Every revolution has moments where the hinge of history seems to swing wide and everything is different and the old regime is delegitimized. In Ukraine’s revolution, the moment that’s likely to be immortalized is when protestors charged police barricades in Kiev’s Independence Square (“Maidan”) last Thursday, reportedly capturing a number of police troops, only to have dozens of protesters then gunned down by snipers. Even a face-saving compromise brokered the next day by Western diplomats couldn’t save President Viktor Yanukovych. His security forces withdrew their support, leaving him unguarded. At 2 a.m. last Saturday, helicopters ferried him and his stooges away from his Michael Jackson–style presidential palace to the Russophone eastern sector of Ukraine. He remains in hiding.
But for many Ukrainians, there was another moment when they realized the ground was shifting beneath them. It came last Friday evening, during one of the most popular talk shows on Inter, the most-watched Ukrainian network. Lidia Pankiv, a 24-year-old television journalist, was invited on by host Andriy Danylevych to discuss the need for reconciliation following the agreement signed by Yanukovych and dissidents earlier that day. While reporting on the Maidan protests, Pankiv had helped persuade the Berkut riot police not to use further violence against the activists, and she had disclosed that one of the Berkut officers was now her fiancé. But reconciliation was not what Pankiv wished to discuss. As relayed by journalist Halya Coynash, Pankiv had a different message:
You probably want to hear a story from me about how with my bare hands I restrained a whole Berkut unit, and how one of the Berkut officers fell in love with me and I fell in love with him. But I’m going to tell you another story. About how with my bare hands I dragged the bodies of those killed the day before yesterday. And about how two of my friends died yesterday. . . . I hate Zakharchenko, Klyuev, Lukash, Medvedchuk, Azarov. I hate Yanukovych and all those who carry out their criminal orders. I came here today only because I found out that this is a live broadcast. I want to say that I also despise Inter because for three months it deceived viewers and spread enmity among citizens of this country. And now you are calling for peace and unity. Yes, you have the right to try to clear your conscience, but I think you should run this program on your knees. I’ve brought these photos here for you, so that you see my dead friends in your dreams and understand that you also took part in that. And now, I’m sorry, I don’t have time. I’m going to Maidan. Glory to Ukraine.
Danylevych immediately tried to return to the night’s topic of reconciliation. But he was stopped by guest Konstantin Reutsky, a human-rights activist from Luhansk. Reutsky agreed with Pankiv, saying that Inter journalists had “lied and distorted information about Maidan over the last three months.” Danylevych tried to interrupt Reutsky, who went on to say that the protestors had tried for months to avoid bloodshed. “But what happened yesterday is a point of no return,” Reutsky continued. “After that you can no longer say, ‘Sorry, we got carried away, let’s turn the page and start afresh without offense.’ What happened yesterday is impossible to forget.” Danylevych, after shouting down Reutsky’s further attempt to discuss the crimes committed by the government, changed the topic. But a chief media mouthpiece of the regime, owned by the president’s oligarch backers, had been exposed. Hours later, the president fled his palace.
After the broadcast, several Inter journalists approached Reutsky and thanked him for speaking out. Earlier that day, 16 journalists at the network had issued an open letter disagreeing with Inter’s coverage of the protests.
As someone who reported from Eastern Europe during the fall of Communist regimes there, I recognized a recurring pattern in the collapse a quarter century later of the regime in Kiev. Regimes can stay in power in an age of mass media only if they have enough murderers willing to gun down people in the street. Snipers were willing to kill their fellow countrymen in the streets around the Maidan last Thursday, but their superiors reached a breaking point when the shots didn’t achieve the desired level of fear. “The shooting stopped when the security chiefs realized the game was over — not because they didn’t have enough Kalashnikovs, but because they proved ineffective: For one person killed, many more came out on the Maidan,” Maria Semykoz, a Ukrainian economist from Lvov, told me by e-mail.
Now that the regime is gone, Ukraine will face wrenching change. Even if Russia doesn’t attempt to stir up separatist sentiment in Ukraine’s Russophone regions, it has in the past shown it can play economic hardball. In recent years, it has limited imports from Ukraine, creating huge lines at customs posts on the border. At times during winter, Russia has cut off critical natural-gas shipments to Ukraine. The sway Russia holds is probably the main reason Yanukovych abandoned a trade treaty with the European Union last November in favor of a deal signed in December with Vladimir Putin. The financial assistance Putin promised in that deal would no doubt be withheld if the government in Kiev turned decidedly toward Europe and the West.
Ukraine’s immediate problem is that it is on the edge of economic collapse. To become a normal nation anchored in the global trading system, Ukraine will have to endure decisive and deep economic reforms, including state spending cuts, privatization, and the implementation of a tax system that is simpler and less loophole-ridden.
“The problem is, the people will likely hate the politicians brave and honest enough to implement those reforms,” Semykoz tells me. “We need now a generation of political kamikazes, who, like the protestors on the Maidan are ready to risk their future by doing the right thing today.” It’s not clear whether any such leaders are ready to step forward in Ukraine.
But, for now, there is cause to celebrate. The ghosts of Ukraine’s Soviet past have not been banished, but they are fading. It’s not a coincidence that Ukrainians are now tearing down dozens of Lenin monuments, though the statues remained standing at the time of Ukrainian independence in 1991 and even during the Orange Revolution of 2004. For the first time since independence, Ukrainians seem to be getting serious about putting individual rights and freedoms at the center of their political system. Here’s hoping that the U.S. and Europe, both of which have largely avoided engagement with Ukraine in recent months, will now step forward to help the Ukrainian people succeed in their aspirations.
— John Fund is national-affairs columnist for NRO.