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? 

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.

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.

“Yanukovych—you’re next,” read a sign affixed to the pedestal where, until enraged demonstrators  recently toppled it, Vladimir Lenin’s statue stood in Kiev’s Bessarabska Square.

But mixed into this fury is also a tribal element. For some, “European values” also means “white and Christian” values. I haven’t encountered this attitude as often as I have the political and economic arguments, but it is certainly present—especially among the diehard protesters camped out on Independence Square. “Ukraine is European,” said Iryna, a 40-something protester from Kiev, who was warming herself with other demonstrators around a barrel filled with burning kindling. “We have the same history, the same religion, the same natsiya" (roughly translated as “race”).

“But what about Europe’s Muslim population?” I asked. “Aren’t they Europeans?”

“No, they’re chuzhiye (alien, or other),” said Konstantin, a man standing next to Iryna who had come to Kiev from Ivano-Frankivsk in western Ukraine.

These sentiments speak to the prominent role that the far-right has played in Ukraine’s demonstrations. The ultra-nationalist Svoboda (Freedom) party is a member of the “united opposition” triumvirate, along with heavyweight boxing champion Vitali Klitschko’s Udar (Punch) party and the Batkivshchina (Fatherland) party of former parliamentary speaker Arseniy Yatsenyuk (and the jailed former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko).

Leaving aside the question of whether it was a wise idea politically to include ultra-nationalists in a democratic movement, it was certainly a smart move tactically. Svoboda’s members are dedicated, enthusiastic, and energetic. Their flags are well-represented at rallies, and their young followers have been among the most vigorous in defending the Maidan. (They were also behind the toppling of the Lenin statue and the occupation of Kiev’s city hall.) And the group’s leader, Oleh Tyahnybok, is a canny politician and a mesmerizing orator (as the video below, in which Tyahnybok tells pro-government lawmakers that they will soon answer to the people’s rage, attests):

Svoboda is also an anomaly among European far-right movements in that it wholeheartedly supports closer ties with the EU. This is in part a product of its rabid anti Moscow stance. But it’s also smart politics: pro-European sentiment polls strongest in Western Ukraine, which the party considers its base.

But Svoboda’s positions are somewhat at odds with the EU’s ideals of tolerance and multiculturalism, to put it mildly: It is a driving force behind Ukraine’s anti-gay rights movement; the party’s platform supports distributing government positions to various ethnicities according to their percentage makeup of the population; and, despite recent claims to the contrary, it remains, at least among its leadership, a deeply anti-Semitic organization (one deputy in parliament has described the Holocaust as a “bright period” for Europe.)

To be fair, many of Svoboda’s supporters are unaware of what the party actually stands for—either because they have been misinformed or because they deliberately keep themselves in the dark. (Svoboda underwent a “re-branding” 10 years ago, and as a result now plays down controversial issues that could be a turnoff to mainstream voters—or at least make those voters embarrassed to admit openly that they support the party.) For many Ukrainians, Svoboda is merely a very patriotic group of people who hate the president more than anyone else on the political spectrum. This trumps all negative considerations.

Nevertheless, the presence of the far-right in the protest movement does highlight just how vague and varied the definition of being “European” is for some Ukrainians. (And, given the current popularity of Greece’s Golden Dawn, Hungary’s Jobbik, and France’s National Front, ultra-nationalism does seem to be a very European phenomenon right now.) Then again, nebulous ideas are not alien to political movements or revolutions—in fact many campaigns seem to thrive on them. The vaguer the motivating issues are, the easier it is to assemble a mass movement.

And there’s also much to admire in the Euromaidan movement. Here, to tired and jaded Western eyes, it looks like a scene from our own distant, idealistic past. Or an Occupy movement with muscle: makeshift barricades around the perimeter the Maidan incorporating anything at hand (even parts of the Christmas tree that stood at the square’s center); mobile military kitchens doling out kasha to the masses; young Ukrainian women circulating among protesters with trays of free hot tea and coffee; crowds singing Ukrainian folk songs; posters with instructions of what to do if troops sweep in; countless impromptu renditions of Ukraine’s national anthem; priests blessing the demonstrators and the riot police; and so much humor. One poster I saw read, “Rage against the regime.”

The danger is that the ambiguity and confusion over what exactly is at stake could lead to disappointment in the end—now, or even later, if the movement does indeed succeed. Many protesters tell me that this campaign is an attempt to set right the failures of the Orange Revolution, which took place nine years ago at this exact time of year and afterwards descended into political infighting and paralysis. Let’s hope they don’t make the same mistake this time.