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Ukraine’s two years of living dangerously

Last year in 2014, Ukraine made its way into our Place of the Year shortlist, garnering 19.86% of votes. Though Scotland beat out Ukraine for the top spot, it by no means undermines everything this Eastern European country has gone through. Serhy Yekelchyk, author of The Conflict in Ukraine: What Everyone Needs to Know, reflects on how Ukraine has transformed in recent years.

Although the last two years have brought unprecedented international media attention to Ukraine, most Ukrainians would be happy to trade this newfound spotlight for a return to peace and normalcy. As the country approaches the second anniversary of the Euromaidan Revolution, its citizens look back at a growing list of unfulfilled promises and squandered opportunities that the new government has accumulated. As of the fall of 2015, Ukraine is burdened with challenges even more formidable than the ones that caused the revolution in the first place.

The Euromaidan Revolution was a spontaneous popular uprising against the corrupt and manipulative regime of President Viktor Yanukovych. His last-moment cancellation of the Association Agreement with the European Union (EU), under Russian pressure, served as the proverbial last straw for Ukrainians who found the domestic situation intolerable. Few protesters had a clear idea of what the EU was like or what exactly the agreement promised. For them, “Europe” was a metaphor for democracy, the rule of law, and economic opportunity—all the things that were so sorely lacking in Yanukovych’s Ukraine, as well as in Putin’s Russia next door.

The spontaneity of the revolt caught even the opposition parties off guard. It began innocuously, with a Facebook post by a popular opposition journalist, a Ukrainian of Afghani descent, Mustafa Nayem. In November 2013 he invited friends for an evening “stroll” on Kyiv’s Independence Square (or Maidan in Ukrainian), and the crowds quickly swelled from a thousand on the first night to over a million a week later. The rest is history: the plaza’s peaceful occupation over the cold winter, the riot police’s use of firearms in February, an open rebellion in much of western and central Ukraine, and the president’s ultimate flight to Russia.

Yet, the war and the occupation that followed are still very much part of Ukraine’s difficult present. Yanukovych was not an usurper; he was elected legitimately in 2010 with strong support in the country’s eastern and southern regions. Formerly the electoral bailiwick of the Communist party in the 1990s, these depressed industrial regions had shifted their political allegiance to Yanukovych’s Party of Regions by the early 2000s. The latter dropped the communist rhetoric, but retained and reinforced the notion of Russian speakers as an endangered group in the Ukrainian southeast. This position helped mobilize Yanukovych’s political base, yet it also opened the door for interference from Ukraine’s former imperial master, Russia.

The Russian-speakers in the southeast were a legacy of the Soviet past. Ethnic Ukrainians constituted a majority in all of the provinces in the region, except for the Crimea, but creeping assimilation in the postwar Soviet Union left many of them identifying with Russian culture. In a curious way, their Soviet nostalgia morphed into allegiance to Putin’s Russia, a country that Lenin would have seen as the worst example of state capitalism. When Russophone activists in the southeast resisted the removal of Lenin statues in early 2014, they interpreted them not as communist symbols, but as emblems of the imperial identity the Soviet Union had left behind—one based on Russian culture and Cold-War rhetoric.

This separate regional identity, no matter how different it was from the ideals of the Euromaidan, in itself did not produce what some Western media have mistakenly called a civil war. It took Russia’s direct and indirect military involvement for the conflict to start. The Russian annexation of Crimea in March 2014 and the Russian military’s role in it, first vehemently denied but later acknowledged by President Putin, did not result at first in a military conflict with Ukraine’s new authorities. Soon, however, pro-Russian militants, many of them bona fide Russian citizens, trekked from the Crimea up north to the industrial region of the Donbas. Their leader, a retired Russian intelligence officer named Igor Girkin (nom-de-guerre: Strelkov), at first complained that the locals were not prepared to take up arms against the Ukrainian government. By the summer 2014, however, a war was raging in the Donbas, with more “volunteers” arriving across the Russian border. They were provided with tanks, mobile artillery systems, and surface-to-air missiles. The Ukrainian air force was grounded after the separatists shot down several military planes. In July 2014, a sophisticated high-altitude Buk missile fired from separatist-controlled territory destroyed a Malaysia Airlines passenger plane on its way from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, killing all 298 people on board.

Emasculated by decades of corruption, the Ukrainian army did not fare well against the professional mercenaries recruited from active-duty and reserve Russian military personnel. France and Germany initiated international mediation, but the peace process was slow to begin as each side in turn sought to exploit momentary strategic advantages. The first armistice concluded in Minsk, Belarus, in September 2014, did not hold. Only the second Minsk agreement in February 2015 led to a noticeable de-escalation in fighting, both because the war had reached an impasse and because the Russian financial system was crumbling under the impact of falling oil prices and international sanctions.

Low-intensity warfare continued along the contact line for months, ending suddenly the moment that Russia got involved in Syria in late September 2015. For all the talk in the Russian state-controlled media about the Ukrainian “civil war,” it is telling that fighting there stopped the moment the war’s chief sponsor switched its attention elsewhere. This spectacular reversal confirmed the much-ignored global dimension of the Ukrainian conflict. For Putin’s increasingly assertive Russia, the conflict represented just another front in its global stand-off with the West.

None of this was good news for Ukrainian citizens, both supporters and opponents of the Euromaidan Revolution. The economic situation deteriorated greatly during the war and the government did not attempt much-needed structural reforms. Uber-rich oligarchs have retained their grip on the country’s political life and continue to wage war against each other through rival media empires. President Petro Poroshenko is himself a billionaire who failed to distance himself from his business interests in the way a democratic politician would have after being elected. Prime Minister Arseniy Yatseniuk managed to win the last elections with a platform based on nationalist rhetoric, but saw his approval ratings collapse to single digits by the fall of 2015. As ordinary citizens struggle to make ends meet, the extreme nationalist right—the favorite bogeyman of the Russian media, but in reality a marginal force in Ukrainian politics—try to exploit violence as a political tool.

It is becoming increasingly clear that the new Ukrainian authorities have only a small window of opportunity to start building that new “European” Ukraine that they have been talking about—one that will be attractive for its own citizens, as well as for those who remain in the occupied Donbas and the Crimea. Soon it will be too late. The nationwide local and municipal elections on 25 October 2015 only confirmed this impression. The low turnout demonstrated popular disillusionment with the new authorities, while the elections in several cities of mayors associated with the previous regime confirmed the old regional elites’ unbroken hold on power. There will be little to celebrate on the revolution’s second anniversary on 21 November 2015.

Headline image: Photo by tandalov.com. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 via Flickr.

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