Ukraine was all over the news this week, after its president, Viktor Yanukovych, pulled out of a planned Association Agreement with the European Union. Defying a ban on demonstrations, the protesters came out in ever greater numbers—hundreds of thousands on Sunday. Riot police were sent out, with tear gas, stun grenades, and bludgeons, but they failed to stop the protesters from seizing Maidan, Independence Square, and occupying City Hall. On Monday, protesters blocked the entries to city administration buildings; by Monday afternoon, the police had disappeared from the city center. Several cities in Western Ukraine, the opposition stronghold, declared general strikes.
All this was strangely familiar, because Maidan was also the site of the Orange Revolution in 2004; protesters erected a tent city and helped oust that very same Yanukovych, who had won the presidency through electoral fraud. His rival, Viktor Yushchenko, proved a miserable disappointment, spending most of his time bickering with his prime minister, Yulia Tymoshenko, and using the Holodomor (the starvation of millions of peasants, many of them Ukrainian, during Stalin’s collectivization) as a way of building national spirit. Disillusioned and cynical, Ukraine elected Yanukovych in 2010. Call it the compulsion to repeat.
At a moment when many Europeans are having grave doubts about the EU, it’s a little surprising to hear that thousands of people are flooding the streets because they want so badly to be a part of it. The Association Agreement wasn’t even proper EU membership: it’s part of the EU’s “Eastern Partnership” program, which is meant to bring former Soviet states closer to EU standards. Provisions include foreign and security policy, justice and home affairs, “deep and comprehensive free trade” (which sounds a bit creepy), and standards related to the environment, transportation, and education. The agreement doesn’t even guarantee Ukrainians visa-free travel to EU countries.
So why was everybody so upset? In Ukraine, “European” is a vague term used to signify many things that are desirable, but hard to attain. Apartments are advertised as having “Euro-renovations”; this means that they are new, clean, modern—and unaffordable for the average Ukrainian. Those lucky enough to have the money bypass the dingy, impoverished state health system and pay to go to private clinics like Kyiv’s EuroLab, which are—you guessed it—new, clean, modern, and more expensive than the state system. The metaphorical use of “Europe” has been obvious in statements collected by journalists over the last few days. One protester said, “I’m not part of any political party but I understand that only by trying to be more European can we end our troubles.” “Europe” means freedom, and fairness, and transparency. It means exciting vacations to beautiful places where the food and wine are better than they are at home, where the air is clean, where the trains are fast and safe (never mind that they’re so expensive). It means an escape from the past, an alternate reality in which Ukraine was never subjugated by the Russian Empire or the Soviet Union but instead became a “normal” European country.
“Ukraine” means “on the border,” and it has always been stuck in the middle. Its current territory was split between the Russian and Austro-Hungarian Empires, and held some of the largest Jewish enclaves in Europe. People in Western Ukraine spoke Ukrainian, Polish, Russian, German, Romanian, Hungarian, and Yiddish, and traces of this heritage are still evident. Crimea, Ukraine’s southern peninsula, was part of the Ottoman Empire until Catherine the Great seized it, and it still houses a Russian naval base. Crimea still had a sizeable Tatar population in 1944, when Stalin deported the Tatars to starve to death in Central Asia (in the 1990s, the children of the survivors returned). Stalin had allowed the Ukrainians to starve to death at home, in the famine of 1932 and 1933. Ukraine was one of the bloodiest battlegrounds of World War II, with its Jews shot and dumped into mass graves—many of which are still marked only as the graves of “Soviet heroes.” Today, many Ukrainians speak both Ukrainian and Russian; some speak surzhik, a blend of the two languages that varies according to place and mood. Eastern Ukraine is much more sympathetic to Russia, after three and a half centuries of Russian dominance. Western Ukraine, on the other hand, has a vivid memory of being part of “Europe,” and they want very badly to be part of it again; many Western Ukrainians seem to feel that they are Europeans who have been held hostage for decades, held back from the European destiny that ought to be theirs. Rakhiv, a tiny town in Western Ukraine, boasts a spot that someone once declared “the geographic center of Europe”; this is still a point of great pride. Tourists come and take pictures near the sign, as men in fedoras drive horse-drawn carts down the mountain roads.
In the post-Soviet era, Ukraine, like many of its neighbors, has been pulled back and forth between Russia and “the West.” Its Orange Revolution was one of several “color” revolutions, along with Georgia’s “Rose Revolution” of 2003 and Kyrgyzstan’s “Tulip Revolution” of 2005. All three removed corrupt former Soviet apparatchiks from power through peaceful demonstrations; in Ukraine and George, the new leaders explicitly aligned themselves with the West—and the United States in particular. None of the three revolutions succeeded as they’d wanted to, and all three led to long, painful tugs of war (and, in Georgia’s case in 2008, an actual war) with their touchy northern neighbor, which (like many large countries) is loath to lose any ground in its sphere of influence. During its short, disastrous war with Russia, Georgia, which named the road from its capital’s airport after George W. Bush, waited in vain for American assistance that never came, despite much saber-rattling by John McCain. Aside from a brief pre-war flourishing in Georgia, the nations that undertook these revolutions did not prosper economically; in fact, with various trade sanctions from Moscow, they mostly did the opposite. In Georgia and Ukraine, the leaders of the revolutions were eventually voted out of power, and in Kyrgyzstan he was overthrown.
Here the similarities end, and the agony of Ukraine’s position becomes clearer. Georgians have a very strong, non-Slavic national identity, do not speak Russian, and are ferociously, uniformly anti-Russian. Kyrgyzstan still has a significant Russian population and is much friendlier to Russia, but they also have a strong, non-Slavic national identity. But Ukraine, which was long called “Little Russia,” is a nation of Slavs, rivaled only by Belarus—a decidedly pro-Russian dictatorship—in its combination of linguistic, cultural, and ethnic similarities to Russia, as well as close economic ties with Russia. At the same time, some parts of Ukraine (mostly the Western parts) are fiercely nationalistic and anti-Russian, identifying themselves more with their Polish neighbors, with whom they also have historic ties. All of these people live together in the same country, pulling it in different directions, and the electoral results have borne this out: the Presidents of Ukraine have alternated, like Democrats and Republicans, between the mildly nationalistic first president, Kravchuk, the corrupt, pro-Russian Kuchma, the fiercely nationalistic Yushchenko, and again a corrupt, pro-Russian Yanukovych. With the people out in the streets, the pendulum is clearly swinging back into the anti-Russian camp. What this will do for Ukraine is uncertain.
Ukraine is on the brink of default; by 2014, $60 billion worth of debt—a third of the country’s GDP—will be due. Ukraine’s GDP, industrial production, exports, and investment are all in decline. Yanukovych is rushing from door to door, trying to cadge money from the EU, Russia, and China. EU Association offered access to the EU market, but it would also have required adoption of about 350 EU laws within ten years; legal and judicial reforms; the release of Yanukovych’s nemesis, the long-imprisoned Tymoshenko; and IMF austerity requirements. (During negotiations, Ukraine was angling for EU membership perspective, but this was always unlikely.) The EU refused Yanukovych’s bold request for 160 billion Euros to implement the new standards. Yanukovych scuttled a potential deal with the IMF because he was unwilling to comply with its demands that the price of gas be increased by 40% for individual customers, and that he make painful budget cuts. Though he was clearly motivated by political calculations rather than by concern for his people, the experience of other countries has made clear the harm that IMF-imposed austerity can cause, especially in a poor, unstable country. Meanwhile, EU Association would mean the wrath of Putin (who wants Ukraine to join his Eurasian customs union), and, perhaps, having the gas cut off by Russia. A gas crisis would have painful consequences for both Ukrainian businesses and Ukrainian families, and would lose Yanukovych the support of both his business cronies and the electorate.
Yanukovych is a corrupt, incompetent thug. This has always been obvious, and it’s clear that Ukraine needs to get rid of him as quickly as possible (preferably democratically). But Ukraine also needs to decide who and what will replace him. So far, the search for a replacement has not been high on the agenda. One opposition leader said recently, “People are not on the street to support exact politicians. There are even a lot of people who said we don’t need politicians. The general opinion was something closer to the American and European ideal — that the real power should be citizens, not ministers, not presidents, not politicians.” But somebody has to run the country. Street protesters can’t, for example, reform the judicial or health care systems. Ukrainians are not anarchists; the idea that “citizens” run American and European governments is fantastically naïve, and one hopes that other opposition leaders are more practical, and not too self-serving. The active presence in the protests of Svoboda, a far-right nationalist group whose goals could not be further from “European” ideals, is not encouraging.
Those in Ukraine and elsewhere (myself included) are thrilled at the protesters’ courage, energy, passion, and solidarity; this kind of peaceful, democratic mass mobilization is exactly what is needed to start fixing Ukraine. Many outsiders are also eager to encourage the rejection of Russia’s influence and the adoption of “European values,” which are, as in Ukrainian discourse, taken to be synonymous with freedom and fairness. In a recent editorial, the New York Times offered a remarkably simplistic argument:
Europe’s use of trade leverage to encourage democracy is constructive and reasonable. Russia’s attempts to bludgeon former vassals into continued economic dependence are not. The European Union offers something real and attractive. Russia, which wants them to join the customs union it has formed with Belarus and Kazakhstan, offers threats.
But isn’t gas (like it or not) both “real” and “attractive”? Russia’s behavior is thuggish and threatening, but it does offer powerful economic incentives for Ukraine’s cooperation, especially in the short term; the EU offers benefits that would only be seen in the long-term, if then. The Times further undermined its own credibility by describing one of the poorest countries in Europe as “economically robust.”
On Tuesday, it was announced that John Kerry would skip a planned visit to Ukraine and drop in on EU-friendly Moldova instead. The State Department announced, “We wanted to send a very strong signal of support for those countries that have moved forward with the EU because of what it means to their commitment to reform.” The West loves to cheerlead for this or that popular protest, but the reporters soon vanish, headed for the next “democratic revolution.” Praise is cheap, but substantive support for large-scale “European” reforms is hard to come by in the current economic climate.
The EU is not a metaphor, or a spiritual condition; it is a vast bureaucracy that is facing serious difficulties itself. It can’t save Ukraine. The EU alone can’t put an end to Ukraine’s rampant corruption, bring its decaying infrastructure, factories, and mines up to modern standards, or improve its health and education systems. As Greece, Spain, and Italy can attest, the EU certainly won’t save Ukraine from economic crisis. In short, the EU is not capable of making Ukraine “European.” Only Ukrainians can do that. Over the weekend, one protester posted on Facebook, “Today we are not even fighting to be a part of Europe. We are FIGHTING TO BE!” But Ukrainians need to ask themselves what, exactly, it is that they want to be. “They stole the dream,” Vitaly Klitschko, a boxer who would like to be president, told the crowds. But wouldn’t it be better to have a plan?