BY HANNAH BLYTH
With the memories of optimism that came with the 2004 Orange Revolution fading, 2014 saw Ukraine once again become a regular fixture in the media headlines, but this time for far less hopeful reasons. The removal of a president, incursions by Russian-backed rebel forces and conflict throughout much of the country’s east, the shooting down of a Malaysian commercial jet over its territory, and the annexation of Crimea, it has been an annus horribilis for Ukraine in 2014. This sharp decent in fragility has been clearly reflected in the country’s score in the 2015 Index, but also prompts a reflection about the state’s underlying structural issues which enabled such a rapid fall from grace.
In late 2013, widespread protests broke out against then-President Yanukovych, who spurned an association agreement with the European Union in favor of US$15 billion in assistance and gas supply reduction from his close Russian ally President Putin. With violence escalating between protesters and government forces in early 2014, the world watched closely as scenes of chaos and destruction in Independence Square erupted in February, with uniformed snipers firing on protestors as they seized government buildings. With President Yanukovych fleeing after being deposed by Parliament and an interim President installed later that month, it marked only the beginning of a much wider conflict for Ukraine ridden by ethnic tensions and regional power struggles.
Inflamed by a Parliamentary vote to ban Russian as the second official language, though overturned, ethnic tensions between Ukrainian and Russian speaking populations sparked a swift dissent into armed conflict. Pro-Russian militants seized the eastern region of Crimea, with Russia declaring its annexation in March, and continuing their expansion into Donetsk and Luhansk in May.
Amid violent clashes between Ukrainian military forces and separatists with rising casualties, Petro Poroshenko was elected as the new Ukrainian President with strong support from the United States and European Union. Further turmoil within the east continued in July, when Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 was shot down when flying over separatist-controlled Ukrainian territory, killing all 298 passengers. Garnering international outrage, and prompting fresh sanctions by the EU and U.S. on Russia, within a few short months the conflict had become an international focal point for declining Russian and Western relations.
With Ukraine’s Index score worsening year-on-year by 9.1 points, the embattled state saw an eruption of the deep simmering socio-economic and ethnic divides combined with weak governance, Factionalized Elites and external influences which had besieged the country for years. The military conflict still underway in 2015 between Russian separatists and Ukrainian forces speaks to the long-held tensions between the 30 per cent minority Russian-speaking population and the 67 per cent majority Ukrainian speaking population.
Since the 1990s, leadership of Ukraine has historically been aligned with Russia. With the exception of the brief period after the Orange Revolution in 2004, the government has derived much of its domestic support from the minority Russian-speaking population. In spite of this, language discrimination against the Russia-speaking minority has remained widespread, negatively impacting economic integration within the country. As a middle-income country with high debt and slow growth, Ukraine has been beset with socio-economic issues and Human Flight. It has relied heavily on trade with Russia, and was severely impacted by the 2008 financial crisis, in part because of a lack of diversification. Unemployment spiked in 2009 and has reached new highs since conflict broke out last year. This has been particularly salient in eastern areas where industry has been affected by the insecurity, perpetuating the deep animosity driven by socio-economic and ethnic rifts.
As these Ukrainian-Russian divisions only continue to be exacerbated by military conflict and a pro-Western President Poroshenko, and in turn becoming a proxy for fractious regional power politics, Ukraine has a little hope of addressing its deepening insecurity. Through focusing on strengthening governance, economic stability and social inclusion in the face of conflict and external intervention, Ukraine may just be able to resurface its Orange Revolution optimism to avoid falling into the dangerous spiral of state fragility.