The riot police moved in violently to disperse the furious crowds in Kiev's Independence Square at the weekend, prompting calls for western sanctions from opposition leaders as protesters regroup in other parts of the city. Demonstrations have been going on all week in favour of a historic trade deal with the EU, after President Viktor Yanukovych backed out of the agreement. The turmoil on the streets underscores the stark choice Ukraine faces between the long-term benefits of closer ties with its European neighbours or the immediate fear of a winter without cheap Russian gas.
Students held up banners in English that read "Ukraine is part of Europe!" and "Back to Russia? Oh bitch, pls!". Their target was not local media but the TV cameras of the west, though in nearby European Square another rally has also been in full swing, with slogans in Ukrainian and political parties vying for a piece of the action despite the students' request that they refrain from electioneering at this time. Never one to miss a trick, the jailed opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko went on hunger strike again. It was partly the EU's championing of Tymoshenko, claiming her imprisonment is political, that led to the breakdown of these talks.
It's tempting to think of Tymoshenko as an innocent heroine imprisoned for speaking out against tyranny, a sort of Slavic Aung San Suu Kyi. Tymoshenko's coiled plait of hair – the same hairstyle as my mother's – represents traditional Ukrainian womanhood, custodian of older, simpler values, dressed in white for purity and carrying sheaves of wheat symbolising the land. But like macho Vladimir Putin's oiled pectorals, it's all part of a carefully constructed PR image.For Tymoshenko is no innocent girl from the countryside.
Stories of how she became an overnight billionaire following the collapse of the Soviet Union abound. The obscure charge she was jailed on in 2011 is to do with questionable gas contracts she awarded in 2009. But there's almost certainly an element of government vindictiveness too.
Her nemesis, Yanukovych, was born in 1950 into a working-class family in eastern Ukraine, and rose steadily through the ranks of the Communist party to become governor of Donetsk, a coal and steel city that was once twinned with Sheffield. His political heartland is the rust belt of the Donbass region, with its struggling industries, high unemployment, Greek Orthodox religion, and a mix of Ukrainian and Russian as the everyday language.
Meanwhile, in western Ukraine, which had once been a part of the Catholic Austro-Hungarian empire and still sees itself as part of the west, a growing, vocal nationalist movement has grown ever more impatient with Kiev's continuing links with Russia.
Kiev itself – home of the intelligentsia, poised between the east and the west, cultured, cosmopolitan and historic – is one of the great capital cities of Europe. These three regions are all part of the Ukrainian identity, but coexist under tension that occasionally erupts fiercely, as in the "orange revolution" almost nine years ago.
In 2004, Yanukovych ran for president. His opponent, the charismatic Viktor Yushchenko, seemed a different sort of politician, progressive and westward looking. When Yanukovych narrowly defeated him, the allegations of widespread electoral fraud erupted on to the streets of Kiev in the orange revolution, in which Tymoshenko first came to prominence. This forced a rerun, and Yushchenko won, appointing Tymoshenko as his prime minister.
In office, however, the former allies squabbled constantly, paralysing Ukrainian political life, and disillusioning many supporters. A year later, Yanukovych was re-elected, apparently legitimately. He promoted his allies, clamped down on independent journalists, and jailed his opponents. When Tymoshenko was put on trial, Yushchenko, once her ally, was among those who gave evidence against her, while canny Putin called for her release.
Putin now stands accused by the EU of applying economic pressure to grab Ukraine back into Russia's orbit. He has already embargoed imports of sweets and chocolates from Ukraine, but the more serious looming threat is to do with gas. For gas contracts are at the heart of this story. If Ukraine throws in its lot with the EU, it will have to pay the full market price for gas, losing the concessionary rate enjoyed at present. Such a rise would be catastrophic for precarious Ukrainian businesses and families facing the country's fierce winter with skyrocketing fuel bills. Set against this, the lukewarm blandishments of the EU, which come with IMF austerity strings and the sting in the tail of a pardon for Tymoshenko, don't seem that attractive. No wonder Yanukovych is dithering.
Ukrainian nationalists, faced with Putin's perfectly understandable display of self-interest, have whipped themselves into a frenzy of anti-Russian sentiment. Meanwhile, Yanukovych, finding himself suddenly courted by two great powers, clumsily tries to extract what he can from the situation. From her prison cell, Tymoshenko has requested that her imprisonment should not prevent the signing of the agreement, but she taunts Yanukovych, telling him he's not clever enough to play off Russia and the EU against each other.
For the young people in the square, this whole game of political tit-for-tat is what they reject. For them, the EU represents modernity, transparency in political life, an escape from the stifling embrace of the past, and freedom from Russia's zone of power. They see themselves as part of the global community of youth, complete with tent cities and Anonymous masks. Many young Ukrainians identify with the Scottish nationalists in pulling away from their former colonial power, and believe their nation too can be an independent, modern and prosperous state within Europe. They are educated, idealistic and full of hope. But is the EU ready for them? I wish them luck, but I fear our European politicians are closer in style than they realise to Yanukovych and Tymoshenko.
Marina Lewycka is a writer who used to lecture in media studies at Sheffield Hallam University.