from From the Potomac to the Euphrates and Middle East Program

Ukraine’s Uprising: More Than an Economic Crisis

March 3, 2014

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This article was originally published here on Fortune.com on Friday, February 28, 2014.

Over the last three years, as uprisings and demonstrations have erupted around the world, journalists, pundits, and other analysts have wrongly drawn parallels between these events. When protests broke out in Istanbul last spring, some news outlets wondered whether Taksim Square was Turkey’s "Tahrir Square" -- a reference to the now iconic traffic roundabout in central Cairo where Egyptian demonstrations brought an end to then president Hosni Mubarak’s rule in early 2011.

More recently, journalists covering Ukraine’s uprising against ousted President Viktor Yanukovych have made direct comparison to Tahrir Square. These comparisons make great copy and perhaps keep viewers interested, but they are largely superficial. It is true that the protests that brought down both Mubarak and Yanukovych were in squares whose names are derived similarly, but other than at that most abstract level, the political dynamics in Egypt and Ukraine are hardly analogous.

Yet there is one specific area where the Egyptians and the Ukrainians have strikingly similar challenges: Both countries are broke. And this raises the prospects for further political instability.

Neither Egypt’s 2011 uprising nor the recent demonstrations in Ukraine was principally about economic grievances, however. Egyptians poured into the streets wanting to live in a freer and more just society. Ukrainians were responding to Yanukovych’s rejection of an agreement with the European Union in favor of a generous financial assistance package from Moscow. Although the trigger for the protests in Kiev may have been linked directly to trade, finance, and the country’s economic well-being, for many Ukrainians, the demonstrations were about their country’s identity.

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