UKRAINE, HERE WE GO AGAIN
Ukraine is no Bangladesh, neither Bangladesh is Ukraine. But people in both countries have similar aspirations, hopes, and rights to choose
The crisis in Ukraine is apparently coming to a closure with the Ukraine parliament dismissing its president and the president reportedly gone to hiding. In a dramatic turn of events, the man who was holding his country under an iron grip and refused to yield to popular demands turning guns against his people instead is now being sought for trial.
For weeks, Ukraine – a former component of the mighty Soviet Union was on the verge of a meltdown. Street protests that started in November over a trade pact that was to be agreed with the European Union have swelled into something much bigger. The agreement would have brought Ukraine closer to other European countries, opened up trade and employment opportunities for the Ukrainians. Majority of the Ukrainians favoured this pact.
Initially the country’s president had insisted that he was intent on signing the agreement, but then he dithered. He dithered because Ukraine’s great neighbour Russia opposed such agreement. It threatened its much smaller neighbour with sanctions and other dire consequences such as steep prices for gas that Ukraine imports from Russia.
Russia would instead like Ukraine and its other neighbours to join an alternative common economic zone. Under pressure, the Ukrainian president made a volte face, and stopped further talks with the EU, but people who favored a closer tie with EU came out on the streets and protests took the form of riots.
The protests took a wider turn days later to a demand that the president loosen his grip on power and the constitution be changed. In the years that the current President Yanokovych came to power he had made the president’s office more powerful and more authoritarian.
As a result, the eastern European country fell in the midst of a wave of anti-government protests, the likes of which it hasn’t seen in 10 years. Ironically, the protests that rocked this country called the Orange Revolution were targeted against the same president from November 2004 to January 2005 immediately after the presidential election.
The elections were claimed to be fraudulent, and marred by massive corruption and voter intimidation. Nationwide, the democratic revolution was highlighted by a series of acts of civil disobedience, sit-ins, and general strikes organised by the opposition movement. The protests ended after the Supreme Court intervened and ordered a revote and the president’s opponent was declared the real winner. In a dramatic turnaround some six years later in 2010, Yanukovych would be reelected president. History is repeating itself, but this time the protests are for something bigger.
There is something eerily familiar between what is happening now in Ukraine and the events that occurred last year in Bangladesh. The riots and mayhems happening in Kiev now and those in Dhaka last year may differ in scale—there have been over 100 deaths in Kiev already, but deaths in Dhaka were fewer—but in terms of political objectives , protest tactics, and general unrest they have close similarities. In Ukraine the opposition is relentless and it is pursuing every which way it can to bring down the government, particularly the current president.
They have occupied the main square of the city called Maidan, and are carrying out attacks on law enforcing agencies, buildings, and other property public or private. Molotov cocktails are flying like Frisbees in a park, stones are hurled at Police, and Police are retaliating sometimes with fire and other times with riot repelling equipment. For those in Bangladesh it is kind of a déjà vu.
We can argue that a riotous crowd behaves the same way in other countries. Clashes between protesters and law enforcing agencies in many countries have drawn similar violent results. But there is another odd similarity among the actors in the two countries that are thousands of miles apart.
The political opposition in Bangladesh was agitating for elections under a neutral care taker government the way the previous elections were held. The government changed that provision after the ruling party came in power.
The opposition protested as it was afraid elections under the government in power would be massively manipulated. The Ukrainian opposition protest also started on a single demand that the country make a pact with European Union. The Ukrainian president had assured his country that the pact would be made, but he reneged on it later.
Things get complicated thereon. This is where foreign interests make intrusion in both countries. A major reason why the Ukrainian president postponed signing the pact with EU was Russian threat to increase gas prices and other sanctions. But as the protesters took to the streets and the fights between them and law enforcing agencies grew on a horrendous scale the European Union started giving stern messages to Ukrainian government to stop the repression or face sanctions from the Union. While the Ukrainian government is caught between a rock and hard place, the masses in Ukraine face an uncertain future from the deadlock.
A flash back to our own political crisis last year. While the opposition staged protest after protest and brought the urban areas to a standstill pursuing their demands, the government dug its heel and turned a deaf ear to the protests. Day after day the masses suffered from shutdown of markets, transports, and closure of business and industry.
Foreign negotiators arrived in the scene to make the parties seek a solution to the crisis, but to no avail as the negotiators themselves showed their biases to one party or another. Our big neighbor wanted a solution that would please the ruling party, while others proffered a solution that would please the other side. The result was what we witnessed in January.
Ukraine is no Bangladesh, neither Bangladesh is Ukraine. But people in both countries have similar aspirations, hopes, and rights to choose. The Ukrainians fought for their rights to choose some ten years ago without intimidation and vote fraud, and they won. This time they are fighting their government to join in a trade pact with a group of countries that they think will bring better future for their country. However, later they extended their fight to bring about changes in a system that stifles democratic rights and freedom. They would like changes that would create some distance between their country and Mother Russia. For now it seems people of Ukraine have succeeded.
In Bangladesh the changes did not happen the way the opposition wanted it. In part because the people in whose name the opposition fought the battles were largely missing from these fights. In most cases they became victims and not participants.
The cause perhaps did not create much vibration among people. But the danger is that failure of the opposition to stir up the people may create a false sense of confidence in the ruling party. It may lead to further authoritarian activism in the government, and greater leaning toward one great power. This may cause again a popular unrest of the Ukrainian scale. Our leaders should take heed from the Ukraine example, and not be lulled to sleep with complacency because the opposition was unable to stir up the masses last time. The next time the masses may rise on their own.
FEBRUARY 26, 2014