Poor Ukraine. It’s suffering a national bout of political dyspepsia, and almost no one seems to care.
Well I do—it’s a subject close to the homefront. So, for the sake of domestic tranquility I offer this wildly partisan analysis of recent events there.
The capital city, Kiev, has since November witnessed huge, sometimes violent demonstrations in the city’s main plaza, Independence Square, the so-called Maidan, as police clash with protestors and different factions confront each other.
At odds are two unyielding blocs of the Ukrainian people separated by politics, culture, language, future ambitions and, largely, regions: Eastern and Western Ukraine.
The protests erupted when Ukraine’s president, Victor Yanukovich, scrapped a deal that would have brought closer economic ties with the European Union. Instead, he chose to favor the country’s traditional patron, Russia. This was, so to speak, a red flag for millions of mostly Western Ukrainians, who have long sought closer ties to Western Europe.
Eastern Ukraine, for its part, feels a strong kinship with Russia and a strong measure of nostalgia for the Soviet Union. Many Soviet leaders had roots in Eastern Ukraine, including Khrushchev, Brezhnev, and Kirichenko. During the Brezhnev era, over half the members of the Politburo claimed Eastern Ukrainian origins, and the old Red spirit still haunts the region. Even now, as the country seeks to revive and make Ukrainian the undisputed national language, Easterners cling to Russian in their daily conversations, official transactions, and historical loyalties.
Yanukovich, who comes from a small town outside Donetsk, is Eastern in his breeding, thinking, and autocratic instincts. One of his first acts as president was to jail the highly popular opposition leader, Yulia Timoshenko, on what most of the world saw as trumped-up, even absurd, charges. Since her confinement, he’s continued to find new crimes to hang on her, assuring that Timoshenko stays behind walls for a long time to come.
“European” Ukrainians view Yanukovich as a domestic danger and an international embarrassment. Indeed, the pratfall president has a knack for inviting comical interruptions of his public appearances that beg for inspired ridicule. Even his fractured attempts to speak the national language, which he crammed for only after becoming president, incite mockery and peals of laughter from many of his fellow Ukrainians.
Amusing as his foibles may be, Yanukovich is increasingly baring his monocratic teeth through the squashing of dissent and by dismissing talk of reforms. His shelving of the EU deal only sparked an already simmering fusion of fear and dissatisfaction about the country’s plutocratic direction.
The government responded to the huge anti-Yanukovich demonstrations first by unleashing the police then later by busing in thousands of counter-protesters from the East, where Yanukovich is honored, billeting them in tent cities around the square. The government not only provided the camps but also supplied food and other sustenance.
For most, it was a holiday, and some weren’t even sure what they were protesting. (Even If you don’t understand the Russian in the linked clip, you can still appreciate the tone of the pro-Yanukovich gathering.)
However, most of the bussers have since grown bored with hanging around, especially after the freebies ran low, and returned home.
Meanwhile, on New Year’s Eve, over 120,000 Maidan Alliance stood together in Independence Square to sing the Ukrainian national anthem, perhaps breaking a Guinness Book world record set by India for the number of people singing a national anthem together.
Despite this show of numbers, Yanukovich’s current strategy is to ignore the protesters, hoping, one guesses, that they’ll wither on their own.
This Ukrainian geo-political-cultural tapestry is held together, however loosely, by many threads, not the least of which is Russia, who has never been keen on the idea of a breakaway Ukraine and deeply resents and fears any further European/American incursions into its former buffer states. Thus, opposing interests tug from every direction at Ukraine’s fragile social fabric, threatening to rip it in pieces.
Which begs for a new, durable strand—namely, that Ukraine’s future will depend on a strong, independent Ukraine that submits itself neither to Russia nor the EU.
Democratic-minded Ukrainians agree that their country needs a course that rids it once and for all of its Soviet ghosts.
But should that require surrendering Ukraine to a European Union that imposes its own set of economic, social, and cultural directives, especially those that conflict with traditional Ukrainian values?
Why, many Ukrainians ask, should they reject Russian dominion only to live under the edicts of what they see as Western decline? Debt, consumerism, forced immigration, cultural Marxism, same-sex marriage, Lady Gaga instructing their daughters, and a distant foreign bureaucracy that regulates their daily life and national policy (they already know how that works). Is it worth trading national integrity for a questionable economic uptick?
The short answer is that no short answer exists.
And, as someone who fell smitten into a Rus dream when very young, and never recovered, I have to hope that Ukraine can set an independent course while savoring the fruits of good relations with all its neighbors.
Yet, experience teaches that the admirable but long-suffering people of those Eastern lands never seem to gain the better history that they deserve.