December 10, 2013
“Would anyone anywhere in the world be willing to take a truncheon in the head for the sake of a trade agreement with the United States?”, asks Timothy Snyder acerbically in his article “A Way Out for Ukraine?” knowing the answer perfectly well.
Many Ukrainians, indeed, got truncheons in their heads in the past two weeks, as they were protesting on the streets of Kyiv against their government’s last-moment decision to abstain from signing the Association Agreement with the EU. Timothy Snyder is well aware that it is not the Agreement per se that mobilized the protesters but their hope for a “normal life in a normal country” which the agreement had envisaged and come to symbolize. Now, as the government had stolen that hope, they feel deceived – it’s not just about this single incident, but about their whole lives, the whole development of the country stuck for 22 years in a grey zone between post-Soviet autocracies to the East and increasingly democratizing and prosperous neighbours to the West.
There were too many hopes and too many disappointments in the past 22 years – starting with national independence, endorsed by 90% of the citizens but compromised eventually by a predatory elite, and ending probably with the Orange Revolution, which also failed to deliver on its promises. The inauguration of Viktor Yanukovych as president in 2010 and the dismissal of the feckless Orange government only made bad things worse. Within a few years, the narrow circle of the president’s allies (nicknamed “the Family”) usurped all power, destroyed the court system, accumulated enormous resources via corruption schemes, and encroached heavily on human right and civil liberties.
Indeed, it might be a blessing in disguise that these people withheld the Agreement, and that a country with such a regime is not taken “into Europe”. But the problem is that they already ARE in Europe – with their villas, stolen money, and diplomatic passports that make the visa-free regime for the rest of Ukrainians unnecessary. They benefit from the rule of law and from property rights in the West, while systemically undermining these things in their own country. It is not them, but Ukraine – its forty-plus million people – who are excluded “from Europe”, whilst the ruling elite enjoys la dolce vita in Western resorts, sucking the last resources from the impoverished country.
For many Ukrainians, the Association Agreement was the last hope to fix these things peacefully, i.e., to make their rulers obey the law, and to get the EU’s support in their attempts to re-establish the rule of law in the country. Most of them have little if any illusion about the ruling clique. But for many of them, including myself, the Agreement had two clear meanings. On the government side, it would have meant a commitment not to steal, not to lie, and not to cheat so much and so unscrupulously. And on the EU side, it would have meant merely to take care of this commitment and help us, wherever possible, to enforce it.
The current government has never been serious about signing the document initiated by their Orange predecessors, and even less serious about its coherent implementation. Yanukovych’s refusal to sign it was a moment of truth, and Maidan is simply a reaction to that truth – a farewell to illusions, and a recognition of reality. The standoff between the government and the protesters may last for a long time, and its result looks unpredictable. It is very unlikely yet that the people who captured the state like Somalian pirates would give up easily. Whatever the outcome, however, three conclusions can already be drawn.
First of all, Ukrainian society proved once again its resilience, its ability to self-organize and act mostly peacefully, despite various provocations – from both the government and quasi-oppositional radicals, generally suspected to be cooperating with the government. Most importantly, both the 2004 and the 2013 protests were clearly value-driven. People went onto the streets not for bread, higher salaries or a populist leader, but for their own dignity, for justice and the hope to live like “in Europe”. They still try (and will try in the future, whatever happens today) to complete the unfinished revolution that swept away the corrupt authoritarian regimes in Eastern Europe from 1989 to 1991 but which stopped, reluctantly, at Ukraine’s western border. If the West fails, once again, to understand this message properly and respond adequately, we will probably witness another cycle of authoritarian Gleichschaltung, stagnation and, inevitably, popular resistance and another upheaval. Even though a substantial part of Ukrainian society, especially in the Southeast, looks in the opposite direction and largely adheres to Soviet values, the very nature of these values keeps their civic mobilization low and unsuitable for the government. Moreover, demography itself dooms Yanukovych’s autocracy: all the opinion surveys reveal a strong correlation between the respondents’ young age and their commitment to European values.
Secondly, the unprecedented monopolization of power and concentration of resources carried out by Yanukovych and his inner circle within the past four years has not, in the end, made their position stronger than that of Leonid Kuchma, who had pursued more flexible ‘divide and rule’ tactics (until he was disqualified by the ‘tape scandal’). Yanukovych today faces resistance not only from civil society and entire regions, which encompass virtually half of the country. He also seems to get only lukewarm support from his fellow-oligarchs. So far, all the major TV channels they control have provided balanced, non-partisan coverage of events – in striking difference to 2004, when all the main channels aired extremely dirty propagandistic materials against the opposition until the revolution erupted. The tough control of Yanukovych’s close associates over the law-enforcement agencies may tempt him to use even more radical measures against the protesters, especially if his Moscow advisers and provocateurs push him in this direction. The victory will be, however, pyrrhic. It is easy to win with bayonets, but difficult to sit on them. Russia may help, of course. But even if Yanukovych ceded all sovereignty to Mr Putin, the Kremlin would encounter the same problem with Ukraine as it had with Hungary, Poland, the Baltic states and some other indigestible regions of the empire. Russia may delay Ukraine’s westward drift, but she cannot stop it.
And thirdly, the Ukrainian opposition is in a weaker position today than it was nine years ago, when the ‘Orange’ mobilization was merely a continuation of the election campaign, when electoral fraud was largely expected and protest actions well prepared, when Viktor Yushchenko as the common leader had an undisputable authority over all factions, and the incumbent Leonid Kuchma was a lame duck with a vested interest in safe retirement. Now, the protests erupted from below and apparently surprised even the leaders of the opposition, who seem not to have found a common leader, a unified position, or clear tactics yet. The presence of the radical nationalistic party Svoboda in their ranks also makes their position more vulnerable, even though Oleh Tiahnybok, Svoboda’s leader, has declared his support for nonviolent struggle. (Back in 2004, he was expelled from Yushchenko’s Our Ukraine block for xenophobic and anti-Semitic statements.) This makes negotiations between the opposition and Yanukovych’s regime even more difficult. International mediation is now more necessary than ever.
The West certainly cannot solve Ukraine’s multiple problems; that task falls to Ukrainians themselves. But the West can facilitate conditions for problem solving, especially when the Kremlin does not spare any effort to do the opposite. The most urgent thing the EU should do is to send a very clear signal that no violence will be tolerated. This signal should be sent not in words, but in deeds. At least ONE Ukrainian official should be ostracized, as soon as possible, and in an exemplary way. The interior minister, many believe, is a primary candidate for this deserving real sanctions. Otherwise Viktor Yanukovych and Co will escalate the violence, and the EU will share the responsibility for its usual fecklessness.
Mykola Riabchuk is a political and cultural analyst based in Kyiv, and currently a EURIAS Senior Visiting Fellow at the IWM, Vienna. His most recent book, Gleichschaltung. Authoritarian Consolidation in Ukraine, 2010-2012, was published in both Ukrainian and English.