Ukraine finds it hard to disentangle from its deep Russian ties

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Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: I'm Marco Werman and this is "The World." Revolution has been on my mind for a few days. It started at a screening of "Catching Fire" - revolution is a key part of "The Hunger Games" narrative - but as I watched that fictional rebellion unfold, my mind also turned to the real life calls for revolution in Ukraine, which is where we start the program. Today, thousands of protesters were on the streets of Kiev again. They blockaded key government buildings and took over Independent Square. That's the same square that was the epicenter of Ukraine's Orange Revolution some nine years ago. The outrage then was over a rigged vote in favor of a man named Viktor Yanukovych. He is now the country's president, and protesters are livid about his decision to turn Ukraine's back on the European Union. The BBC's David Stern is in Kiev. Earlier today he told us what the protesters are calling for during their demonstrations.

David Stern: Revolution - out or down with the band, or the band of criminals they mean. They sing Ukrainian national anthem quite a lot, to be honest, and most of all I'd say they chant "Ukraine is Europe" in reference to the issue that sparked all of this - Ukraine's integration, or as it was, paused integration with the EU.

Werman: Right, I was gonna say, I hadn't heard the word "Europe" or "European Union" in any of those chants until you mentioned that last one there. So, what are they saying now about joining the EU? Is that still on the table for them?

Stern: Well the EU says it's on the table. They say when Ukraine is ready and when Ukraine wants, they are more than happy to receive them, but of course there are still some outstanding issues, and they seem to be growing with these demonstrations.

Werman: How has the Ukrainian government responded to these blockades of government buildings?

Stern: Well, the Ukrainian government has been very careful in its response, and in fact, we haven't really heard from President Yanukovych at all since the giant demonstrations and clashes yesterday. There have been reactions from the government. The speaker of the parliament has called for dialogue between the opposition and the government. The opposition is sticking by its demands that the government Prime Minister Nikolai Azarov resign, that they have fresh presidential elections, fresh parliamentary elections. President Yanukovych apparently has spoken to EU leaders and he is now sending a delegation to Brussels to reopen discussions, as they say, about some aspects of the association agreement.

Werman: Are there any signs that Yanukovych is nervous about these demonstrations?

Stern: Yes, I think he's very nervous. There are a lot of signs. What that nervousness means and what he will ultimately do is really the big question. Nobody knows. So, the government does feel pressure - there's no question about it. And they are making moves. In fact, President Yanukovych is going to investigate police violence, and when the police did crack down on the demonstrators, he said that he was deeply outraged. There has been reaction and there has been some moves towards the demonstrators, but obviously it's not what they want ultimately.

Werman: And yet I hear that demonstrators are starting to set up tents in the city, and it doesn't sound like they're going anywhere soon?

Stern: No, they're not. These protests have been very much demonstrator driven. The opposition has been basically swept along by a wave. There are a lot of indications that they are either not in control or they're just reacting.

Werman: The BBC's David Stern there in Kiev. For a little more background on the crisis there, we turn to another BBC reporter, Irena Taranyuk, who grew up in the western part of Ukraine. Why do the EU and Russia care so much about Ukraine, Irena? I mean, give us a sense of why this little former Soviet Republic means so much?

Irena Taranyuk: Marco, can I take up the issue with you about "little former Soviet Republic"? It's the largest geographically country in Europe. Pardon me, it's not so little, is it? Why does Ukraine matter geopolitically? Because without Ukraine, Russia will never again be an empire, and since coming back as the president of Russia, Mr. Putin has not tried to conceal his biggest ambition to recreate the USSR under the new name of Eurasian Economic Union. Ukraine, of course, is not willing to go back to the past, to go back to the authoritarian Russia's control, so Ukraine is trying to lean west, towards Europe. More democratic, more open, more transparent. But, is Europe prepared to embrace huge Ukraine? Like hell it is. Europe has a lot of problems of its own. Economic crisis. Post expansion. It's not ready for Ukraine yet.

Stern: Is there something else about Ukraine's connection to Russia though, that has less to do with geopolitics and maybe more to do with culture? Like what is Ukraine's cultural identity with that of Russia as a connection?

Taranyuk: Well, Marco, that's a problem. Ukraine and Russia share the same roots, the same origins. Russia considers Kiev to be the capital of the Russian so called "civilization", the cradle of eastern slavic culture, and one of the models of Ukrainian protesters is "Putin, if you love Ukraine, let it go. Let it go where Ukraine chooses to go," which is towards Europe.

Stern: Yeah, I mean that's gotta be creating tension, because the way you describe somehow feels like Russia has an odd sense of ownership over Ukraine.

Taranyuk: It sure does, and that's what Ukraine dislikes quite so much, because having been colonized by Russia for centuries, Ukraine wants - or is just getting used to its new place in the modern world. And of course mistakes are being made. The protests in Ukraine are probably making President Yanukovych think twice about what he did last week when he declined to sign the Association Agreement with the EU, because he didn't expect the popular mood to explode and to be quite so vehemently against his pose in european integration.

Stern: Irena, if I think back to the end of the Cold War, it seemed like there were new countries being carved out of the former USSR almost every other day. Did Russia ever put up a fight with Ukraine breaking away for its own independence?

Taranyuk: The fifteen constituent parts of the USSR were presented with a fait accompli by three presidents: Boris Yeltsin, Stanislav Shushkevich, and Leonid Kravchuk. They signed the agreement that dissolved the USSR and other former constituent parts of the USSR still begrudge this trio - the fact that they were not consulted. And some of them, like Russian President Vladimir Putin, still regard the dissolution of the USSR as the biggest geopolitical catastrophe of the twentieth century. Well Ukrainians, on the whole, disagree.

Stern: You know, there's this idea that's been floated that maybe Ukraine should go 50% Russia, 50% EU, but what do you think about that?

Taranyuk: Marco, if only it were that easy. Yes, there are people, particularly in the East and in the South of Ukraine who would rather stick to the past, but nobody, even Russians speaking Ukrainian in the East seriously consider going back to Russia. They want to be independent. They don't want to go to the EU much either, but they do want european standards of living in Ukraine. They want european standards of justice in Ukraine. Education, culture and civil servants that would make them proud rather than be the model of bribery and corruption.

Stern: The BBC's Irena Taranyuk, thanks so very much for your time.

Taranyuk: Thank you, Marco.