When the first protests against the Ukrainian government’s E.U. kibosh broke out in Kiev two weeks ago, I was on the ground with a French friend who works for a European supermarket chain. Watching the hordes of angry Ukrainians wave the starry blue E.U. flag on Independence Square and shout, ‘Ukraine for Europe,’ he shook his head in disgust. “Why would the Ukrainians want to join a bankrupt union? Europe is weak now, but Russia is strong. I would go with Putin if I were Ukrainian.”
Other European friends in Kiev echoed his sentiments. “The European Union is a vast bureaucracy,” complained an Italian friend. “We’re stuck now in a circle of debt that we’ll never be able to escape from. Why are Ukrainians so keen to submit to the iron rule of Berlin?”
From their perspective, Ukraine’s Putinist president, Victor Yanukovych, had played his cards like a seasoned poker pro, bluffing the Europeans until the last minute so that he could extract concessions from Russia. The European Union’s offer of just over 100 million euros in development aid was laughable. Surely Ukraine stood to gain much more from negotiating cheaper gas prices with Russia and lower tariffs on exports to its biggest trading partner. Spain’s leading newspaper, El Pais, summed up the mood in Europe with the headline “Putin 1 Europe 0.”
However, as the protests gained momentum, with pro-Europe demonstrators taking over large swathes of downtown Kiev, it became clear that many Ukrainians didn’t share my European friends’ cynicism. They felt betrayed by the government’s sudden U-turn to Russia and angry at the direction their country was taking. For them, a weak Europe was still vastly preferable to their country’s corrupt and sclerotic oligopoly. An accession agreement with Europe represented a chance for this struggling, isolated nation to become part of the modern world. Though Russia still enjoys support in the eastern parts of the country, many in the capital, Kiev, and Western Ukraine view Moscow with suspicion. Their worst fear is that the country could fall under the thumb of the Kremlin and become a vassal state of “mother Russia” yet again.
“I feel European,” stressed an artist friend who spent the weekend volunteering at a tea stall on Kiev’s Independence Square, ground zero for the protest movement. “I want our country to become more like Poland, not Russia!”
This contrast between an “open Europe” and a “closed Russia” has become a theme of the protest movement. Last Sunday, we walked past a demonstrator playing a piano painted in blue European colors in front of the riot police guarding the Presidential Administration. A vast banner on a shopfront near the besieged parliament building read, “Ukraine go to Europe.” Some protesters on Independence Square held up signs reading, “I want to live in Europe.” Walking home at nigh tlast wee, past Independence Square—now called the “European Square”—I heard the Scorpions’ “Winds of Change” blasting from the speakers and joined some other protesters in an impromptu shuffle.
Meanwhile, a statue of Lenin in central Kiev was ruthlessly demolished by youths from the far-right Svoboda nationalist party this past Sunday evening. The posts in my Facebook feed about Lenin’s decapitation were mostly positive, with Ukrainian friends writing, “Goodbye Lenin,” “A Fitting End,” and so forth. More than 20 years after the Soviet collapse, many Ukrainians are finally ready to shake off the legacy of that dark era.
As the protests have grown in size—with more than a 100,000 people attending a vast opposition rally in downtown Kiev this past Sunday—my European friends are still befuddled. “What’s all the fuss about?” grumbled my French mate when I saw him last night.
However, what has become increasingly clear over the last week is that these protests are not only against the European nyet. The European snub was just a catalyst. They’ve snowballed into a populist movement against the venial, autocratic government of Yanukovych. Having watched passively for the past three years as the president and his henchmen have amassed vast wealth, clamped down on the media, and jailed their political rivals, common Ukrainians have finally had enough. “Rage Against the Regime” read a sign taped onto a Carlsberg advert near my house. A sticker pasted on the front door of my building last night read, “This revolution is not about Europe. It’s against the corrupt dictator Yanukovych.”
The violent police crackdown against protesters on a late Friday night almost two weeks ago also sparked mass outrage that galvanized those on the sidelines. My girlfriend, for example, who initially supported the president’s decision on Europe and dismissed the protests, joined their camp after the crackdown. “They hit students,” she said in shock. “The police acted like barbarians.” It was after the incident that she donated her used clothes to the protesters and became more active in the movement.
This second Orange Revolution is the best thing that’s happened to Ukraine in a long time. It’s galvanized the population and demonstrated the power of the people. It’s also fostered a national pride in a people ambivalent about their Ukrainian identity. I’ve heard the Ukrainian national anthem sung more times this week than the Star-Spangled Banner during a Fourth of July weekend in the United States. Having stared down the tyrant successfully, Ukrainians are not going to let their politicians operate with impunity in the future. Their determination in coming out in droves in the frigid winter weather has set a precedent and is already laying the foundation for a more civil society. Their vociferous reaction to the president’s decision, and the mostly hands-off approach of the police, is also proof of the nation’s European values. In neighboring Russia, the protests would have been brutally crushed at a much earlier stage.
The protests are also a bonanza for the European Union, which has been suffering from a spate of bad PR recently. With support for the European project at an all-time low among its citizens, the television images of tens of thousands of Ukrainians protesting for Europe are a powerful reaffirmation of the European dream. They give Brussels a respite from the stream of negative news coming out of Greece, Portugal, Spain, or elsewhere in struggling southern Europe.
It’s no surprise that European politicans have rushed to embrace the protest movement. German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle made a dramatic speech before the protesters last week, stressing that the “door to Europe is still open.” E.U. President José Manuel Barosso went as far as to express his gratitude to the Ukrainian demonstrators in a statement this week: “The European Union has the right and the duty to stand by the people of Ukraine in this difficult moment, because they are giving to Europe one of the greatest contributions that can be given.”
Ukraine’s “greatest contribution” has been to bolster the E.U.’s flagging reputation with its revolution, or “Eurolution.” One hopes the current turmoil will have a similarly happy ending as Europe’s recent debt crisis.