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By Global Public Square staff
Take a look at the extraordinary images from Ukraine in the video. Protesters in Kiev knocking down a giant statue of the Russian revolutionary leader Vladimir Lenin. Tens of thousands of Ukrainians cheering them on as they hack the fallen statue with hammers. The incident last Sunday was one of the most symbolic moments of the protests underway in Ukraine.
At the heart of these protests is a widespread frustration not only with the government in Kiev, but more so with Russian interference. To some, the moment recalled another defining moment, from 1989. That was the year Communism fell across eastern Europe, leading to the end of the Soviet Union, and, of course, to Ukraine's independence.
But you need to go much further back in history to understand what's really going on in Ukraine.
First, here's what sparked the crisis. In November, President Viktor Yanukovych pulled out of a proposed deal to forge closer ties with the European Union. Why? Well, one reason was that he had another offer, from Moscow. Russia wants Ukraine to join its Eurasian Customs Union, which already includes Belarus and Kazakhstan.
This is not a new story. The tug-of-war over Ukraine is rooted in history.
In his book The Clash of Civilizations, the political scientist Samuel Huntington pointed out that the divide between Western and Eastern Christianity runs right through the heart of Ukraine. And that divide, between two kinds of Christianity and thus two paths of political development, dates back to the Middle Ages – and it resonates in Ukraine's politics to this day.
Take a look at the map in the video, from Ukraine's 1994 presidential elections. Shaded in grey on the left are the provinces that voted for the incumbent, Leonid Kravchuk. On the right, those for the pro-Russian Leonid Kuchma. Both took 13 provinces each: an even split reflecting Ukraine's deep historical, cultural divide.
While Ukraine might have mixed feelings about its destiny, power politics has pushed it in one direction. Huntington writes that 1654 was the defining moment, the Cossacks pledged allegiance to Russia in return for help fighting off Polish rule. From then on, until independence in 1991, Ukraine was controlled by Moscow. The question is, will this domination continue into the 21st century?
It shouldn't. Much has changed since 1654. The forces of democracy, globalization, trade, and technology give Ukraine much greater freedom of action. And it shouldn’t be one person's decision to align with Russia or Europe. That's the anger that you see on the streets of Kiev: the people want to be involved in this fateful decision.
The choice on either side is clear. Europe will want Ukraine to modernize, to become more liberal and free, and to undertake serious economic reforms if it wants to become closer to the West. That choice is difficult in the short-term, but has long-term payoffs.
The alternative is rather different. Under Vladimir Putin, Russia essentially wants to maintain a sphere of influence, which would enhance Russian power. Putin will use a mixture of threats, bribes, and his own media resources to reach this goal. Take a striking moment last week on Russian TV. A Russian journalist was narrating a revisionist account of what he was seeing in Kiev. Then, suddenly, a Ukrainian journalist pops in the picture…and awards him what looks like an Oscar. It was for good acting, I suppose.
This battle for people's hearts and minds will continue in the coming weeks. But the real decision point comes in 2015, when Ukraine next goes to vote.
Perhaps one day, 2015 will be seen as a turning point, like 1654.