What Europe Means to Ukraine's Protesters

Ask people why they're camped out in Kiev's streets, and you'll get a multitude of answers. Will that doom the protest movement? 
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Pro-European integration protesters face off with riot police in Kiev. (Vasily Fedosenko/Reuters) 

KIEV, Ukraine — Early Wednesday morning, thousands of Kievans answered a call sent out on mobile phones and social networks and rushed the capital’s central Independence Square to repel a raid by scores of riot police. There, in bone crunching, sub-zero temperatures, they formed a massive wall of bodies, blocking the black-helmeted police and ultimately forcing them from the square.

For the participants in this three-week-old movement of mass civil disobedience, who have barricaded themselves inside Independence Square—in Ukrainian, the Maidan Nezalezhnosti, or just “the Maidan”—it was a heady, inspiring victory. “We are simply standing for our rights,” said Ruslan, a 20-something manning the ramparts, who at 2 a.m. had rushed from a birthday party to bolster the resistance. “And if the police force us out, we’ll come and stand here again.”

But stand for what, exactly? The protest movement, which has mobilized hundreds of thousands of people in central and western Ukraine, started, quietly, as a reaction to President Viktor Yanukovych’s surprise announcement on November 21, that he was abandoning plans to sign a trade and political pact with the European Union.  Some of the outrage this move generated stemmed from genuine concern that Ukraine was missing an historic opportunity: The political association and free trade agreements (the latter shortened to “DCFTA,” in keeping with the EU’s wonderful jargon) would bestow upon the country benefits just short of full EU membership and give Ukraine access to the world’s largest single market.

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Still, since when has an EU trade deal brought people into the streets—much less inspired a revolution? To understand there are bigger dynamics at play, just look at the fact that activists have expanded their demands to include the replacement of the country’s entire governing structure—president, ministers, and parliament—and may not abandon this aim even if they receive iron-clad assurances that the EU deal will be signed at a later date.

After Wednesday morning’s Battle of the Bulge in Independence Square, Katya Gorchinskaya, a reporter for the Wall Street Journal and the local Kyiv Post, vividly described the movement’s goals:

In a way, this is a war. It is a war for a new civilization in Ukraine. Based on values such as solidarity, dignity, respect for an individual and clear and equal rules of the game for all. This is no longer about Europe or integration—it's about who we are and where we want to go.

This is about a nation being born. Mutilated by years of misrule, impoverished by looting, it emerges slowly from the ruin. This process is massive and we don't know how well this birth is going to go. But it's happening now and here, in Kyiv, and it's both painful and awesome. The only place to truly feel the pain and grandeur of this national awakening is to stand there right on Maidan.

Many would agree with Gorchinskaya that the so-called “Euromaidan” movement is at its essence about “solidarity, dignity, respect for an individual and clear and equal rules of the game for all.” Other phrases that pop up often in the encampment on Independence Square are “justice,” “fairness,” and “rule of law.”

But the sentiment I have probably heard more often than any other is that the demonstrators want Ukraine to become a “normal” country—one that exhibits “European values.”

“Normal” is a very vague word, of course. When pressed to elaborate, many demonstrators say it means a place where corruption is minimal (or at least less rampant than the graft one encounters now in Ukraine, one of the most corrupt countries in the world according to Transparency International), politicians are accountable to voters, human rights are respected, and police don’t abuse protesters. (A brutal attack by the police on what was then a small number of demonstrators on the Maidan in the early morning of November 30 was the event that galvanized the movement.)

“Normal” is also contrasted with the “abnormal” reality that exists in the rest of the Soviet sphere—and is symbolized by Russia. Protesters broadly see a choice between two systems, represented by Moscow on one side and Brussels on the other, and reject the Kremlin’s model of post-Soviet kleptocratic authoritarianism. “I don’t want my country to stay in such close connection to Russia,” said Anya, a protester. “I don’t see any progress in that part of the world.”

Another protester was blunter: “We’ve lived with Russia. We know Russia.” But for others, “normal” is more of a feeling. It’s what we apparently have in the West—a system that more or less works. It’s a lack of khamstvo—rudeness when engaging in day-to-day transactions. A place of polite bureaucrats and efficient public transportation. Or it’s economic. Protesters faced with a reeling economy see the EU’s standard of living and generous social benefits and say simply, “I want that.”

All of this has coalesced into a broad anti-government crusade, which focuses its anger and energy on the person who in the protesters’ minds encapsulates everything undemocratic, corrupt, and anti-European in Ukraine today: President Viktor Yanukovych. A rough, hard-knuckled pol from the country’s industrial east (where his support remains strong), Yanukovych was the loser in the country’s 2004 Orange Revolution but staged a remarkable political comeback and triumphed in a legitimate presidential election in 2010. Dissatisfaction with his government has been spreading, however. Local news outlets have reported about breathtaking levels of alleged official corruption, much of which is reportedly linked to Yanukovych’s own family—and especially his eldest son, Oleksandr, a small-time businessman and dentist who has become one of the country’s richest men.

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David Stern is an American journalist living in Ukraine. 

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