Ukraine Is Tearing Itself Apart

There is an internal struggle within Ukraine between western-minded young population and an aging population still nostalgic for the country's Soviet past.

Opposition leader Yuri Lutsenko addresses protesters as they march toward government headquarters, on Monday, Dec. 2, 2013, in Kiev, Ukraine. (Ivan Sekretarev/AP)
By + More

"They have free food and medical care, that's what I heard," one woman says. When I pointed out that volunteers were bringing in the food and nurses were going to the maidan of their own free will, she told me that it was fine for them to have their buffets, "but the rest of us have to get back to work."

It's true that in the east, many workers spent long, hard days in coalmines and other physically taxing industries. But in the same breath, they will tell you that by joining the EU, the Ukrainian government will be forced to increase the heavily subsidized public utilities and decrease monthly pensions.

[Read the U.S. News Debate: Is Europe Right to Abandon Austerity?]

They are probably right about that, as Ukraine's economy can't survive without serious economic reforms, among other changes the EU and the International Monetary Fund have suggested.

Some of them also say that they wish Ukraine had a leader like Belarus' Alexander Lukashenko, who would swoop in "and demolish the whole square quickly and that would be that," says one woman who won't give her name, only saying that she is from "the east."

In 2006, Lukashenko, the "last dictator of Europe," sent riot police to violently break up Belarus' biggest protests after alleged vote rigging in the presidential election that year.

[Read the U.S. News Debate: Should the Federal Reserve Keep Interest Rates Low?]

The anti-maidan protestors also won't hesitate to tell you that the "east feeds the west," a common slogan of Yanukovich's Party of Regions political party, referring to the region's coal and steel industries. What they don't mention – or perhaps just ignore – is the fact that the Ukrainian budget props up the antiquated, state-owned coalmines with $160 million a year. Meanwhile, global demand for steel, Ukraine's biggest export, is on the decline.

Ukraine's economy is in a desperate situation, so it's no wonder Yanukovich accepted Russian's $15 billion loan deal and offer of lower gas prices. Now protestors want to know what cost it will exact on their struggling democracy. Putin wants Ukraine to join a Moscow-lead trade block that includes Kazakhstan and Belarus, which antigovernment protestors say will throw them back under Russia's control.

Whatever the terms Yanukovich signed on to with Russia, Ukraine is likely to see many more maidans in its future, at least until the country is able to completely shake off its crippling Soviet mentality.

  • Read Olga Oliker: Ukraine's Protest-Ridden Path to a Future With the EU or Russia
  • Read Daniel Gallington: NSA Looks at Americans' Data Within the Confines of the Law
  • Check out U.S. News Weekly, available on iPad