Skip to main content

Ukraine is a country used to tough times. You can figure that out just by listening to the national anthem, whose first line makes the grave assertion: "Ukraine has not yet died." In a history of national near-death experiences, this week's protests and the brutal efforts to suppress them mark a turning point.

Ukraine today is poised between the establishment of a deeply rooted, hard-earned democracy and a return to bare-knuckle authoritarianism. The outcome is critical for Ukraine, of course, and the Ukrainian diaspora around the world, but it will also have a powerful demonstration effect in Russia, other former Soviet republics, and everywhere in the world where civil society is struggling against dictatorship. What happens in Ukraine matters to the prospects for democracy around the world. The good news is that we can make a difference.

In Ukraine, we are seeing the struggle for human dignity, for the rule of law, for freedom of expression and association in its clearest form. The protesters have renamed the square in downtown Kiev which is their epicentre the Euromaidan, or Euro-square, and their vigil was provoked by President Viktor Yanukovych's eleventh-hour rejection of a European Association agreement – which would bring the country closer to the European Union -- he had promised to sign and which the country supported.

But the demonstrators are fighting for more than a deal with Brussels. For the people of Ukraine, embracing Europe means embracing Western values: democracy, the rule of law, individual rights, accountable government. They believed that their president, in rejecting Europe, was rejecting this entire worldview.

The tragic events of the past week have been a bloody confirmation of the protesters' fears. Last week, the Yanukovych government illegitimately rammed through parliament a package of laws restricting the rights of protest, assembly, association and expression. That cruel legislation foreshadowed even greater brutality on the streets -- over the past week, several demonstrators have been killed, hundreds have been seriously injured and hundreds more have been arrested. Even ambulances and hospitals aren't safe for defenders of Ukrainian civil society, who have been dragged out of these havens to be further beaten and intimidated.

Astonishingly, that hasn't cowed the demonstrators. Instead, the protest, whose self-organised leaders are digitally savvy millennials, has gone viral, spreading to more than a dozen "start-up" cities across Ukraine. In some towns and cities, protesters have occupied government buildings, with the complicity of local authorities. Some members of the security forces are leaving their jobs; others refuse to fight the demonstrators. Some journalists are resigning from state television.

That is why the stakes in Ukraine are so high. The struggle is now openly a battle about democratic values: it will end only with severe repression or a total climbdown by the regime. The outcome matters and will have powerful ripple effects across the region and the world.

In much of the former Soviet Union and even in the former Warsaw Pact, civil society is fragile and the temptation for some rulers to resurrect authoritarianism is strong. That's true, too, in other parts of the world where democracy and its supporters are weak but hopeful. For people around the world hoping to become freer, and for the leaders who may wish that they don't, the risky rebellion of the people of Ukraine will be closely watched.

We have both a moral and a geopolitical interest in the victory of Ukraine's democrats. Fortunately, Canada can act to support them – and we must.

Ukrainian opposition leaders have already called on the west to moderate talks between the protesters and the Yanukovych administration. Canada should play a leading role in that effort. Whatever the outcome of talks, the presence of Western leaders makes a further government crackdown more visible, more costly, and therefore less likely. Canada should also immediately send official observers. Sunlight is the best disinfectant and our eyes at the Euromaidan can help prevent further abuse.

Our moral support for the demonstrators is powerful. We can help them further by offering a safe haven in Canada. Democracy activists who have been injured or fear persecution because of their political opposition should be offered special, expedited visas to Canada.

The West has another, powerful form of leverage. The Yanukovych government appears willing, even eager, to reject Western democratic values to secure its hold on power in Ukraine. But the regime's leaders, and its business backers, are also keen to enjoy the perks of twenty-first century global capitalist democracy. They and their families like to travel, shop, study and bank in the west.

We must tell them they can't have it both ways. Leaders who kill their people and revoke their civil rights should not be able to take luxury weekend breaks from the dark world to which they have consigned their people, nor should they be able to safely hold in the west the wealth they have looted at home. Canada should impose personal sanctions against Yanukovych and his political backers and freeze their assets. And we must energetically encourage the United States and our European allies to do so as well.

Democratic values are rarely challenged as directly as they are being today in Ukraine. Their victory will be a victory for us all; their defeat will weaken democracy far from the Euromaidan. We are all Ukrainians now. Let's do what we can -- which is a lot -- to support them.

Chrystia Freeland is federal Member of Parliament for Toronto Centre and author of Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Super-Rich and the Fall of Everyone Else. She has written extensively from Ukraine.

Interact with The Globe