Three months ago, we wrote that the popular protests that erupted after President Viktor Yanukovych changed his mind about signing the deal with the European Union heralded the end of Ukraine as we knew it. What has taken place since then has profoundly changed the country – and the process is far from over.
The events in Ukraine are about a new generation of citizens that is fed up with and standing up against corruption and government cronyism – a development not unfamiliar to some of the EU’s own member states. Some key words in the Ukrainian revolt were inequality, dignity, and rent-seeking. As such, Ukraine provides a local window on global challenges. Ukrainians stood up to the corrupt system and scores of them lost their lives as a result.
“Maidan” stands for much more than the removal of Yanukovych: it calls for the change of the system, not just for a change within the current political framework. It is an umbrella for those on the streets and their supporters, who want to do away with corrupt governance once and for all. It has taken on a political life and influence of its own. Yanukovych hastily fled Kyiv only after it became obvious that “the Maidan” would not accept what the EU-brokered deal would offer: a lengthy process involving unclear constitutional reform and uncertainty about whether and when the president would step down. The events of the past few days have already proven that Maidan, not the parliamentary opposition, was right about Yanukovych.
The “victorious Friday” that followed last week’s bloody Thursday has not yet sealed the victory. It offered the chance to remake Ukraine into a better-governed and democratic state – the same chance that the “Orange” elite wasted ten years ago. But this is only the beginning of the battle for Ukraine. Those who follow and care about Ukraine should take note: this is a Ukrainian battle about the character of their country, not about its geopolitical orientation. In fact, despite all the geopolitical talk over the past two decades, the country moved neither west nor east, no matter what “victories” and “losses” were perceived by either side.
This process is likely to be no less dramatic than the events of the past three months, and it is likely to last much longer. Firstly, fights are erupting in the east and south of the country between pro- and anti-Maidan protesters. And those who oppose Maidan do not seem to be just the paid titushki (thugs hired to attack the protesters). This is a serious warning that the anti-Maidan side is still strong and is ready to fight back. Moreover, now that the common enemy embodied by Yanukovych is gone, various local political actors might end up embroiled in localised power struggles.
The fight to define the new character of the Ukrainian state will target not just the Party of Regions and their financiers, but also the likes of Yulia Tymoshenko and other “old” elites and political parties. The West should start learning the names of the new political actors, and it should judge them based on their deeds, not on their rhetoric. The infusion of “new blood” into the Ukrainian political elite will not happen without resistance: the newcomers’ instincts are worlds apart from those of the established elites.
Moscow has much more to lose in this fight and its actions are likely to reflect that. But furthering the fragmentation of Ukraine could cause it to lose even more. The West should continue to talk with the Kremlin to prevent this scenario, even if it is hard to imagine the Russian leaders acting calmly and without emotion right now. They have become the victims of their own media campaign and are under growing pressure at home.
It is time for the EU to stop talking, to start listening, and to take action where Ukraine needs assistance the most: ensuring its economic stability, laying down new foundations for democracy and the rule of law, and strengthening those who advance reforms. The EU should be ready for all sorts of scenarios, including further eruptions of violence. It must make preparations to avoid being caught off guard, as it was last week. If the EU looks at the developments in Ukraine only through the lens of geopolitics or as another round of the zero-sum game with Russia, it will get Ukraine wrong – again.
Balázs Jarábik is an associate fellow with the FRIDE think-tank, and Jana Kobzová is an associate fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. Both are also fellows at the Central European Policy Institute.A version of this article was published in European Voice.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.