The most pressing issue in Ukraine right now is obviously the violence in the east. With pro-Russian separatists consolidating control over the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, acting President Oleksandr Turchynov admitted yesterday that the government’s security forces are “helpless” to resist and “unable to carry out their duties of protecting citizens.”
The situation in the country has changed so drastically since the ouster of President Viktor Yanukovych in February that it’s easy to forget that back in Kiev, a post-revolutionary government is struggling to establish its legitimacy, restore some semblance of governance, and prepare for presidential elections scheduled for May 25. Meanwhile, the veterans of the Euromaidan, the movement responsible for Yanukovych’s overthrow, are uneasily adjusting to the new reality. Yesterday I had a chance to speak with a delegation of three prominent Ukrainian activists, all of whom participated in the protests, at the D.C. offices of the Open Society Foundations, which is facilitating their trip to the United States.
“We have no illusions about current politicians and we can’t guarantee there won’t be a need for new protests,” said Oleksandra Matviichuk, chairwoman of the Center for Civil Liberties, a prominent human rights NGO.
Indeed, recent Ukrainian history gives ample cause for pessimism. After the 2004–2005 Orange Revolution brought pro-European political forces to power, the country ended up with a bitterly divided, blatantly corrupt government as well as economic stagnation that helped Yanukovych return to power. Matviichuk says that one reason things could be different this time is that the movement is less identified with any one political party or politician.
“The Orange Revolution was led by politicians,” she said. “But during Euromaidan, political parties played a very small role. They couldn’t control the Maidan. Now people understand that they have to take responsibility. After Euromaidan, people understand that they have to work outside of every political party, no matter the color.” The main goals she identified for the post-Maidan world were reform of the police and judiciary as well as a broad-based campaign against corruption.
Maksym Butkevych, a former journalist and immigration reform activist who participated in the Euromaidan, agreed that after Ukraine’s last major revolution, “Old-school politicians decided they were in power and could do the same things as their predecessors.” This time, he said, success will require “remaking the whole country anew.”
He also acknowledged that the events in Crimea and the east put activists in a bit of an awkward spot, wanting to put pressure on the new government to rapidly reform but also needing to support the country’s unity amid a challenge to its territorial integrity.
“It’s a weird situation for me,” he said. “Being from an activist background, I’ve forgotten what it’s like to say “our government.” For years and years, I’ve never associated myself with the government. Suddenly, the civil society organizations have become the main protectors not of the state but of society.”
I asked Butkevych, who works for the anti-xenophobia NGO Social Action Center, about the much-discussed role of far-right groups in the Maidan movement as well as the country’s new government.
“During the protests themselves, it was for some period of time very uncomfortable to be on the same side of the barricades with the far-right groups,” he said. “More odd bedfellows I’ve never had in my life.”
He acknowledged that the far-right Svoboda party was extremely visible during the protests mainly because it’s better able than any other political group in the country to quickly mobilize its rank-and-file members, but said that it “never played such a huge role as is being portrayed in the media” and “never had the sympathies of the majority of the protesters.”
He worried, however, that the country’s current challenges could lead to a revival of militaristic nationalism. “I think most Ukrainians were proud that their country is the only one in history that had given up its nuclear weapons in exchange for guarantees. After Chernobyl, Ukraine wanted to be a nuclear-free zone,” he said. “Nowadays, many people feel that it was a mistake. In Putin’s world, guarantees don’t mean anything.”
Whoever wins in May, and however the military confrontation plays out, one of the toughest challenges facing the new government will be to bridge the country’s geographic-linguistic divide and win the support—or at least the acceptance—of those who opposed Yanukovych’s overthrow.
Volodymyr Shcherbachenko, a pro-European activist from Luhansk, now increasingly under the control of separatists, who heads the board of the East-Ukrainian Center for Civic Initiatives, said that he believes about 10 percent of the population in eastern Ukraine are “strong supporters of connections with Russia, and federalism,” 10 percent are pro-European, and 80 percent “consider themselves Ukrainian citizens and don’t really want to join Russia, but they will do nothing to protect our state or the unity of the country.” He acknowledged that “the pro-Russian part is much more active and more aggressive. They believe their time has come and they have support from Russia.” He also had little doubt that separatist activities were being coordinated by Russia.
Shcherbachenko expressed concern about whether the election would take place at all in Ukraine’s contested eastern regions. “The situation is getting worse every day,” he said. “Right now it’s unstable in just two regions: Luhansk and Donetsk. It’s all about the ability of our government to stabilize the situation. Without a strong military presence, we will not have this election.”
Butkevych feels that both the government and civil society groups need to communicate better with those on the other side of the barricades, particularly given the overwhelming influence of the Russian media in framing the debate.
“When you talk to ordinary pro-Russian protesters, not the camouflaged fighters from Crimea or wherever, but ordinary inhabitants of Luhansk, their message is very similar to that of the Maidan,” he said. They don’t want corruption anymore, they don’t like police impunity and police brutality, they want to have a say on the regional and national level, they want their rights to be protected. These are all messages of Maidan and they’re also on the other sides. “
All three advocated stronger U.S. support for Ukraine’s security services and economic support for the new government. Matviichuk argued that Ukraine’s sovereignty should be an international priority not only for its own fate, but because the challenge to international norms that would be posed by Russia’s annexations going unchallenged.
“We are in a totally different world now,” she said. “It’s not only a question of what Ukraine should do. It’s a question of what democratic states should do in a world in which the taboo of annexation has been violated.”