Understanding a Revolution
Kiev's Central Square Shows What Ukraine Wants
I was on the Maidan, Kiev’s central square, two weeks ago at midnight when it was quietly readying itself for an expected assault. My companion and I were with an opposition MP, a young woman in a flak jacket who had recently been attacked by a colleague in the parliament. The men who escorted her kept flicking their laser torches towards the roofs of the surrounding buildings, whispering “sniper” or “Berkut” (riot policeman). The Maidan is a culture in itself with memorials to the dead and wounded, prayers and statues, photographs and cartoons, bullet holes on the buildings carefully ringed and labelled, hundreds of smoking fires in oil drums, stacks of firewood, barricades of blackened bags filled with ice, tents and flags representing towns and villages. Apart from the burnt-out buses it resembles an ancient battlefield. At that hour, it was easy to be seduced by the discipline (no drinking), watchfulness, and easy informality of it all. But what really happened in Kiev over the last three months--and in the last three days before the President, Viktor Yanukovich, fled?
It is important to get out of the way what this revolution is not about – and it was a revolution: an elected president has been chased out. First of all, despite its origins, it has little to do with "Europe" or Yanukovich’s refusal last year to sign the document in Vilnius known laboriously as the DCFTA (Deep & Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement). Had some explanations been prepared several weeks earlier, Ukrainians would have appreciated the obstacles in the government’s way. It also had little to do with Russia. Yes, Putin has a bee in his bonnet about his "Customs Union" (trying to regroup the states of the old Soviet Union into a trading unit), but the protests last November were hardly expressive of anti-Russian sentiments. Most Ukrainians have an aunt or cousin who lives or works in Russia. Contrary to much of what you read in the press the country is not remotely at odds with itself, neither as an East/West ethnic antipathy nor along a Ukrainian/Russian linguistic division. If you go fifteen miles into the villages outside Kharkov, Sumy or Zaporozhye, you hear Ukrainian spoken. There are indeed large pockets of strong pro-Russian feeling – in Crimea and Lugansk particularly – but there is no general appetite in the east or south of the country for a split, let alone any re-incorporation into Russia. And the Russians know that: they are not stupid.
The country is indeed divided, but along quite a different fault line. The southeast is where the old heavy industries are – coal, steel, chemicals – high energy-consumption industries with gigantic plants. It is a region still bound into a Soviet state of mind and morality. Whole cities are employed by one or two factories, people are used to going to work, being told what to do, and getting at least something of a wage; medium sized businesses are vanishingly few, entrepreneurs are hammered by the big concerns, by the regime’s "enforcers" and their cronies in the provincial state administrations. It is a very different psychology to that which is driving the prosperity gradually seeping through the central, northern, and western regions of the country. There the natural mineral resources are scarcer, most of the Soviet factories have long since packed up and thousands of people by necessity have had to take risks in start-up enterprises, acquiring skills and business qualifications in management, finance, law…
No, the revolution in Ukraine is all about the thuggery of the Yanukovich regime, the almost total impoverishment of the nation, and the thieving from the state coffers by his "family" and associates. The protests at the end of November were indeed staged in support of "European values." They were peaceful and perhaps a few thousand came out on the streets (I was there in person for the first two days – with an ex-KGB general, demonstrating his solidarity). What caused it to boil over was the sudden violence unleashed on schoolchildren and students many of whom were beaten up or simply disappeared. Within a day Kiev erupted: "Where are our children?" From that moment the movement gathered extraordinary impetus. Perhaps a million came on to the streets in early December. And as the regime went into denial, so the Maidan developed into a manifestation of "people power," with all the elements of human nature reflected on Kiev’s streets: courage, idealism, prayer, zaniness, hooliganism, extremism and the sheer "fun" of police baiting and throwing Molotov cocktails: girls on their high heels were pouring away beer and wine to refill the bottles with petrol.
The climax came in the week of February 17. On the Tuesday and early Wednesday, the main parliamentary and business leaders of Ukraine came together and agreed a national unity programm of sorts, which the president said he approved. This was in fact before the French, German, and Polish foreign ministers arrived; and the previous weekend Putin had already told Yanukovich that he needed to come to his senses and seek conciliation. But on that Wednesday night, the president went into lockdown. Although some military units were deployed towards Kiev, the head of the armed forces refused to co-operate. He was dismissed, his deputy resigned, but the soldiers moved no closer – and on the morning of Thursday a special forces unit appeared, "snipers" very deliberately shooting down protestors. They aimed at their heads, their hearts, and their groins. I gather these professional gunmen were not from the army, the police, or the state security service. They were the president’s own personal security force, his okhrana. The facts will be ascertained in due course, but it was both criminal and mad to have taken such a step – and characteristic of the regime’s pervasive mentality. It produced a backlash, a wave of such proportions that the protestors were carried well beyond their own barriers on the Maidan, right up to the Parliament and Cabinet of Ministers buildings, just a hundred yards from the president’s own office. That evening, one hundred seventy-three private charter aircraft flew out of Kiev alone – the thugs in government were leaving, with their associates and valuables. A day later the president also fled, fearing a Ceausescu-like end to his days.
How are we to react to this amazing display of endurance on the Maidan? The first thing is to ignore talk of the country splitting, conflagration between East and West, Russia against Europe. In one way the country is completely united: every Ukrainian knows he has been cheated and robbed by a contemptible regime. A universal joke last year was that "Donetsk [Yanukovich’s power base] is not a region but a diagnosis." The country is of course divided, but in the sense that 50 percent regard themselves as winners, and 50 percent as losers: those who had once voted for the Party of Regions. Wiser heads in Ukraine recognize that it is essential to build a new parliament and government, a whole framework of national unity. Crimea apart, the fact remains that the overwhelming majority of Ukrainians want greater cohesion. The parliament has rightly voted for a return to the 2004 constitution, which had some separation of powers between parliament and the president. They probably need a new constitution, in fact, with greater separation between parliament, president, and government. These are issues that may bore the protestors on the Maidan but they are of vital importance over the next six months. An interim government of genuine national unity will have to be formed soon. The present, temporary one isn’t good enough: it’s again critical that those who believe they have "lost" are properly represented in Kiev, at the center. There needs to be rapid financial aid: there is no money left, it’s been stolen, even the first Russian tranche. Once again, state wages and pensions are no longer being paid, although Ukraine used to have good fiscal structures. And in May there will be new presidential elections. I personally like Vitaliy Klichko – he’s a breath of fresh air, he’s honest, he’s untrammelled by previous baggage, and he can unite the country. People sneer at him (including the U.S. State Department, it seems) because he is a boxer and has no previous political experience, but so did they once sneer at Lech Wałęsa, the electrician, when Poland emerged from its own nightmare. Anyway, the Ukrainians will choose and it will be a real choice that is offered them.
And finally, we must not allow Russia to be demonized. True, the Russian press, TV in particular, has been quite awful throughout the last three months: they tell utter lies, and they tell them so badly. The current angry counter-demonstrations in Crimea are designed to give Moscow a background for sending a strong signal that it will not be sidelined. In fact, what we are seeing has surfaced there many times in the last twenty years; the pro-Russian emotions are part of the fabric of Crimean life, but it's hard to see all-out separatism succeeding in the short term without a level of escalation the Russian government will not want. The main difference is that this time the Russians want their military -- already long-ago deployed in Crimea under a treaty with Ukraine -- to be seen by the world.
Meanwhile, the British government has been exemplary in its cautious and pragmatic assessment of events. It understands that no solution is possible without involving Russia throughout this next stage of nation building. Putin is ambitious, but he does not have an interest in a split Ukraine, and he is highly sensitive to his international reputation. The Ukrainians will be the first to lose if Putin finds that the world is set on humiliating or excluding Russia. For a start energy prices will become impossible for Ukraine to pay – it already has no money for February’s gas. And the country needs time to rebuild its economy. Of course Ukraine wants help: financial underpinning (billions), constitutional advice, legal reform, especially of the judiciary. And there will be conditions rightly attached to those funds and that assistance. The international institutions will inevitably be involved in the work of reparation. That’s a good thing, usually. At the same time Ukrainians need to be given space to work out their own indigenous solutions. After the revolution, the Maidan must not descend into a prolonged witch hunt – it is here, in pushing through national reconciliation and the enactment of proper, unifying legislation, that the country’s business leaders will play an essential role. Why not, for example, have reasonable trading agreements with both the EU and Russia? It is nonsense for pundits to declare that it must choose between Europe or Russia, to go either west or east. Switzerland isn’t going east or west, north or south. At the moment, as one wry observer has said, Ukraine is just going down.
If you look at the fundamentals of Ukraine’s economy, it has a large and modernizing productive base, and its purely technical skills can compete with Europe’s. Its political skills are nowhere. The country needs to devise institutions and defenses that will protect its people from the primitive and rapacious practices of the old "leaders" – including not just those who have recently fled. That’s what the Maidan stands for.
About the Author
Raymond Oxford served eighteen years in the British Foreign & Commonwealth Office. He spent three years in Moscow (1983-1985) and was a founding member of the British Embassy in Kiev (1992-1997).