Old Ukraine, New Ukraine

Ukraine has embarked on its own phase of consolidation like that of the nineteenth century nation states as well as a twentieth century-style imperial decolonisation process. 

When, like every Monday in the 1990s, the children at her school in Sambir, western Ukraine, sang the national anthem, Anna felt nothing. It was a cold ritual, directed towards an impersonal entity: the state, which did not evoke many positive emotions. Suspicion more like. Just as in George Orwell’s “Animal Farm,” in the eyes of that corrupt, bureaucratic superstructure, some were more equal than others. The superstructure was able to provide certain public services – and quash any hint of dissidence. The new independent state looked very much like the previous regime, the USSR. In a manner that was even more pronounced than in other countries from the extinct communist bloc, Ukraine’s Soviet elites swiftly adapted in order to maintain their power bases, sharing out public resources among the oligarchs. So far, the latter have been the owners (literally) of the land, divided into clans such as that of Donetsk, to which the fallen President Viktor Yanukovych belonged.  

20 years and several failed revolutions later, the Maidan revolts and the war have produced a different kind of patriotism in Ukrainian society, a more transversal kind capable of momentarily uniting distinct sensibilities and identities. The struggles have given a new and more tangible sense to what was previously just formal ritual and symbolism. This was demonstrated recently when the filmmaker Oleg Sentsov and leftist activist Oleksander Kolchenko sang the Ukrainian anthem after being condemned to 10 and 20 years in jail, sentences which were criticised by organisations such as Human Rights Watch. The Russian military court convicted them for allegedly planning terrorist acts in the annexed Crimea, from where both men hail.   

Proizvol and New Ukraine’s activism

The Maidan revolution catalysed a deep disgust towards the impunity and abuses of a kleptocratic elite and their state – what the Russians call proizvol (tyranny, arbitrariness). In today’s political scene in Ukraine, protest in the streets and outside institutions has given way to civic movements aiming to modernise that very same oligarchic state, from inside the institutions. But the political conflict was overtaken by war, almost at the very moment that Yanukovych was fleeing from his dacha, swag-bags brimming. This novel discourse of reform must therefore compete with another – that of defence of the state and of the urgency of preserving independence.

These new times are defined by a voluntary civic movement, which is almost unheard of in the post-Soviet space and in other conflicted parts of Europe, such as the Balkans. This activism has grown up far removed from that same state which still fails to inspire trust, and it often provides a willing substitute in the provision of services such as assistance for the internally displaced and wounded soldiers. It is almost a parallel public sphere, attempting to avoid contamination from the old Ukraine. Hence, the central dilemma: here is a state that must be defended from aggression, but it is also a state that must be fought against in order to change the country.         

In Kyiv, Kateryina talks to me in Russian, as is typical in the capital, and in English, the language frequently used by young activists participating in Ukrainian politics; those with a critical regard, including journalists, volunteers and those pressing for reforms in the Verkhovna Rada. Like a small number of those fortunate to have a professional profile, Kateryina has a Schengen visa, and she is impressed by the roads in Poland and Germany, so different from those of Ukraine, whose poor state is one of the criticisms levelled at local authorities, associated with bad governance and links to criminal networks. There is frustration over the slow progress toward liberalising the EU visa process and false hopes nurtured by Arseniy Yatsenyuk’s government. Kateryina admits that she has no interest in travelling to countries for which Ukrainians do not need a visa, such as Russia, Belarus and Azerbaijan. She visited Russia once, but she does not wish to return. It makes sense really, given the increasing number of summary arrests and trials, such as that of Sentsov and so many others, reminiscent of past times. Russia’s authoritarian drift is scary.

Kateryina, a Russian speaker from south-eastern Ukraine, would fall into one of the categories that Vladimir Putin claims to be protecting under his concept of Russian civilisation (Russki Mir), and radical Russian nationalists would include her in the failed project of Novorossiya. Today, for the first time in their battle-torn history, Ukrainians can begin to choose between two basic models, or maybe two and a half: a Europe full of contradictions and hypocrisy, and Putin’s Russia, together with the notion of Eurasia which the Kremlin wishes to impose. For many, though not all Ukrainians like Kateryina, there is no doubt. They have no intention of being the neutral “bridge” between the West and Eurasia, which Putin spoke about at the UN General Assembly – an idea embraced by so many diplomats and strategists as a magical solution to the Ukrainian crisis. Somewhat anxious, Kateryina stares straight at me and asks if I think that the “new Ukraine” will prevail. I have no answer.      

In another bustling quarter of Kyiv I meet Bohdan for coffee. A diplomat who resigned in a Yanukovych era marked by abuses (including beatings of journalists and opposition members by titushkis, or hired thugs) way before Maidan exploded. Bohdan is critical of Poroshenko and the government, explaining his ideas for radical reform of the Ukrainian state, which for him and so many others, is the utmost priority. For this reason, they reject the provisions in the Minsk agreements that oblige Ukraine to reform its Constitution in order to give a quasi-independent status to the oblasts of Donetsk and Luhansk, held by separatist forces supported by Moscow. Minsk is very unpopular. It is almost seen as an imposition by the EU which, led by Germany, is incapable of defending its own values, “is in a rush” over the deepest crises such as Syria or the refugees’ plight, and prefers to make concessions to Putin. For many, reincorporating these territories into Ukraine, under such conditions, would weigh down the country’s future and its delicate progress towards “Europe”. As might be confirmed in the upcoming local elections, there are fears that this would benefit nationalist and populist forces, still in a minority, increasing political instability. Bohdan and his NGO advocate for a blockade against these territories, in accordance with international law on occupied territories, in order for Russia to take responsibility for their administration.

Olexiy, or Alexei in Russian (he uses both names), does not agree with this idea of cutting off the Donbas area or on giving up on Donbas citizens alienated from Kyiv. A journalist from Donetsk who has been threatened by rebel militias, he belongs to a minority which seeks the option of reconciliation and dialogue with the inhabitants on the other side of the line, regardless of the leaders in these territories that Moscow installs and removes at will. Like many citizens from Donetsk and Luhansk, he had to flee to a government-controlled zone. In the territory held by the rebels – and Russia – there is hostility towards Kyiv, doubtless exacerbated by the government’s “anti-terrorist” military campaign, Russian propaganda and the persecution of pro-Kyiv activists and voices.  Beyond feelings of varying intensity about a link with Russia, Olexiy explains that above all there is a sense of indifference towards Kyiv and Moscow, besides a profound fear of political and social changes. But the new authorities in Kyiv seem oblivious to such nuanced sensibilities or, some say, to the people of Donbas altogether. Olexiy directs TV projects, pluralistic in nature, for those territories, aimed at bridging the abysmal narrative gap with the rest of Ukraine. Using anonymous sources from the rebel side, he and others support investigative journalism into the Donbas’ criminal networks.       

Three dimensions of Ukraine’s political conflict(s)   

Tainted by simplifications and often ideological prejudice, much of the reigning narrative in Europe and the West about the so-called “Ukraine crisis” does not square with the reality in this country or the stage at which it finds itself. In short, Ukraine is immersed in a revolutionary process, transformative in aspiration, as well as a deep crisis in terms of the political model of the state. There are several ongoing conflicts centred around power, identity and the concept of nationhood.

In my experience, there are at least three key dimensions:

The first dimension is clearly one of a fight for greater popular empowerment to challenge the kleptocratic elites, the Old Guard; against their impunity (hence the “Revolution of Dignity” idea) and to bring about better governance, stemming endemic corruption, etc. With a clear generational factor and the use of social networks for mobilisation purposes, there are considerable similarities with the revolts in the Arab world and, to some extent, our own movements in Spain, such as 15M’s indignados (even if for some awkward ideological excess, this is not obvious for 15M’s activists in Madrid). There is also a notable educational angle (Ukraine has a high ranking in education –even if it ranks high on corruption too) and one of gender, demonstrated by the activism of so many Kateryinas and Annas.

A second dimension is without doubt the national identity factor. But not exactly as it is typically portrayed by some analysts and the media. The oft-cited Western Ukraine – Eastern Ukraine division, the binary prism (“pro-Russians” versus “pro-Europeans”), and the linguistic component are relative and do not correspond exactly with the reality on the ground. Just as an example, “pro-Russian” eastern cities such as Kharkiv and Dnipropetrovsk are centres of pro-Ukrainian mobilisation and voluntary support for an army that often speaks Russian. It is true that there are other attitudes and “Ukrainianisation” efforts, partly produced by resentment at the Russification suffered under the USSR, in which there was a dominant class element. And, in view of so much political volatility, some sections of local power cultivate a practical ambiguity in the current stage, keeping cards up their sleeves should things change again. But what we have most of all is a complex tapestry of hybrid identities and preferences. What was different about Maidan was that, for the first time in the country’s history, Ukrainians came together not on the basis of identity or nationality – although those elements were present too, including a mobilised minority of rightists and radical nationalists – but rather on the basis of civic values, which transcended social and regional classes. So it was that from an initial group of hipsters and Facebook activists who occupied the square during the first few days, after the police repression, this grew to around one million citizens gathered in Kyiv on December 1, 2013, including factory workers from the regions and other social strata. Ukrainian identity is not static, but rather, fluid.

The third dimension is provided by the various power struggles taking place, including some class elements. There is a fight within the system between the oligarchic clans that comprise the Old Guard – some presently in government and others fighting to return. And there is also a fight against what Ukrainians call systema (the old politics). This is led by forces representing change and individuals from the Euromaidan movement, now also present in some institutions since 2014. For now, there has not been any real change – a change of clans, perhaps -, but expectations and desire still exist among large social segments. And reforms have slowly and unevenly made progress in at least delivering a better legal framework, though its implementation is torpedoed by the deep state. Some European and American leaders would do well not to forget these fundamental questions at stake in view of the rhetoric of “saving Ukraine” from Moscow’s imperialistic excesses – Ukraine has to be mindful of itself too. As in all transitional processes (today’s Tunisia is another example), there are both conflicts and compromises being played out between the Old Guards and new forces, between old and new Ukraine. On top of these tensions over power sharing,  there are the factors arising from distributing territorial power and centre-periphery relations, as occurs in other countries.

So what does this all mean for Europe?

In my view, Ukraine has embarked on its own phase of consolidation like that of the nineteenth  century nation states – with the spasms, conflicts and contradictions that came with it – as well as a twentieth century-style imperial decolonisation process. Yet both processes are taking place in the twenty-first century, in the midst of a crisis period of our political systems and geopolitical tensions; times of new instruments and different concepts of political action.  

There is a civic discourse and an admirable sense of solidarity in Ukraine. By the same token and just as there is in today’s EU, there is also nationalism, populism and intolerance – sometimes also among the defenders of the new Ukraine, given the siege mentality that has developed. In a situation of war, with its radicalising impact, and amidst an adverse geopolitical environment, the latter characteristics could prevail.

Post-Maidan Ukraine reflects the best and the worst of Europe. It questions the relativism and scepticism which reign in the West, where faith in transformative projects seems to have been lost. And it makes us reconsider what the European model means today. “New Ukraine” is still just a project and it could well fail – it has nearly everything going against it. Such a result would leave another quasi-authoritarian, failed state at the EU’s doorstep, requiring tutelage by foreign powers (whether the West, US, Germany or Russia) while its citizens wait for their chance to flee to “Europe”.                        

However, this battle between the old Ukraine and the new Ukraine is predicated on issues such as democratisation, social equality and justice. It’s about creating functioning states that guarantee opportunities for citizens and good governance, or which are just about preizvol. This new Ukraine also represents an epic quest to overcome the weighty legacy of history and the geopolitics of Yalta, with its carve-up of first and second-division countries. To achieve this, the new Ukraine’s young and not so young carpenters have come up with a discourse for change, tinged with a mixture of naivety, solidarity and critical spirit. Faced with what they perceive as abandonment by Europe and the West, the European flags and idealism have partly been replaced by a sense of resistance, self-sufficiency and national liberation, not to mention a certain fatalism and disappointment. 

Give or take the occasional “Aylan moment”, we Europeans have lost much of our capacity for collective empathy. The banners and concepts of other eras based on patriotism are met with discomfort and rejection by cosmopolitan Europeans. This is especially the case when they come from the East, with its historical baggage, even if the rise of squarely ethnic nationalisms within the EU and its old nation states is also a trend. In spite of everything, one still feels that this political battle for the new Ukraine – and staving off its failure – could provide a new lease on life for an exhausted Europe much in need of remembering its foundational utopian spirit, its raison d’être and the values that could unite us.

This is an extended version of an op-ed published in the weekly “Ahora” (October 16 2015). Translation by James Badcock.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


ECFR Alumni · Head of ECFR Madrid Office & Policy Fellow

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