Ukraine between occupation and liberation: An eye-witness account

IMG_3026 (Kopie)The EuroMaidan Movement is already of historical significance because it changed the course of action of the Ukrainian state and made the change of power from ex-President Janukowytsch possible. Immediate consequences are mixed. While Russia has de facto annexed the Crimea and is engaging in destabilization operations, the good news is that the first round of Presidential elections will take place as planned on May 25th and the Special Committee of the Parliament on Constitutional Reform will present its first results on May 15th.

But let’s backtrack: In November 2013, Ukrainian citizens initially assembled on the Maidan to protest against the government’s suspension of the negotiations of the association agreement with the EU. When the state exercised violence against protesting students, masses of ordinary Ukrainian citizens took to the streets to peacefully protest for justice and human dignity. Mass Protests erupted again in January 2014 in response to the so-called dictatorship laws, which dramatically infringed freedoms of speech and assembly. “Ukraine has turned a corner,” said Miriam Kosmehl, Project director of the FNF Kyiv Office, “onto a decidedly democratic path.” However, people clearly see the Maidan achievements as a chance only, not as a victory in their strive for a new political culture.

What made the EuroMaidan Movement so special is that it was supported by citizens from every region of the country. Polls show that while half of the citizens on Maidan were from West Ukraine, one quarter came from South-East and Central Ukraine respectively. People were united in their objection to the omnipotence of the government. “What we have seen since, “Kosmehl continued, “is a resurgence of civic pride, political engagement and demand for honourable public service.”

The high energy of the EuroMaidan has opened a window of opportunity for real change in Ukraine, but much needs to be done to place and keep Ukraine on a sustainable democratic trajectory. For one, radical forces have to be absorbed and re-oriented. While they have made it into the spotlight, they do not represent a major opinion among Ukrainian citizens. “What the majority of Ukrainians do want is a free society and a government that respects the rule of law and citizens’ rights – and to cut the links between politicians, industrial oligarchs and organized crime,” Kosmehl pointed out. The people at Maidan Square were motivated by their desire to change the corrupt political system, which has ruled Ukraine for far too long. They demand fresh faces, new politics and above all real democracy.

However, the aspirations of the Ukrainian people are being thwarted by the aggressive actions of Russia. In his address to the Duma following the annexation of the Crimea, Vladimir Putin has left no doubt of his nostalgia for a bi-polar world order and his ambitions of creating a strong Slavic Orthodox Union, which can challenge the European Union in terms of economic and political integration. To fulfil this goal, Putin needs the new Ukrainian leaders to fail in consolidating the country and building a stable democracy. Consequently, the Russian Federation is conducting massive destabilization operations. These activities are led by heavily armed groups of masked men who call themselves pro-Russian activists or “People’s Militia”. While there is a mix of identity and affiliations, some leaders have been identified as part of the Russian Special Forces. According to Miriam Kosmehl, fear of armed forces is holding many citizens in the East of Ukraine behind the closed doors of their homes instead of openly protesting for Ukraine’s unity.

IsupportUkraineDespite the de facto territorial annexation and further internal destabilization by means of disguised warfare by pro-Russian activists, the transitional government has assured the citizens of Ukraine that the presidential elections, scheduled for 25th May 2014, will take place as foreseen. Over twenty candidates are running, with well-known figures such as Yulia Tymoshenko and Petro Poroshenko. March-polls predict Petro Poroshenko as the front-runner for the office of President of Ukraine with around 20% of votes, predictions that have meanwhile increased significantly. He is an old face in the Ukrainian political arena, but trusted by Eastern and Western Ukrainians. Estimates suggest a voter turnout of 84%, – motivated by their desire for real change and determination to contribute to a shift in the political culture, inspite of the cultural, historic, social, geographic and linguistic differences which do exist, but have and still are often being used as an instrument to divide society.

In order to stabilize the country, the new Ukrainian government must develop integrative politics and engage citizens through dialogue among people and regions —and explain the central government’s values and visions to people in the different regions. The results of these elections hold the key to Ukraine’s future, but the new leadership will have to overcome huge challenges. Consequently, “before Europe helps Ukraine build democracy and the rule of law, Europe must help Ukraine to make sure these elections take place”, concluded Miriam Kosmehl.

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Solène Berthelier & Susan Schneider

Foto credit: FNF Europe