It’s cold in Kiev. No, this is not a weather report, though it is freezing here. Rather, it is a reflection on the current political turmoil since the Ukrainian President, Viktor Yanukovitch, did not sign an accession agreement with the European Union (EU) at the end of November in Vilnius. Protesters are braving the weather to gather in squares in the center of the city to express their clear desire to have Ukraine become an official part of Europe rather than join a customs union with Russia. European Union flags are being sold by street vendors, Ukrainian flags on cars are another sign of support, although the manifestations are very limited to a specific area in downtown Kiev.
Much of Kiev continues normally. Many people go to work and then join the hearty protesters. In addition, many protesters are not marching for Europe but against the police brutality of last week. This weekend could see even larger turnouts.
The turmoil is happening at a unique moment. Ukraine has been the Chairman in Office (CiO) of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) for 2013. This is the first time there has been a political upheaval in the CiO’s country; the organization is supposed to coordinate cooperation, oversee elections as well as mediate conflicts among the 57 members. Started as a conference 40 years ago during the Cold War, the OSCE has evolved into an international organization based on consensus and soft power that has a history of bridging tensions from Vancouver to Vladivostok.
The protests were also being held during a ministerial meeting in Kiev to conclude Ukraine’s year long chairmanship. Switzerland assumes the CiO for 2014. (Switzerland was the CiO in 1996, an important event in Swiss outreach in multilateralism.) Didier Burkhalter was elected President of Switzerland on December 4 only soon after to board a plane to Kiev with members of the Task Force to accept the Chairmanship. For the first time in Swiss history, the same person will be President, Foreign Minister and responsible for the OSCE, an enormous prestige for an individual as well as an important moment for Switzerland’s international standing. With Geneva 2 talks on Syria scheduled for January, the Iranian nuclear talks, the Georgian-Russian negotiations, the Swiss foreign ministry has much on its plate.
Discussions in different venues in Kiev have given mixed impressions. On the one hand, elites are convinced that Ukrainian membership in the EU will transform the country. On the other hand, arguments about Ukraine changing its system to be compatible with EU requirements fall on deaf ears. Membership itself is seen as a solution to the country’s economic and political difficulties. In addition, there were very few suggestions for a creative position somewhere outside membership in the EU or membership in the Russian customs union. Swiss neutrality, for example, was clearly not an option.
It is indeed very cold in Kiev. The current protests are far from the excitement of the Orange Revolution in 2004, far from the excitement when the 2008 NATO Summit Declaration stated: “We agreed today that these countries [Ukraine and Georgia] will become members of NATO.” People here are preparing for Christmas, as they are throughout the world. Many Ukrainians believed that signing the accession agreement to the EU would have been a tremendous Christmas present. Their refusal to think through other alternatives besides joining Russia leaves the city and country even colder.
December 7, 2013