On Nov. 21, summoned by a Facebook post by a journalist named Mustafa Nayem, more than 1,500 Ukrainians showed up in Independence Square in Kiev to protest their government’s decision to “pause” preparations for signing an association agreement with the European Union. The next day, more crowds gathered, in Kiev and other cities. Soon, the protesters numbered over 100,000.
This month is the ninth anniversary of the “Orange Revolution,” which forced the authorities to annul the results of a contested presidential runoff and hold a revote. But in a country that has been largely apathetic for nearly a decade, no one could have expected such a strong reaction to a decision that would not even guarantee Ukraine’s full membership in the European Union — not even in the future.
The government’s arguments against the agreement seemed reasonable enough: Russia was pressuring Ukraine to join a Russian-led customs union, and the country could not risk losing access to the Russian market, which would surely happen if it signed a free-trade deal with the European Union.
Yet Ukrainians, despite poverty and cynicism, care. President Viktor Yanukovich had raised hopes for integration, and Parliament had passed measures that would move Ukraine toward compliance with the terms necessary to sign an association agreement and form a free trade zone with the European Union. Polls showed that a strong majority of Ukrainians supported integration with Europe, even in the East, the region most oriented toward Russia.
The dashing of those hopes — formalized at the end of a two-day summit meeting in Vilnius, Lithuania, on Friday — comes as a bitter disappointment.
The protesters have at times called for resignations, impeachments and new elections. But what’s most striking is their association of Europe with a set of values that results in absence of corruption, a strong social safety net, an inclusive health-care system, fair wages, a stable currency and a responsible government that delivers reliable services and treats citizens with respect. For them, these were even more valuable than the tangible benefits of joining the E.U., like the right to work in other European countries and the prospect of big European investments in Ukraine.
The 20- to 40-year-olds protesting today are the first generation to be fully free of the grip of the Cold War’s totalitarian heritage. They were disappointed by the failure of the last president, Viktor Yushchenko, whom the Orange Revolution brought to power, to fight corruption, reform the government, remove barriers to entrepreneurship and bring the country closer to Europe.
This generation watches little TV, gets its news and entertainment online, and, until now, has mostly avoided politics. The organizers of the recent protests took advantage of this. Amateur broadcasting on Ustream and YouTube quickly spread news of the events. Independent, crowd-funded radio and television networks used the same low-budget streaming technology to deliver live content from an attic apartment in Kiev. Every movement of the unpopular Berkut (the Ukrainian special forces) was closely followed on Facebook and Twitter; supporters were mobilized to defend tents erected by protesters.
The protesters also insisted that the political parties have no overt role — from uniforms to banners to speeches — in the demonstrations. They didn’t want to play into the hands of the government, which would have claimed that the protests were merely a political attempt to undermine it.
Still, it remains to be seen whether the pro-European movement will survive these efforts. Representatives of various rightist parties — including Svoboda, whose nationalist, xenophobic, anti-intellectual and homophobic messages have frustrated European-minded Ukrainians in the past — were embedded in the protests early on.
The protesters express their Europeanness frequently, with excitement, and often touchingly: They emphasize politeness, friendliness and cleanliness. Why? Because this is “the European way.” Everything else is perceived as backward, inconsiderate and annoying — in short, it’s “sovok,” or the dustbin, a euphemism for the disappointing post-Soviet state.
More conservative Ukrainians have a different view. They’ve lumped together tolerance, nondiscrimination and openness into the term “tolerasty,” a neologism that suggests that those who are oriented toward the West are weak, decadent and dangerous. Sexuality is a hot-button issue: To join the Union, Ukraine would have to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.
According to this view, the promotion of so-called European values would lead to the annihilation of the Ukrainian family. This is a powerful discourse. For decades, religion, speech, language and culture were suppressed in Ukraine. The horror of tragedies like the famine of 1932-33 were never confronted.
The activists are very much aware of the power of these scare tactics. With their apolitical messages, they are trying to alleviate the fears of a post-Soviet society that has only begun to grapple with the traumas of its past.
They have been inspired by prominent intellectuals, like the political philosopher and essayist Mykhailo Minakov, who has called on the protesters to heed the lessons from the Orange Revolution: peaceful demonstrations, generational and cultural solidarity, ideological neutrality and reintegration around European ideals as a counterbalance to nationalist and separatist impulses.
Even if they don’t succeed in pushing Ukraine’s leaders toward Europe, the activists are continuing the work of building a nonviolent, nonideological movement of justice and solidarity.
The strength of the fragile civil society that these activists are helping to build will be most tested not in the streets, but back home, where liberal values will be challenged every day, after the current battle for them is won, or lost.
Oleh Kotsyuba is a doctoral candidate in Slavic languages and literature at Harvard and the online editor of Krytyka, an intellectual journal in Ukraine.