When Soviet communism collapsed, the West’s declarations of triumph were so full of hubris that it was easy to forget what was right about them. The Ukrainians protesting in downtown Kiev are a reminder that there was actually a lot to glow about.
But the struggle that seemed to be over in 1989 is still going on, and today’s battleground is the square that protesters have renamed the Euromaidan, or Euro-place. The people there are again insisting on the choice of a regime, a type of government, that they and their Soviet compatriots first tried to make in 1991. They know they want what we have and what we are. As our own self-assurance fades, we need to see what they are showing us.
When the Berlin Wall fell, Francis Fukuyama wasn’t the only one who believed history had ended. It was tempting then to imagine that the authoritarian form of government and centrally planned economic system that Moscow had championed and inspired in a lot of the world would inevitably give way to capitalist democracy and the greater freedom and prosperity it delivered.
But the new century brought disappointment. The spread of freedom had seemed inexorable in the 1990s: As Eastern Europe was rejoining the rest of the Continent, apartheid was being dismantled in South Africa, and India and China were becoming full participants in the world economy.
But in Iraq, Afghanistan and then even in the countries that made a bid for freedom with the Arab Spring, the progress of the Western idea began to seem a lot less inevitable. Russia and the former Central Asian republics developed a new, post-communist form of authoritarianism; China never dropped the original, communist version, though it finally figured out, at least for now, how to combine it with robust economic growth.
Meanwhile, back at home, free-market capitalism is feeling tired. Europe is economically sclerotic, politically fragile and flirting with xenophobia. The United States is still struggling to recover from the 2007-9 recession. The neo-authoritarians in Beijing and Moscow are, by contrast, increasingly confident.
In the developing world, particularly Africa, China presents state capitalism as a more effective alternative to paralysis-prone democracy. Russia, too, is reasserting itself, and in ways designed to create maximum Western discomfort, ranging from an 11th-hour chemical weapons deal in Syria to offering Edward Snowden safe haven.
State capitalism’s latest power play is in Ukraine, whose thuggish leadership backed out of signing a trade and association agreement with Europe at the last minute. It did so under fierce economic and political pressure from the Kremlin. Brussels did not expect Moscow’s ferocious intervention. It should have. Ukraine has always been Russia’s first and essential foreign conquest.
The true surprise — and one that should inspire democrats around the world — is the spontaneous and spirited resistance of Ukrainian civil society to this about-face. For more than a week, Ukrainians have been protesting in the Euromaidan, and in front of government buildings throughout the capital and across the country. They have done so in miserable winter weather and in the face of police brutality.
What is important about the demonstrators is their certainty that democracy matters, and that it can be made to work. That’s remarkable, because this is 2013, not 1991, or even 2004, when the Ukrainian Orange Revolution prevailed, and then sputtered.
Democracy and independence are no longer shiny imports. Ukrainians have enjoyed some version of both for more than two decades; nine years ago, starting with protests in the same square, they succeeded in getting the democracy and the independence-minded president they wanted.
None of that worked out very well. The democrats who came to power after the Orange Revolution were such a disappointment that Viktor Yanukovich, who tried and failed to seize the presidency in 2004, was democratically elected in 2010 and is at the center of the current fight. If anyone has a right to be cynical about the power of an engaged civil society to make a real difference, it is Ukrainians. But they aren’t.
The people have taken to the streets in support of political values, rather than nationalist ones, or short-term economic interests. More than 20 years after the Soviet Union’s collapse, the Ukrainian economy remains closely connected to Russia’s, and Vladimir Putin has made it clear that Ukrainians will pay higher prices for energy and face stiffer barriers to Russian markets if they choose Europe.
For the protesters, these economic sanctions are direct and personal. I spoke to one Ukrainian executive whose company exports more than half of its products to Russia. (For fear of economic reprisals, he asked that his name not be used.) Since Ukraine strongly signaled a few months ago that it would sign the European deal, exports are down 10 percent. If the agreement goes through, he thinks his sales will fall by 40 percent. But he has spent several evenings in the square, joined by many professional colleagues. His company’s bottom line notwithstanding, he wants Ukraine to make what the protesters call “the European choice.”
That’s because, in some ways, history really did end in 1989. Authoritarian societies, even ones that are able to generate strong economic growth, deny their citizens the freedom and the dignity that Western market democracies provide. Over the past two decades, Ukrainians have suffered from inept, corrupt and occasionally brutal government. But under that ugly skin, a new, well-educated, well-traveled, comprehensively wired generation has matured. These young Ukrainians know the difference between democratic capitalism and state capitalism and they know which one they want.
One community on the Euromaidan is computer game developers. Ukraine has a lot of them. One of the most successful is Andrew Prokhorov, head of 4A Games. He used his Facebook page to urge fellow gamers to join him in the square. His activism caught the attention of Polygon, an American gaming website.
“People want to move toward European values, especially the younger generation,” Mr. Prokhorov told Polygon. “The government aims for the quickest way to fill up their wallets. There is no place for our corruptionists in Europe. I come out to say, ‘Yes to Europe.’??”
From Washington to Warsaw, democratic capitalism is demoralized. Our political institutions aren’t up to the challenges of the 21st century, and the economy isn’t delivering for the middle class in the way it did during the postwar era, when the original version of the struggle between democracy and authoritarianism, the Cold War, was at its peak.
That conflict has become a cool war, and those of us on the democratic side of the barricades aren’t so sure we have all the answers — or that it is a struggle we are all that interested in engaging. Russia has no such qualms. China, where Ukraine’s president traveled this week, knows which side it is on, too.
But as in 1989 the most important fault line in the world today runs through a cold, crowded, euphoric public square in Eastern Europe. The Ukrainians there are fighting for themselves, but their battle should also help us to remember where we stand and why it matters.
Chrystia Freeland is the author of Sale of the Century: Russia’s Wild Ride from Communism to Capitalism and a Liberal member of the Canadian Parliament.