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Opinion

May 20, 2014

Watson: Ukraine conflict may yet defeat Putin

The election a week ago in parts of eastern Ukraine really put a punctuation mark on how quickly political passions there have surfaced and evolved.

Ukraine, for 92 years a part of the Soviet Union, and for centuries a Russian culture, has been independent only since 1991. Although it has a large agricultural sector and significant and varied industry, the country has suffered intermittently from recessions, strikes, inflation and other economic setbacks. The government, though organized as a democracy, has displayed its share of fraud and corruption. There is also an unhealthy excess of oligarchy, the concentration of power — especially corporate power — in too few hands.

It was largely the corruption, though, especially under President Yanukovych, combined with his last-minute decision to halt closer economic ties with Europe, that triggered the demonstrations and protests in the streets of Kiev last November.

The population of Ukraine — 45 million — speaks in 18 languages, but the predominant ones are Russian and Ukrainian. Although nominally only 17 percent of the population is Russian, far greater numbers are part-Russian and speak the language. There are strong divided loyalties in Ukraine, and the current crisis is both cause and effect of that.

Most of Ukraine’s citizenry, especially in the western and central parts of the country, have been looking forward to closer ties and more trade with Europe to increase business and job opportunities in the country. While the eastern portion of Ukraine holds the largest concentration of Russians, even they are divided about partnering with Europe versus allying with Russia.

When the street protests in Kiev turned into riots and violence, with Yanukovych sending in police using live ammunition, growing numbers of permanent protesters occupied government buildings and the main public square. Yanukovych fled to Russia in late February, and there has been an interim president since then. New elections will be held on May 25.

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