Internal rift within Ukraine set to widen

Internal rift within Ukraine set to widen
A woman shouts slogans and holds a Ukrainian flag as she takes part in an opposition rally at Independence Square in Kiev on December 2, 2013. Tens of thousands have been protesting in Kiev, occupying City Hall and blocking entrances to the government headquarters, in an ongoing standoff after the government failed to sign a key EU pact.

UKRAINE- Thousands of protesters continue to besiege government buildings in Ukraine, as anger at its President's decision to ditch a deal on free trade and political ties with the European Union in favour of closer links with Russia grips large parts of this former Soviet nation.

While Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, who has been in power since 2010 and continues to enjoy the backing of wealthy businessmen and the security services, is not under immediate threat, his decision to turn Ukraine away from Europe, effectively consigning it to a Russian sphere of influence, is expected to aggravate an internal divide within his country.

Despite its vast territory and 45 million people with an ancient culture and language, Ukraine had no independent existence as a state until the Soviet Union disintegrated in 1991. Up to a third of Ukrainians continue to speak Russian as their mother tongue and regard Russia as their ultimate protector.

This division is not only linguistic, but also territorial. Russian speakers are concentrated in the eastern part of the country, while in western Ukraine, which used to be part of the Austrian-Hungarian empire, most people are ardent nationalists who detest Russia and see Ukraine as part of the West.

Ukraine's balancing act between these two irreconcilable parts is made more difficult by Russia. No Russian leader has ever accepted that Ukraine, which Russians regard as the cradle of their civilisation, is lost for ever; the assumption in Moscow is Ukrainian independence remains a temporary phenomenon which Moscow can reverse by supporting pro-Russian domestic politicians.

Mr Yanukovych, who hails from eastern Ukraine, was always Russia's preferred leader, especially since one of his first acts upon winning power was to jail Yulia Tymoshenko, his rival and Ukraine's most famous pro-Western leader, on charges of corruption.

Still, when earlier this year the European Union touted its new "Eastern Partnership" idea to Ukraine, he showed interest. For, although the offer included no promise of full membership in the EU, it did promise a large measure of free trade and political support. But after dealing with EU negotiators for a while, he sent them packing, opting for an alliance with Russia instead.

The decision was almost entirely influenced by Mr Yanukovych's personal calculations. He faces re-election next year just as the Ukrainian economy is nose-diving. A deal with the EU cannot produce the quick economic benefits he needs; that can come only from Russia, which offered cash and also guaranteed Mr Yanukovych would not have to deal with pesky European election observers on ballot day next year.

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