Torn between East and West, Ukraine debates future

The European Union criticized Russia for pressuring Ukraine into abandoning a landmark free trade deal with the EU in favor of strengthening ties with Moscow.
EU leaders expressed frustration with Russia on Friday, the final day of a two-day EU summit in the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius, that was expected to mark the signing of the agreement.But Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych told the summit Ukraine needs economic and financial support from the European Union before Kyiv can sign the trade deal. Russia has denied exerting political and economic pressure on Ukraine to delay the signing.
Despite heavy pressure from Russia, two other former Soviet republics, Georgia and Moldova, initialed political and trade agreements with the EU at the summit.As European leaders try to persuade Ukraine to sign on to the trade deal, its people face an uncertain future.
EU President Herman van Rompuy said he hoped Ukraine would sign the deal “sooner or later,” and that there will be ongoing dialogue with Kyiv on the agreement to expand a free trade zone between the EU and Ukraine.

But after decades of Soviet rule followed by a high degree of economic dependence on Russia, Ukranians are nervous about antagonizing Moscow.

Strong ties

Zhernklyovy is a remote Ukrainian village still firmly influenced by Russia and its past. Stark monuments to Soviet war victories occupy the higher ground; among them, a full-sized replica of a fighter jet, pointing to the sky.

Nearby is another monument commemorating the 1933 Great Famine. Millions of Ukrainians starved to death under Soviet dictator Josef Stalin’s program of collectivization.

The mayor of the village, Grigory Timofiyovych, says that history is not forgotten.

“Everyone condemns what happened in 1933 but they connect it to Stalin,” Timofiyovych said through an interpreter. “Nobody holds modern Russia guilty.”

Horse-drawn carts and Russian-built tractors ply Zhernklyovy’s potholed roads. Much of the agricultural produce—potatoes and corn—is traded with Russia.Timofiyovych says people fear turning away from Ukraine’s big neighbor to the east.”The economy is suffering,” he said. “We already have strong ties with Russia. We can’t break those ties and go with the European Union. Perhaps people do have a better standard of life in the EU, but breaking ties with Russia would not be right.”

Local farmer Igor is among the few people venturing out into a biting north wind. He agrees that now is not the time to abandon Russia; but, he says, European integration is Ukraine’s destiny.

“For me now personally, I don’t need Europe,” he said. “But, for my children…yes, they definitely need to be part of it.”

  • Police stand guard in front of protesters during a demonstration in support of EU integration at Independence Square in Kyiv, Nov. 29, 2013.

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Hundreds of kilometers west in a hot basement gym in downtown Kyiv, the tension is palpable at the Ukraine junior boxing trials. Young athletes have come from across the country.

The winners will go on to represent Ukraine and maybe emulate national hero Vitali Klitschko, the reigning World Boxing Council heavyweight champion and Ukrainian opposition politician who supports closer ties with the European Union.

Oleg Skriplenko, 16, is not sure where his country’s future should lie. Oleg says he wants, first of all, Ukraine to be independent.

“On the one hand, going with Europe is right, as we would get visa-free travel,” he said. “But, on the other hand, everything will be turned upside down and it’s possible the economy will really suffer.”

In the streets outside, thousands of young people gather for another night of demonstrations in Kyiv. The protesters here fear Ukraine has let an opportunity slip away, and with it, their future in Europe.

“We come today to present our opinion about Ukraine entering the European Union,” said student Andrey Maximif. “We believe that if we will get the chance, we will live better, we will have a better chance for democracy in Ukraine.”

From the cities to the windswept plains, Ukraine’s future is being debated more than ever. The dilemma: whether to forge a new path or to stick with the old partner to the east.

(Photo, of a Soviet-era monument in Zhernklyovy village, eastern Ukraine: Henry Ridgwell, VOANews)