Thursday night, after a day of mayhem and bloodshed on Kiev’s Independence Square, the Maidan, a trauma surgeon took the microphone on the central stage. He spoke tearfully of the frustration that he and his colleagues could do nothing for the 77 men and women killed by snipers; they were professionally shot through the head, neck, heart and lungs in a way that guaranteed death. The youngest victim was 17 years old, his parent’s only son.
The deaths are a national tragedy – the dead, including 10 policemen, came from all parts of Ukraine – east, west and Crimea. The doctor concluded with a plea: that the east and south of the country recognize that their own sons died for their freedom, too. Through their physical and emotional exhaustion, the battered crowd repeatedly chanted in unison, “East and West together!”
As the Ukrainian parliament met Friday morning in emergency session, the crowd on the Maidan chanted “Crimea arise!” in response to calls by pro-Russian politicians for the peninsula to separate; pro-Maidan protesters sprung up in front of the Crimean parliament to protest separatism.
Unlike those on the Maidan, no one is prepared to die for the regime of Viktor Yanukovych regime. There will not be a civil war; claims to the contrary are attempts by eastern and Crimean political and economic elites to manipulate the situation to preserve their wealth and local feudal power. Most Ukrainians see this as a war between a dictatorial president and his people.
Ukraine is a huge European country with significant regional divisions. This is not uncommon either in Europe or in Canada. We Canadians have faced the disintegration of our country three times in the last 35 years. Thanks to the strength of our institutions, which permitted a national debate and dialogue, we withstood successive crises peacefully and with our country intact.
Ukraine lacks these same institutions of democratic governance that permit sensible debate and discussions on matters of national importance. Saddled with a Soviet institutional structure, the country’s leaders (and not just the current ones) have used command-administrative levers of power to turn the country into what many consider is now a privatized kleptocratic barony for the president and his appointees throughout the country.
This is the root of the present conflict – people across Ukraine insist they are fed up with the cynicism, cronyism and corruption of the regime. They insist that the current conflict is not a civil war, but a war between the president and his people – a fight for a future based on European values of freedom and justice. Ukrainians overall continue to favour a European over a Eurasian vector. However, pro-European sentiments are more pronounced in the Ukrainian-speaking west and centre of the country, which represent a nationally conscious middle class that has been the driving force behind the Maidan movement; as we have seen over the past weeks, for many, these values are an existential question of dignity or death.
Their brethren in the densely populated largely Russian-speaking eastern industrial heartland (from whence President Yanukovych and the ruling party hail) and Crimea are more confused and uncertain. Stuck in a Soviet-era heavy industry economy warp, they are less nationally conscious and identify more provincially with their regions. Only 2 per cent of the 20 million workers, pensioners, teachers, doctors and other public workers shackled to outdated one-company towns in these parts of Ukraine have visited Europe. They have been fed a steady diet of Russian television and Soviet mythology glorifying the “Great Patriotic War”, vilifying American imperialism and castigating Western Ukrainian “fascist bourgeois nationalism.” Human rights, including freedoms of speech, and peaceful protest have been curtailed to greater degrees than in other parts of the country.
Mired in poverty, the people of Eastern Ukraine have been cynically manipulated by regional political and economic (a.k.a. oligarch) elites for the past 22 years of Ukrainian independence. As they enriched themselves through the cheap acquisition of decrepit Soviet-era assets (a phenomenon common throughout the former Soviet Union), these clans have exercized virtual total economic and political control over the lives of their electorate/employees, who are tied like serfs to the large enterprises that dominate their towns and cities. Fear of losing jobs and pensions makes these people easy to manipulate at election-time, something the ruling clan has used to great effect.
In this context, state, oligarch-owned and Russian television has effectively demonized the Maidan as a U.S.-EU-sponsored plot supported by western Ukraine to destabilze the peace and harmony of the country. Because they were paid to stand at demonstrations in favour of the regime, easterners were quite cynical regarding arguments that no one was paying the protesters. That changed when people on the Maidan started dying in mass numbers this week.
The “eastern narrative” in the age of globalization and the internet is not sustainable. While they may be more passive than passionate, Mr. Yanukovych’s 20 per cent approval rating shows the degree to which Ukrainians from the east are united with the rest of the country against what most see as endemic bureaucratic racketeering at all levels of government. Anti-Maidan demonstrations have been fleeting at best. On the other hand, “Euromaidan” demonstrations in the eastern oblasts recently gained ground by the thousands, driven by a growing social network-friendly middle class of small entrepreneurs and youth.
On Thursday, this trend reached an apex when Ukrainians of all ages showed solidarity with their compatriots on the Maidan by stopping on roadways busloads of thugs hired by the regime (often burning their buses) and lying on railway tracks to prevent police and troops from reaching Kiev.
In essence, socio-economic problems make all Ukrainians brothers-in-arms. With an economy on the verge of collapse, Ukrainians are facing up to theft of Homeric proportions, as they wonder how Ukraine’s debt went from $36-billion to $72-billion in four years, with no improvement in their livelihoods. Eastern Ukrainians are also patriots of their country – they feel as much cheated by this regime, as their brethren in western Ukraine felt betrayed by the previous government.
Another Soviet-era myth designed to divide Ukrainians, that of the eternal brotherhood of the Russian and Ukrainian people, has also been debunked. There is no serious movement anywhere in the country to unite Ukraine with Russia, beyond the rants of individual separatist politicians from both countries. This is not to say that Russia is a disinterested bystander. Since he first came to power, Vladimir Putin has tried to split what he sees as the artificial countries in the region to better manipulate Russia’s problematic “Near Abroad”. While he has succeeded with Armenia, Azerbajzhan, Moldova and most recently Georgia, Ukraine is the great prize, the key to reconstituting a Eurasian empire. The potential infection of the Maidan to Russia represents Mr. Putin’s greatest threat, not just to the imperial project, but to the “managed democracy” of Russia itself.
The Maidan, therefore, has not spawned a civil war, but the birth of an authentic Ukrainian civil society. It is the culmination of an agonizing 20-year process of de-Sovietization of Ukrainian society, a process that has progressed faster in some regions than in others. The Maidan is a watershed moment, when the nation shed the mental chains of Soviet paternalism. One opposition leader described the statues of Lenin being spontaneously hauled down around the country as Ukraine’s psychological Berlin Wall. It is characterized by a shift in mentality – a distrust of all of the country’s institutions, including political parties, governing or opposition.
Instead, people rely on their own efforts – new organizations, TV channels, educational and health units and even local self-government bodies have spread throughout the country. Indeed, a journalist from Donetsk, the ruling party’s power base, noted that the Maidan is just as important for those who are against it as those who support it; as the institutions of the past crumble, the Maidan’s aims of freedom, self-reliance, self-governance, respect, dignity, and justice are a compelling counter-narrative to the sterile myths of the Soviet past – few people anywhere in the country see a future tied to Russia.
Canada has invested plenty of taxpayer’s money over the years assisting Ukraine with institutional reform. Despite many achievements, the lack of political will on the part of the Ukrainian government has hampered our efforts. With the adoption of changes to Ukraine’s constitution on Friday evening, Canada still has plenty to do – our programs are well placed to help mediate the healing process in the country and to construct the institutions based on the rule of law and democratic governance necessary to create a modern Ukrainian society based on the values we cherish.
If nothing else, the men and women of the Maidan died for the idea that Ukrainians are one nation, historically forged in various ways, but who want to live together in freedom and justice.
Daniel Bilak is a Canadian international lawyer based in Kiev and a former UNDP senior governance advisor to the Government of Ukraine.