I barely recognize the Kiev that I see on the news every night now. Independence Square –Maidan Nezalezhnosti– looks nothing like the square that I walked through almost every day during the weeks I spent in Kiev in January and February 2012. The protests that began back in November escalated last week and more than a hundred people were killed. Over the weekend, progress was made as President Victor Yanukovych was voted out of office by the Ukrainian parliament and fled the capital. As I write this, the parliament is taking action to create an interim government until new elections can be held.
This all may seem bizarre to Americans, who are used to the American form of democracy that has been in place for more than two hundred years.
One of the beautiful, yet sometimes difficult, things about travel is that is humanizes places for you. While it can be easy for people to sit at home and say what is happening in Egypt or Ukraine or Venezuela is so far away, it doesn’t affect them, it is different when you have been there. When you have explored the country and met the people, it doesn’t seem so far away and you long to understand it.
I only spent six weeks in Ukraine, so I don’t purport to be an expert on the situation by any means (although coincidentally, I was a research assistant to a professor in college who was studying the development of democracy in a then newly-independent Ukraine). So I turned to some of the people I met while I was there to share some of the story of the revolution in Ukraine (note that they are both from western Ukraine; views of those in eastern Ukraine may differ substantially).
How did this all begin?
Vitaliy, the owner of a bed and breakfast where I stayed in western Ukraine, explains it like this (prior to the weekend’s developments):
One week before summit Ukraine-EU in Vilnius our president changed his mind about which way Ukraine should move. It was a big shock for everyone in Ukraine as for the past three years we were clearly moving towards Europe and suddenly 180 degree turn just by a decision of one man. It felt like as if you’ve got on a plane flying to Chicago and 5 min before landing pilot makes an announcement: “I changed my mind, we are flying to Mexico City.”
By the end of November protests slowed down and night of Nov. 30th there were about hundred students who agreed that that’s their last night there and they will go home next morning, at 4 AM they were brutally attacked by riot police. The explanation was that “city administration needs to set up Christmas tree”. Almost all the protesters were heavily injured I guess you’ve seeing those videos on youtube. Ukraine has never seeing such a brutal police action before and it was especially hard because almost all the injured were teenagers – first or second year University students. Also we were shocked by the stupidity of the action – as I said before they were about to leave the square in the morning. So next morning there were about 1 million people on the streets of Kyiv. Instead of trying to find a compromise our rulers started arresting people which brought resistance on a whole new level. What is important to know – until now none of the responsible officials was anyhow punished.
At the moment – it’s not about Ukraine moving towards EU or Russia – it is about evolutionary choice for Ukraine. What people want now is a total RESET of the country – like it was done in Singapore or in Georgia.
Going back even further, Oksana, the owner of a travel company based in Lviv, told me this:
In 2004 we also had a revolution in a way, it was called the Orange Revolution. It was the first one during independence of Ukraine since 1991 and everyone was really excited and happy when we finally won and the president was elected. And we kind of gave up after 2004 and things went downhill very fast because the people were not controlling any more. So this time, people are happy but they are not as, you know, euphoria. There is no euphoria in a way because there is still a very long road for us to go. We still have to change the parliament, we still have to change our government, we have to do so many things. There has to be very, very strict control of the government now so we don’t lose the results of this because so many lives were lost.
President Yanukovych was a democratically elected president in what Oksana admitted to me were likely fair elections. So how did things get to the point where the parliament would vote unanimously to remove him from office?
Almost immediately, Yanukovych returned the constitution to what it was prior to 2004 and changed the republic to a presidential parliamentary republic so he had a lot of responsibilities. And then he started appointing all of his people as constitutional judges, supreme judges, every second month he would do something and it would just started heading more downhill and downhill and people started to get really upset with him. You could clearly see that it was heading towards a Lukashenko or Putin style of governance….[i]f we waited until 2015, our president would’ve installed such a dictatorship that we couldn’t even have hope for like a free elections. That’s why it had to happen now.
Is Ukraine headed to civil war?
At quick glance, Ukraine is a divided country, with the eastern regions around Kharkiv, Donetsk and the Crimea leaning more toward Russia and the west leaning more toward Europe. Looking at maps of Ukraine’s ethnic and linguistic makeup next to a map of the last election results reinforce this, showing a clear divide. This has led Western media to hypothesize that some eastern regions may choose to secede or even be annexed by Russia. Some have even speculated that the country may be on the verge of civil war. Neither Vitaliy nor Oksana think these scenarios are likely.
According to Oksana,
There was quite a lot of rumors that the country was going to be breaking up and that we’re going to have one region of Ukraine going to Russia. But I would like to reinforce that this is definitely something not happening. There are, of course, big differences but there’s not going to be a division because it’s not going to be beneficial to anyone, neither to European Union because it would be a crappy Yugoslavia version division. Nor, is the most important part, is it beneficial for our big businesses, our oligarchs. We had one of the regional administration in the East, they were saying that maybe we’ll go to Russia maybe we’ll separate, but the big oligarchs stepped out. They wrote them a big article in the newspaper that you don’t even dare. It’s obvious that it doesn’t make sense for them to divide the country because they’re gonna lose their business.
And according to Vitaliy,
According to the latest sociological research about 45% of Ukrainians want closer integration with EU and only 15% want closer ties with Russia. If you analyze those numbers more precisely of course you will see that support for EU integration is higher in the west of the country and vise verso in the east but that is determined by many factors: historical, cultural, social. What is also interesting – numbers among young people (under 23 y.o.) are common in the East and in the West – both clearly pro EU.
I don’t see a civil war here – this is a war of people against regime. I do agree Yanuk has some support in the east of the country but how strong ideologically are those? Are they ready to die for their president? I doubt there are many people like that on his side.
I think he lost support from West and Russia as well – Putin never liked him anyway and now he sees him as a complete looser, Yanukovych is a bad investment at the moment as he will never retain control over the whole country again. What is also interesting – separatism in Western Ukraine which was pretty loud during last years is reducing now as people say – “Too many people have died to get us Ukraine in it’s nowadays borders that’s why we cannot just give it away”
Of course, a big question is the role Russia and President Vladimir Putin will play in Ukraine’s future. When I asked Oksana about this, she explained “generally most of the people in our country, except for maybe a couple regions in the East, they can’t stand Putin and the fact that he’s meddling in the country’s affairs. He can lead Russia the way he wants it but it’s very disappointing for us that he is trying to make so much meddling into our affairs. Leave us alone, don’t tell us what to do. We’re gonna fix our own problems.”
In the bigger scheme of things, why does Ukraine matter?
As Oksana pointed out to me, “Ukraine is a very key country in terms of post-Soviet countries. If Ukraine finally starts building proper democracy and proper government, there’s gonna be a very big push for the whole region.” She went on to explain that, “[w]hen Georgia started building up their country under Saakashvili, it was already big for the former USSR countries, but it’s still a small country and they definitely don’t have as much income as, for example, Ukraine. So that’s why, I’m sure all of them are – all of the dictators around the former USSR – are watching what’s gonna happen in Ukraine in the next one year. I’m sure they all want us to fail.”
Vitaliy agreed, saying “I think Russian president problem is that if protest succeed in Ukraine – it can encourage same in Russia and that’s why they will do anything to kill this protest.”
Beyond all of the politics and larger implications, though, what struck me the most when I spoke with Oksana was her passion and excitement about what was happening in her country:
It was just very exciting moment to be part of and you know that whatever is happening around you is gonna be written in the textbooks afterwards. That’s very inspiring. On the other hand, this event, you know it’s like when you have the best of your people in your country coming together and they are doing everything together and everyone is volunteering…it’s just the feeling of how people united and are doing things for the future of the country, it’s very incredible. The people who managed to be on the Independence Square, how it was all happening, we couldn’t believe it ourselves. We couldn’t believe that our people are like that.
There are thousands of stories of people that are just very inspiring and I think it just proves to us as a nation that our people are ready for a different country, that our people are very strong, and it just made everyone really, really proud. Not just proud, but also made us humbled that we actually belong to such a great nation that we now start to realize what we can do. So I think that was very special for us.
To learn more about what has been happening in Ukraine, here are a few good resources:
What Are Ukrainians Fighting For? 5 Things to Know About Unrest – NBC News
Everything You Need to Know About the Growing Crisis in Ukraine – Think Progress
What you need to know about Ukraine - Washington Post