Ukraine Tries To Subtly Shift Westward Without Upsetting Russian Bear

Kiev doesn't want to risk its ties with Moscow, but can't afford to pass up economic opportunities in Europe. And where does that leave jailed opposition chief Yulia Tymoshenko?

Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych and President of the European Commission José Manuel Barroso
Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych and President of the European Commission José Manuel Barroso
Cathrin Kahlweit

MUNICH — It was two years ago that a Kiev court sent Yulia Tymoshenko to prison for abuse of power. Ukraine's former prime minister had been running short on good press for some time as her lengthy power struggle with former president Viktor Yushchenko had tarnished her positive image as a symbol of the Orange Revolution.

But Tymoshenko's image would start to change yet again after her arrest. The political trial that followed, along with a series of politically motivated accusations, and a serious illness, rehabilitated her in the eyes of the West. From prison, she gradually became the face of the movement for those who wanted Ukraine to move closer to the European Union.

After the fall of the Soviet Union, the EU looked on its eastern neighbor with an almost maternal affection. Reform was slow in coming, as corruption hampered Ukraine’s development. Meanwhile, the elite were too friendly with Russia for the EU’s taste and the country’s industry was hopelessly antiquated. But the world’s attention was drawn back to Ukraine after the protests about rigged elections in 2004 led to the Orange Revolution.

The country was keen to cement ties with the West but didn’t want to lose its close relationship with Russia — an approach that Kiev’s foreign ministry calls “equidistance.” Viktor Yanukovych’s government tried to find a pragmatic solution to the country’s greatest dilemma: How could Ukraine reconcile its economic relationship with Russia and dependency on that country for energy needs, with greater openness to the European market?

When compromise means victory

Now Brussels has made an offer Kiev cannot refuse: an association agreement that could eventually lead to EU membership. Western standards, products, innovation and investment all come as part of the agreement, which should profit both parties, although the Europe's advantage may be mainly in transmitting western values to a post-Soviet country.

The Ukrainian people generally back the agreement, as do the majority of businessmen and opposition politicians. The agreement offers President Yanukovych — who will stand for re-election in 2015 — the chance to create a lasting legacy from his time in office. But it also conflicts with offers from Moscow: entry into the customs union, and eventually a Eurasian economic union.

The stakes are high for both sides. The Russian government is shaking its fist and issuing threats, but it is also making efforts to entice Ukraine towards stronger ties. If Moscow were to be pushed out of its former sphere of influence, it would set a precedent and therefore undermine the dream of a Eurasian union. However, Russia’s efforts are merely strengthening Brussels’ determination. Now the EU hopes that the long wished-for transformation will finally take place. Ukraine will be stabilized, democratized and pulled away from Moscow.

Yanukovych is in a good bargaining position. If the association agreement does not succeed, it would be a political debacle for the EU. Brussels' conditions for the agreement include reforms of the justice system and electoral law — but it seems likely these may be swept under the carpet in order to secure Yanukovych’s signature, perhaps by the end of November.

There is too much at stake for the EU to turn away. The human symbol of the negotiations, Yulia Tymoshenko, may have left the country by then to be treated for her spinal condition — although the president has not yet indicated whether he will issue a pardon. Brussels would have to content itself with this compromise, and Yanukovych may celebrate another small victory, as it is highly unlikely that his opponent will be able to stand against him in 2015.

Brussels and Kiev are heading towards an agreement, a victory for political realism. But there is still some hope left for the idealists. While this agreement would not transform Ukraine overnight, it would give the EU more influence and set Ukraine on the road to establishing democratic values in everyday life. And that, in the long run, would certainly be a significant victory.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.

"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionnable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!