Ukraine on the Edge
How can Ukraine free herself from Putin, Yanukovych, and their thugs?

Anti-government protestor in Kiev


George Weigel

The latest news from Ukraine is not heartening to those who stand with Ukrainian reformers’ demands for a restoration of decency, legality, and probity in their country’s public life.

Interim prime minister Serhiy Arbuzov is making ominous noises about buildings’ in Kiev having to be cleared by Sunday. Reports of activity by Russian special forces behind the scenes and around the country continue to leak out to the West. Ukrainian news sources report plans by the Yanukovych regime to cordon off the parts of Kiev surrounding the Maidan movement’s central encampment on Independence Square. After a 48-hour flap over some intemperate remarks about the European Union by U.S. assistant secretary of state Victoria Nuland (a verbal bomb pulled out of the ether and leaked, almost certainly, by Yanukovych’s friends in Moscow), there seems to have been a lull in both U.S. and EU pressure on the Yanukovych regime and the Ukrainian oligarchs who help keep the regnant kleptocracy in power. Just a few days ago, the house of an independent journalist in Odessa was burned down. And while some provisions of the anti-NGO laws rammed through the Ukrainian parliament by Yanukovych’s people were rescinded on January 22, Ukrainian NGOs that have received support from U.S. sources are now being investigated for “money laundering.”

Thus the tense standoff in Ukraine — between a corrupt government that has come to embody everything reformers don’t want in their country and a reform movement that has yet to coalesce around a leader or leaders who can articulate a feasible path from the unacceptable present to a better future — seems to be coming to a friction point once again. And while fears that Vladimir Putin would use the Olympics as a blind behind which to “restore order” among his “brothers” in Ukraine have abated, February 23, when the Sochi winter games will end, is another date causing grave concern. Diplomats in Kiev, however, are worried that Yanukovych and his own thugs may resort to violence again before that.

With Ukraine poised on a dagger’s edge, a review of what has happened in the twelve weeks since the Maidan movement first burst onto the world stage  last November 21, and a sketch of the issues now most urgently in need of resolution in the short term if Ukraine’s European future is to have any prospect of long-term success, is in order.

What began on November 21, 2013, as a Kiev- and western-Ukraine–based protest against the Yanukovych government’s decision to withdraw from the process of accession to the European Union and the regime’s decision to take an economic bailout from Putin’s Russia (which had been lobbying hard, and often viciously, against Ukraine’s EU aspirations) has transformed itself into a broad national movement for civil renewal: a transformation perhaps best described by Greek Catholic bishop Borys Gudziak on Vatican Radio as a transition from a “Euromaidan to a Maidan of dignity.” The issue is no longer “joining Europe,” in the narrow sense of gaining access to European markets, jobs, and consumer goods; the issue is “joining Europe” in the sense of joining a zone of law-governed democracies in which elementary civil liberties are respected and public affairs are conducted in a dignified manner, for the common good rather than personal gain. That morally driven form of “joining Europe” is an explicit rejection of the “managed democracy” of Putin’s Russia, which the Ukrainian reformers know to be a kleptocracy of oligarchs with a monopoly of political, economic, and media power, indulging fantasies of Great Russian imperialism while the society beneath them rots away with the worst public-health problems west of the Urals. (It is also, implicitly, a challenge to “Europe” to rediscover and reclaim the moral patrimony of the EU, whose founding fathers in the post–World War II period did not imagine it to be simply a set of mutually advantageous economic arrangements.)

The Maidan movement has also changed geographically and demographically. Once centered on western Ukraine and the capital of Kiev, the movement for civil renewal and reform has now established itself throughout the country, not without difficulty, but with considerable tenacity. Entrepreneurs and small-business owners are also more evident in the Maidan movement today than they were late last year.

What has not changed about the movement, and what is both impressive in itself and a potential weakness for the near future, is that the movement is completely self-organizing. There is no “power vertical,” and the movement follows no one political leader. There are three political-party leaders with international media visibility, but there is no Lech Walęsa or Václav Havel on the horizon in Ukraine at the moment.

Those who have stayed for nearly three months in the Maidan’s encampments in central Kiev, and those who have established similar resistance centers in other Ukrainian cities, have withstood freezing weather and regime brutality by means of self-organized self-defense. At one of the chief Maidan posts in Kiev, on Hrushevskoho Street, a defensive perimeter has been organized by a Jewish Ukrainian with counterterrorism experience in the Israeli Defense Forces. Other Ukrainian veterans of either the old Red Army or the post-1991 Ukrainian military have put themselves in harm’s way again to offer similar expertise. And while these efforts have been keeping the brutal Ukrainian special forces and their hired hooligans at bay for some weeks now, other Maidan leaders have organized meals, housing (in tents), and medical care for the reformers (who stopped going to local hospitals after wounded activists were kidnapped there by the regime, with some later found dead in the woods).


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