Today, 21 November, marks a year since the start of the Euro Maidan demonstrations that brought about the fall of a government and brought Ukraine to the attention of the outside world. This morning a coalition agreement was finally signed between five parties and a government with a new mandate to reform will take office next month.
Twelve months ago a young journalist turned activist, Mustafa Nayem, took to Facebook after President Yanukovych announced he would not be signing an Association Agreement with the EU. “Come on guys,” he wrote, “let’s be serious, don’t just like this post. Write that you are ready and we can try to start something.” He called on people to gather that evening on Kyiv’s Independence Square, the “Maidan”, and a crowd of 50 quickly swelled to over 1,000. And they stayed. What began as mostly students became a community of thousands representing a cross section of society. The self-organisation was impressive. Volunteers answered calls for help from a makeshift stage and on Facebook. They came to cook or clean, to bring in wood, or to tweet and broadcast. Doctors organised medical stations and Afghan war veterans set up security posts. In a country beset by corruption and cynicism there was an incredible feeling of trust and common cause.
Having walked around at the time, it’s hard to forget the capital’s Christmas tree turned into a protest canvas with posters and slogans, the intertwined EU and Ukrainian flags which adorned every corner of the Maidan, the smiles on tired faces, the wall of smoke from burning tyres, and the imposing barricade of Berkut (riot police) behind their shields in the snow.
Sparked by an EU treaty and branded “Euro Maidan”, it fast became a lot more. Ukrainians were revolting against “an entire political system […] based on mis-governance, rent-seeking, and corruption”. When Yanukovych fled Kyiv three months later, it was an opportunity for a new start.
Today also marks ten years since the start of Ukraine’s Orange Revolution. It had the same feel with crowds descending upon and occupying the Maidan to demand a re-run of the presidential elections which they went on to win. For the West it had looked like another colour revolution following the “Rose Revolution” in Georgia the previous year. But the hopes of jubilant crowds of the Orange Revolution soon gave way to deep disappointment with the new government’s failure to do what it had promised. Corruption and the oligarchy were not tackled while political, economic, and energy reforms took too long. There were too many compromises with Russia and the coalition broke up in vicious infighting. So what makes Euro Maidan any different?
Firstly, this time the situation is a lot worse. It has prompted more urgent action and has kept the outside world involved in the form of the EU and IMF. The new authorities have inherited an economy that is almost bankrupt and people are feeling it. The enormous government debt is unpayable without massive outside help, inflation has rocketed, and Bloomberg has branded the Hryvnia, which has lost over half its value this year, as the world’s worst performing currency. This year Russian intervention has moved from banning Ukrainian products and influencing political parties to Russian soldiers annexing Crimea and supporting a separatist movement in Eastern Ukraine’s Donbas. Infrastructure, homes, and industry have been devastated, well over 4,000 people have died, and at least a million have been displaced. In what is arguably Europe’s newest frozen conflict, there are new casualties every day and many fear it could explode again at any moment.
Secondly, people have been determined to learn the lessons of the Orange Revolution and bring in new people and push for reform. Many have said reforms have been too little too slowly but there has been progress: a law on lustration has been passed, as has a comprehensive law on anti-corruption. The Association Agreement with the EU – now signed and ratified – gives direction to a host of other reforms. Civil society is determined not to leave change to the politicians and new TV stations have been set up and new reform-monitoring organisations founded. Two elections have been held for a new president and new MPs, among whom are members of volunteer battalions who fought in the East, journalists, and civic activists, including Mustafa Nayem and many of his colleagues.
Today should be a day of optimism in Ukraine after all that has happened in the past year but it is very far from certain that they can succeed. Reform will require culture change for which Ukrainians may not be ready. Anti-corruption institutions must be independent and credible, the coalition has to stay united and also ensure Ukrainians in the East feel included, and the European Union must stay actively engaged politically and financially. And all this must happen while a war is being fought. The next twelve months could be just as important as the last.
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