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A decade after Euromaidan, Ukraine more fractured than ever

The divisions that gave rise to the political crisis still largely remain today

EuropeSocial Movements

A protester during Euromaidan, December 9, 2013. Photo by Ivan Bandura/Wikimedia Commons.

Of all the political events that have rocked Europe in recent years, it is probably fair to say that none have been as important, or as tragic, as the mass protest known as ‘Euromaidan’ that began in Ukraine ten years ago, on November 21, 2013. Euromaidan lasted four months, culminating in the overthrow of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych in February 2014. One cannot tell what condition Ukraine would have been in today were it not for Euromaidan. But it’s unlikely that it would have been as dire as the current reality. A full reckoning of what transpired is thus essential.

For this, one has to explore the context that made Euromaidan possible. This requires one to look at both internal and external factors, namely the divisions that existed within Ukrainian society, the peculiar ideology of Ukraine’s pro-European liberal intelligentsia, and the manner in which Ukraine became a battleground for competing geopolitical interests.

In 2013, Ukraine was what political scientists call a ‘cleft country,’ in other words a country containing more than one distinct cultural grouping. Roughly speaking, the two main groups consisted of a largely Russian speaking east and a largely Ukrainian speaking west. Religious, economic, and political differences also divided these two. The east, for instance, was the home of heavy industry, while the west was more rural. The east and the west also voted for different political candidates. In 2004, for instance, Viktor Yanukovych won over 90 percent of the vote in the eastern area of Donbas, while his rival Viktor Yushchenko won over 90 percent of the vote in the western region of Galicia. The political divisions were very stark indeed.

Ukraine nevertheless survived, in part because the balance between the two sides was fairly even and each took turns to hold power. As long as neither side sought to impose its vision of Ukrainian society too firmly on the other, they were able to sustain what was an unstable equilibrium but an equilibrium nonetheless.

Euromaidan changed all that, as the violent overthrow of Yanukovych broke all the previous rules of the game. So too did the determination of Euromaidan’s leaders to make what they called a ‘civilizational choice’ against Russia and for Europe. From the late Soviet period onward, the most deeply held mantra of Ukrainian, and also Russian, liberal intellectuals has been the need to ‘return to civilization,’ by which is meant full-scale absorption into the cultural and political milieu of Western Europe. Europe is regarded as the embodiment of ‘normality,’ whereas Russia is seen as the embodiment of Soviet backwardness and oppression. The path to Europe will involve the eradication of the ‘Sovok,’ the ‘Soviet person,’ supposedly characterized by submissiveness to authority, aggressive imperialism, and retrograde social values. In the Ukrainian context, the Sovok was often identified with the working class of the east of the country. Becoming European implied the elimination of the culture, values, and historical memory of that particular class.

When President Yanukovych declared in November 2013 that he would not sign an association agreement with the European Union, he struck a massive blow to the identity of Ukrainian liberal intellectuals. It was this that sparked the Euromaidan revolt. At the same time, the cultural language of the Euromaidan protestors posed a direct threat to the identity of their ‘Sovok’ opponents. During the 2004 Orange Revolution, the pro-European camp had avoided talking in terms of ‘civilizational choices.’ In 2013, they were not so cautious. In her book about Euromaidan entitled The Ukrainian Night, American academic Marci Shore recounts how one of the protestors told her: “To these people [those opposed to Euromaidan] it seems that their history, their lives, are being taken from them. Perhaps that’s so, Marci. It will seem strange to you, but we don’t feel sorry for these people at all, and we do not even want to understand them.” Needless to say, ignoring others in this way proved to be an extremely foolish attitude.

Unfortunately, it was a folly that Western states did their best to encourage. In 2008, Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski and Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt, both well known for their Russophobic tendencies, successfully persuaded the EU to adopt a new ‘Eastern Partnership’ program, which promised funds for democracy promotion and economic development in former Soviet states. Documents published by Wikileaks make it clear Sikorski and Bildt aimed to pull post-Soviet states away from Russia’s orbit and into that of the EU. The program’s originators viewed its “purpose [as] challenging Russia’s influence in the target countries,” with the Eastern Partnership’s being “a tool to expand EU cooperation with the likes of Belarus, Ukraine, and Moldova, and to loosen Russia’s grip on these countries.”

By advancing this agenda, Sikorski, Bildt, and the EU were playing with fire. From the start, the Kremlin viewed the Eastern Partnership as a direct threat to core national interests. As an American diplomat cable published by Wikileaks stated, the Russians had a deep “suspicion of EU member-states” motives, particularly with Sweden and Poland as the main drivers behind the proposal. According to the cable, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told EU ambassadors that the partnership program was equivalent to NATO expansion. In Moscow’s eyes, the EU was intruding into areas where it had “privileged interests,” and was creating “new barriers” between Russia and other countries. Russia was determined to resist.

Western states were well aware of Russia’s attitude, but the EU pressed on anyway, offering Ukraine an association agreement. This came at considerable cost to Ukraine. For instance, its terms meant that Ukraine would have to come into line with European free trade regulations by cutting subsidies to Ukrainian industries. This would directly threaten Yanukovych’s electoral base in the industrial heartland of eastern Ukraine. In return, all the EU had to offer were promises of marginally improved access to European markets, along with a small loan that fell far short of the Ukrainian government’s immediate financial needs.

Sensing an opportunity, the Russian government stepped in to nix the deal, offering Yanukovych a large loan at a very favourable interest rate, with no conditions attached. The Russian offer was far more attractive than the European one. At the last minute, therefore, Yanukovych backed off from the EU association agreement and took the Russian loan instead. Their dreams of European integration shattered, the Ukraine’s pro-European liberals came out to protest, and Euromaidan began. The rest, as they say, is history.

One might well argue that Russia had no right to a zone of ‘privileged interests’ and that the social, economic, and political reforms endorsed by the EU’s Eastern Partnership and the Euromaidan protestors were in Ukraine’s interests. The problem lay not in the actions of the EU or the Maidan protestors but in the violent response to them. There is much to this argument. But any plan that ignores how others respond to it cannot be a good one. This was something that the West and its Ukrainian supporters never seemed to have considered. Both seemed to imagine that they could ‘damn the torpedoes’ and go full speed ahead, ignoring opposing interests and imposing their will without any adverse reaction. Sadly for Ukraine, they were proven to be horribly wrong.

Paul Robinson is a professor in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa and a Senior Fellow at the Institute for Peace and Diplomacy. He is the author of numerous works on Russian and Soviet history, including Russian Conservatism, published by Northern Illinois University Press in 2019.

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