Are we forgetting why it all started in Ukraine?

More than a year has passed since the dramatic events on the Maydan in Kiev. President Yanukovich was ousted by the crowd and the events that followed are now part of history. What still remains is an ongoing separatist crisis in Eastern Ukraine and a serious stand-off between the West and Russia.

All media report daily on the situation of the frontline or the likelihood of the latest ceasefire to hold to its commitment. Observers explain Moscow’s motivations, describe Ukraine’s precarious economic and military situation, and try to give forecasts for the future. In a few words, the story may be starting to turn banal – just a new frozen conflict. Focusing on the information flows and the conflict resolution are we not forgetting something more fundamental about why we came to this point in the first place?

This article will therefore not delve into the same topics. Instead, it will shed some light on an aspect that seems to be overlooked when it comes to Ukraine. Most Western media and commentators continuously underline how bravely Ukrainians stood up against tyranny motivated by democratic ideals and yarning for freedom. It is not difficult to sense the usual clichéd approach which has been used so often when it comes to crumbling authoritarian regimes. We hear those words every day but do we really attach the same meaning to them any longer? The cliché is not wrong per se, but it is just a bit off the mark. We need a deeper look at the actual motivations that inspired people to stir the Euromaydan.

Removing the luster and fanfare and traveling back to the times preceding the turmoil of February 2014, we would find large portions of Ukrainian society feeling just “fed up” with the state of their country. The Yanukovich regime was easily the worst government in the history of independent Ukraine. It was the quintessence of an oligarchic kleptocracy spiced up with criminal elements and ex-bandits (like Yanukovich himself is believed to have been in his youth). Yanukovich was sitting on top of a scheme balancing interests of oligarchic groups and cronies while playing a tit-for-tat game both with Russia and the European Union. In all this, the actual national interests of Ukraine and its citizens were sacrificed. No progress was made towards improving living standards and the economy. The country was crippled by rampart corruption at all levels of the state apparatus and public-private relationship. Nothing would function smoothly without involving bribery or networks of connections. The economy was pretty much not far from the dire state it finds itself now in but without a de facto war effort. So, generally speaking, there were very few (if any) reasons for modern Ukrainians to tolerate the Yanukovich regime. In these conditions the refusal of the president to sign the Association Agreement with the European Union just “blew the fuse” for many Ukrainians leading to the turmoil of the Maydan.

The point here is that this was a revolution inspired by desperation rather than the greater democratic ideal. With his refusal Yanukovich stripped off Ukrainians from the only hope they had been catering for a better life. He in a sense reversed history. For more than 20 years of its post-Soviet independence Ukraine has been plagued by the problems of the type I described above. So “Europe” came to be associated with “normal life”. This is in a sense a very simple craving. Here we have to clarify that most Ukrainians actually have a very limited and certainly not very realistic idea of what the EU actually is. Very few “enlightened” people really know of its numerous institutions and regulations. The EU remained equal to the old term from Soviet times – “na zapad” – “to the west”. There life is good, money is easy, and people look as if taken from a magazine. It is as if a quarter of a century did not come to pass since the events in 1991.

For all these years Ukrainians have been hoping for a better daily life. They have been hoping for inclusion into this Europe as many of the other Eastern European states slowly joined the EU leaving Ukraine behind. Of course we oversimplify the geopolitical conditions of the post-Soviet space but we have to be clear that most people do not understand the realities of big politics. Most people see how life in Romania or Poland has improved and this becomes their “Europe”. Ukraine remained locked in a situation reminiscent of the 90s and “Europe” grew into a myth. And this is how people rose against the rotten government that was taking it away from them. The last drop of patience was gone. People fought and died on the streets for this chance to have a better, stable, and safer life. No-one was actually making any reasonable calculation of what the agreement with the EU would give or take. “Europe” stands as a complete opposite of what the daily realities of sociopolitical life in Ukraine are like. In the same sense, Russia under Putin’s rule is the symbol of those troubled decades that people want to leave behind. It brings corruption, bribes, lack of rule of law and justice.

What we described above is the worldview of an average modern Ukrainian when it comes to understanding why the Maydan happened. There is still a lot of mythology and ideals mixed up in it but I would rather call it “down-to-earth” idealism. We should not look for an immediate strive to reform the country’s constitution, legal or voting system, and promoting local democracy. We should understand this simple concept of wanting to just “live a better life”. People desire less daily struggles, decent pay, more efficient institutions. People want to stop feeling misery looking at them from round the corner. This is their Europe; it is not the Europe of equal rights for LGBT couples or the Europe that eats bio products in order to decrease cholesterol levels, or the Europe that creates laws incriminating violence against animals. This is the Europe of the 21st century and the Europe Ukrainians still see is the one from the late 20th. A Europe that was still at its previous level of socio-political evolution. The concept is close to that of Maslow’s pyramid of needs – Ukrainian society is some levels lower in satisfying its essential needs compared to modern European societies. The problematics differ in importance.

The bad news is that both Europeans and Ukrainians actually know little of each other’s views. Ukrainians have no clear idea of what are the problems of modern Europe. They would not think for example that in the EU there are also underdeveloped mining regions plagued by unemployment that live on subsidy. They would not take for granted that the streets of Brussels are often littered due to an inefficient trash disposal system. These are examples of problems that are in Ukraine, they are not in “Europe”. We should not be surprised that The Kremlin’s propaganda machine is effectively aiming to exploit the conceptual gap by trying to discredit the EU. One of their most popular postulates is claiming that the EU is some kind of sodomite society where same sex marriage is allowed and people have no morality. Few Europeans can understand why such a ridiculous approach can be used or if it can be at all effective. The truth is that Moscow is making Ukrainians aware of aspects of the EU that they do not know or do not immediately think about. Keep in mind that after all Ukrainian society is as conservative as those in many other Eastern European countries like Poland for example and many people would have mixed or negative opinions on the liberal tones in the EU today. This is just an example of how the myth of Europe and its credibility comes under propaganda attacks.

Another pitfall is that all the above paragraphs hold for this part of Ukrainian society which we term “modern”. However, we should also point out that certain part of Ukrainians do live in another world – that of the Soviet past. Some of those are the separatists in the East, some of those constitute Yanukovich’s electoral base, some of those call for Putin to “save” them. This is not the topic of the current article. The point I was looking to make is that Ukraine still remains a society with a division along the line “modernity vs past”. The Euromaydan was inspired and seen through by those who wanted to move forward and sever the link with the past. When we say “past” we should be aware that this is the Soviet past, the one that was before 1991. This past has also gained mythical importance just as “Europe” did. Paradoxically, both major groups are trying to run away from what is “now”. Both sides intuitively agree that “now” is bad.

As a conclusion, we should look at the fact that the current leaders of the EU and its major states may be getting all this wrong. The current course that Europe has taken towards Ukraine may be largely ignoring or misapprehending the view that Ukrainians hold for Europe. On the contrary, this should namely be the EU’s most effective weapon. Seldom anyone nowadays in both old and new EU member states could be moved to such extend for the idea of Europe. We have all forgotten why Europe is what it is. In fact, the way Ukrainians see Europe is very close to the initial ideal that in the first place created United Europe. Therefore, it is imperative that the EU should find strength in its own idyllic origins and reinforce the image of “pax Europeana” where everyone lives in stability, prosperity, peace, and cooperation. It should do more work on the ground to convince Ukrainians that they did not make a wrong choice; that they did not get this war onto themselves in vain. There is a growing feeling among Ukrainians that the EU has betrayed them. And make no mistake, this weakness will be exploited both by the Kremlin and ultra-nationalist groups in Ukraine. Desperation brought the Euromaydan, but if it is followed by disillusionment once again this will make it very difficult to stabilize the situation in Ukraine for a long time. The IMF is involved into maintaining the Ukrainian economy alive, but the EU’s direct actions are hardly recognizable. Most visible is the role of the “Normandy four” in soothing Russia’s aggression which hardly does much credit to the European leaders from Ukrainian perspective. Stronger commitments are needed if the EU still wants to win the hearts and minds of Ukrainians. They do not thrive on limitless love of democracy, freedom, and liberty.