For the best part of a week and a half I have been glued to my computer screen, watching the ongoing developments in Kiev and now the Crimea with a mixture of horror, euphoria and trepidation. The events in Ukraine are of personal significance for several reasons. My family origins in the country give the events a greater level of poignancy. My political awareness of Eastern Europe also came to life in late 2004 at the time of the Orange Revolution, which subsequently inspired me to engage with and debate the politics of the region. And lastly, the renewed idealism that Maidan can provide hope, if faint, for elsewhere in Eastern Europe, particularly Russia and Belarus, that I care deeply about as a result of personal ties and background.
Last summer I interned for a month in Odessa at EUBAM, a European Union mission assisting with control and management of the Moldovan-Ukrainian border. A mere two and a months before the Vilnius summit at which it was hoped Ukraine would sign a European Union Association Agreement, and while Russia tightened the screws on the Ukrainian economy in the hope of dissuading Kiev, there was real uncertainty in the office as to the likelihood of Yanukovych putting pen to paper, as well as the future direction of the country and its society, let alone role the EU could realistically continue to play there if the deal were to fall through. I travelled to the capital with two fellow interns for a weekend and heard similar concerns from younger people there, not least against the eerie, at least to my eyes, backdrop of the Tymoshenko supporters’ protest encampment on Khreshchatyk and crowds streaming past revelling in the Independence Day celebrations. I can now understand from afar what has fundamentally driven the protests on Maidan, having evolved from earlier demands for accession to the Association Agreement, however impossible it is to visualise those very streets I strolled months ago until recently constituting a battlefield. A question of not having to bribe a functionary at every corner, being entitled to expect a respectable provision of public service, travel to Europe and elsewhere on a simplified basis, an end to a decidedly two-tiered judicial system unfit for purpose and hope of taking pride in a sovereign country capable of governing in the national interest; these are the key issues, no different from those voiced by aspiring, level-headed Russians or other national neighbours, discernible if one were only to cut through the morass of Kremlin propaganda.
So much of the outside coverage of the protests has been irregular. Some of the nationalist and fascist symbology and rhetoric present on Maidan, only suddenly alluded to by the Kremlin and western commentators, and undeniably espoused by a minority of the protestors, do disturb me. But to describe it all with broad brushstrokes, often entirely ignoring the real significance to modern-day Ukrainian nationalism of basic figures such as Stepan Bandera, no matter how unpalatable to some like myself, is intellectually dishonest. Accusations of an astronomical surge in xenophobia and anti-Semitism, as a result of the protests, have time and again been disproved by public figures and protestors, many of them of the very ethnic backgrounds that some claim are most at risk from marauding nationalists. I am tired of seeing this all as a perennial tug-of-war between Russia and the EU and Ukraine needing to choose between one or the other for once and for all, let alone any fanciful allusions to the Cold War on repeat.
I am no less sceptical about some members of the newly formed government of national unity nor opposition leaders as are swathes of the Maidan. While encouraging to see a revived parliamentary tradition in Kiev, I am less heartened by it at times resembling a rubber-stamping institution in reserve, passing legislation on decidedly polemical matters with little room for sustained debate, if any at all; the prompt abolition of the law on regional languages, while in itself a deceitful and ill-thought through piece of legislation, has given just the spurious pre-text needed for unrest in the Crimea and eastern regions. The oft-mentioned and alleged schism between western and eastern Ukraine, invoked so frequently by western journalists and those, curiously, such as Yanukovych who delude themselves claiming they represent the interests of the country, is frustratingly superficial. Last week’s massacre and subsequent walking tours of the presidential residence revealed once and for all where the real divisions lay: between an utterly venal and murderous gang only too intent on preserving their multi-billion assets stashed at home and abroad at the expense of dozens of lives in the centre of Kiev and the proud people of Ukraine. That Yanukovych can hide there where he is and protected by those who protect him shows just where the Kremlin’s interests really lie – and precisely what they have most to fear.
The revolution has afforded Ukraine a second and priceless opportunity to change. After the relative failures of the Orange Revolution, neither I nor many could see a second Maidan coming. The Association Agreement with the European Union is not the Holy Grail, nor certainly any mooted financial assistance by the IMF; the changes such organisations will demand of the Ukrainian authorities, in the goal of steering the country towards a more market-orientated vision, will hit all sectors of society unjustifiably hard. Whether that will loosen the oligarchs’ grip on the economy and establishment is open to interpretation. But the path towards European integration, particularly given its emphasis on political reform and the rule of law, is certainly preferable to the likely alternative of continuing economic stagnation, endemic corruption and an ineffective judiciary; it offers a tangible yardstick against which to measure genuine progress and improvement, as well as the prospect of EU membership, though distant, to continually work towards. For all its much-documented faults, and largely poor diplomatic showing during the months of the crisis, the EU remains relevant as a source of promise and aspiration for those at its frontiers.
While based in Odessa I also took the opportunity to briefly visit Transnistria, the de facto independent pro-Russian enclave, formally part of Moldova, neither loved nor recognised by anyone in the international community. The parallels with the disturbances in the Crimea are fairly clear and disturbing in equal measure. The Ukraine I have always known since birth is an independent and unified one, fully deserving of statehood and autonomy away from Russia. It is also an intricate mosaic of peoples, languages and faiths, not without its imperfections but a relative example in modern-day Europe. The Crimea’s past and present is similarly chequered and complicated, owned by no single ethnic group, regardless of its current demographic make-up, especially one shaped in the past century through the brutalities of war and mass expulsion . The status of the autonomous republic is solely for its residents to decide and not Russia’s. Abrogating all notions of international sovereignty and investing so much effort in ‘Russians’ abroad while under the cover of silence, and also at the expense of those citizens at home it should pay better attention to, is reprehensible and disgraceful. Any external attempts to shatter the unity of Ukraine will forever receive my utmost condemnation. Not least with the implied goal to impinge on the right of the Ukrainian people to determine a future deserving of their courage and fortitude, as not only expressed in Kiev.