’s Independence Square has claimed over 100 lives but with a change of guard there is a glimmer of hope for the 46 million people sandwiched between Russia and the European Union (EU).
What triggered the protest in November was Mr Yanukovych trading off an EU association and free-trade agreement with a Russian offer of gas and financial assistance of $15 billion. With the country’s finances in a mess, Mr Yanukovych opted for tangible financial help and political insurance from Russia rather than promises from the EU, whose economic worries are far from over.
But the West sees this as Russia never coming to terms with the sovereignty of Ukraine. Differing loyalties and affinities are playing their part in adding fuel to the fire of protest.
That had changed the tone of the protest to more than a fight about whose side to take — Russia’s or the EU’s — on economic issues. Though there were no voices of secessionism, the talks of political reforms — mostly limiting the powers of the president and holding of early elections — are central to the demands.
Washington, meanwhile, is watching the developments from the sidelines. United States President Barack Obama said he would keep pushing Russian President Vladimir Putin to side with the “will of the people in both nations”.
But given Mr Putin’s predilections and compulsions, it is unlikely that he will heed this advice in a hurry. In Europe there are security worries from a possible spillover of the violence. For now it looks like Russia’s likely loss is the EU’s gain.