Reuters photographer Gleb Garanich, injured by riot police.
A lot of the coverage lately on Euromaiden (that’s what the movement is being called these days) has given the wrong impression on protests in Ukraine, I think. The emotional and political clashes in the country seem not to be people vs government really, but people vs people. It represents fundamental differences between people not divided by ethnicity but ideology. A friend of mine – a Russian citizen – described Ukraine as being at “the crossing between first and third world”. But that economic reality isn’t at stake here directly. What is at stake is much more grave. And that fight has been going on for over a decade.
In 2004 the issues in Ukraine came obvious to the world during the Orange Revolution. This “revolution” was a response to the election of Viktor Yanukovych to the presidency by a bare 3%. The opposition leader, Viktor Yushchenko, declared the election rigged and called for boycotts until the supreme court ruled for a re-count. The revote found Yuschenko president by a whopping 11%, rather than the bogus results from the government. He became president of Ukraine up until 2010 – when obliterated in an election – as he lost favor for dissolving Parliament twice and failing to improve the economy as much as the public demanded. In fact, Viktor Yanukovych won this election, making the man who was was essentially overthrown elected back to power. And here we are with President Viktor Yanukovych today (think of him as Viktor Ya-NEW-ko-vych, to differentiate from Viktor Yuschenko).
What’s important here is not their economic policies but their political ones. To Yuschenko, Ukraine is a “European democratic country”. Yanukovych is pro-Russia…in fact, he’s more ethnically Russian than Ukrainian. The nation is divided on this matter: to join Russia or to join Europe. Ukraine has long ties with Russia, dating back to the cultural origins of modern Russia in the ninth century under the kingdom of Kievan Rus’. Ukraine has strong oil and gas ties to Russia, and the memory of the united USSR runs deep. But is that a good memory? After all, Joseph Stalin caused millions of death (allegedly!) with his failed agricultural policies during a famine in Ukraine. But Ukraine was indeed part of a world superpower.
And yet, four of Ukraine’s five border nations chose Europe. Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, and Romania joined the European Union, and many hope Ukraine will follow. Europe is the path to secular democracy, to the first world economy, to liberal values (a note to my imperialist readers: not everyone wants that). Putin and invariably Russia have been nasty to Ukraine, and that doesn’t help. So what’s best? Where is the choice? Is it Russia, with cultural and historic ties, or Europe, with stability and a “future”?
That’s the question for the protests today. Ukraine is at a crossroads of its history right now. This is not a question of just what alliance it should have, but what civilization it wants to become a part of. Is Ukraine a Russian entity, in the past and forevermore? Or will it abandon that past for Europe? Is Ukraine Russian, or is it European? Those questions are at stake – and the stakes couldn’t be higher.
And for that reason, much of the protesting is regionalized. Just look at who voted for Yanukovich in 2004:
Notice how Yanukovych did best in the eastern provinces near Russia. Ukraine remains at its crossroads, and it seems the country wants to go two ways. President Yanukovych has chosen the East, but much of the government and many of the people have chosen the West. The protests aren’t necessarily anti-government thus, but anti-Russian. Euromaiden started out in response to Yanukovich rejecting an EU trade agreement in favor of a Russian one. Those who want Europe are protesting, as the map below shows. Keep in mind what happened in 2004, above, and see how it played out in 2010 and now in 2014:
The past 10 years haven’t changed much, then. The crossroads have not been crossed. While all the countries around Ukraine have placed their bets, Ukraine remains ambivalent. What is the future? Only time will tell – but whatever the choice becomes, it’ll be serious. This is not about one government or the other, one ideology or another. It is about destiny and civilization. And by the ballot or the bullet, Ukraine will have to choose: Russia, or Europe, Russia or Europe.
That’s the historical context, folks. A friend brought Ukraine to my interest, and it’s captivated me since. Perhaps I’ll write more on what’s happening now later. But you can see it for yourself. Things are getting more and more violent.