Let Ukrainians decide their future
An opportunity too important to fritter away dangles tantalisingly before Ukraine. The ousting of president Viktor Yanukovych and setting of elections for May 25 could put the nation on the democratic path that a succession of corrupt leaders have refused to allow. But with the country of 56 million people torn between looking to Europe or Russia and locked in a tug-of-war for influence, there are immense challenges. The best chance for stability and prosperity is for outsiders to stop interfering and allow Ukrainians to decide their own future.
The deep scars left by the bloody violence of recent weeks are reason enough for the West and Moscow to stay at arms length. Dozens of people were killed and hundreds injured when riot police stormed Independence Square in Kiev, which anti-Yanukovych protesters had occupied since November. The brutality was too much for lawmakers; with the prospect of civil war, they removed the president, announced elections, granted amnesty to demonstrators and freed jailed opposition leader and former prime minister Yuliya Tymoshenko. These are troubled times far removed from the Orange Revolution of 2004, when Yanukovych's attempt to rig presidential elections led to leadership change through peaceful mass protests.
Also different this time is the pressure from the European Union and US on the one side and Russia on the other to win over Ukraine as an ally. The nation straddles eastern Europe and Russia and until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 was firmly in Moscow's orbit. But the democracy and rights that independence brought for other former Soviet countries did not come for Ukrainians; the greed of many politicians stifled growth. Even Tymoshenko, heroine of the 2004 protests and likely to be a front runner in the upcoming polls, is tainted.
For Europeans and the US, a pro-Western leader in Kiev would have strategic benefits and uphold their democratic and human rights principles. For many Russians, President Vladimir Putin included, the history of Ukraine and their country is intrinsically entwined. The problem is compounded by the divisions created by the Moscow-leaning, Russian-speaking east of the country and Crimea, and the nationalist-minded western region, once part of Austria and Poland.
The EU wants closer economic integration and Putin has grand plans for a Eurasian Union, of which Ukraine is an integral part. But it is not for them to decide. Which way the country should look is for Ukrainians to decide at the ballot box.