Protests in Ukraine, from Euromaidan to separatists in the East, have been the focus of news stories across the globe. Many are wondering, who are the protesters? Olena Chernova, President of the NGO Kyiv Initiative Group Alpbach and a lawyer by training was one of the many people in Maidan Square. She talks to us about a generational divide and explains the current situation from a citizen's perspective.
For several months now, Ukraine has been in a deep political crisis. Why do you think it got so far?
Ukraine has been in a political crisis for a long time and Euromaidan just brought all the problems to the forefront. I think the main reason why it got this far was the conflict between the values of the people, especially the young generation, vs. those in power, politicians with the old Soviet mentality leading the country.
The majority of people in Ukraine realized that European values, standards and integration would be a huge step forward in the transformation of the country. People were tired of the corrupt and oligarchic state where the law did not work and the judicial system was an instrument of the corrupt system to protect its own interests and to intimidate people.
Moreover, Ukraine’s economy was in a mess, without any signs of modernization or reforms as most of the market used to be divided between the oligarchs and Yanukovich’s family. Every person and businessman in Ukraine had to face corruption on a daily basis, but at the core of the problem was not only the corruption and bribes, but also a state system without any respect for the citizen.
All these causes were intertwined and people's protests were growing silently, waiting for the final spark to lit the fire.
What was that final spark?
People hoped that the Association Agreement with the EU would set up a new framework of changes and transparency in the judicial system, the economy, the public sector and so on. When the former President of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovich, postponed signing the Association Agreement people felt robbed. Their idea of Europe was stolen. That became the reason for the first wave of protests in Kyiv.
The first protests had a peaceful character and were started mostly by the youth and students. On November 30th, 2013 the government used the President’s special forces, Berkut, against peaceful protesters. Protesters had never before been beaten in the history of independent Ukraine. People felt that the government had gone a step too far. The force the government used against its own people sparked an uprising against Yanukovich and his government. The demonstration of a couple of thousands of people became a demonstration of more than half a million. The goals of Maidan shifted from Ukraine's European integration to a fight for its own dignity as a nation, European values and against authoritarian rule.
The other side of the problem was that the government and politicians did not hear and did not want to hear the people. The political elite was so far removed from reality and public opinion that it could not believe that the people would stand and struggle in Maidan for such a long time in the cold winter without any money.
Where should Ukraine belong now: Russia or the EU?
I think it’s clear that there is only one path – towards the EU. Maidan has already shown that a majority of Ukrainian people identify as part of the European family. There is no other way.
Russia's president Putin called the breakup of the USSR a tragedy, and being close to Russia means a path to the “new Soviet Union” through the Eurasian Customs Union. This would involve losing Ukraine's own national statehood.
Separatist forces are getting stronger and stronger in Eastern Ukraine. In which direction do you think the situation will develop?
I think there are a few possible scenarios, ranging from division to stabilization of the situation in Eastern Ukraine. Mr. Putin feels nostalgic about the Soviet Union and his first step into Ukraine was the annexation of Crimea. It’s obvious that his next step is the South-East of Ukraine, where Russia supports the separatists but won't admit it. Russia is trying to repeat the scenario of Crimea in Eastern Ukraine. The success or failure of this strategy depends as much on the reaction of the West as on Russia’s appetite regarding Ukraine. During the Crimean crisis, the biggest problem was that Ukraine depended much on help from the West. When Russia, one of the signatories of the Budapest Memorandum, broke the treaty and hurt the territorial integrity of Ukraine, the West could have stepped in. However, the sanctions imposed on Russia by the EU and the USA were not strong enough to save the territorial integrity of Ukraine.
It seems to me I live in a state of déjà vu. We are in the 21st century and we as Europeans are supposed to remember the lessons of World War II and why it happened. The speech by Mr. Putin on March 18th regarding Crimea reminded me Adolf Hitler's speech to the German Reichstag on September 1st, 1939. The annexation of Crimea with the reason “to defend Russian people in Crimea” is similar to Hitler’s annexation of the German region of the Sudetenland. In 1939 the Western countries were silently watching Hitler’s aggression and the result was very tragic.
How could the division of the country be overcome?
The mentality of people in Eastern Ukraine is quite different from the Western part of the country, but it does not mean that we are totally different. We are all Ukrainians and it does not matter what languages we speak, Ukrainian or Russian.
First, I think the Ukrainian authorities should talk to the people in Eastern Ukraine and find a dialogue. Second, the Ukrainian government should be more professional and independent in the decisions it takes. Politicians should forget about their own interests and think about the state's interests. Finally, the government should involve crisis managers in the decision making process. This is one of the biggest problems – the lack of crisis managers in the government. People who are able to think and act differently in crucial situations. Ukraine has such experts, but political interests are acting as obstacles.
As President of Kyiv Initiative Group Alpbach, you are active in civil society. Where do you see the importance of your work?
First, in Ukraine we pursue the mission and ideas of the European Forum Alpbach and promote European integration amongst the youth through a scholarship program and local events. We want to help establish a new generation of Ukrainian students – opinion and decision-makers and open-minded young leaders, to provide education and international cooperation between young people from Ukraine and all over the world.
During the Maidan movement I shot a short video about EuroMaidan together with my colleagues and young people participated. I was a volunteer at the Mikhailovsky Orthodox Cathedral. The church became a medical shelter and surgery was offered for those who were injured or wounded during the protests in Maidan. Together with Ukrainian organizations in Austria I helped to provide medical treatment for injured protesters in Maidan.
How strong is civil society in Ukraine today? What has been their role on Euromaidan ?
Euromaidan was not only the spark for a wave of protests but also for civil society in Ukraine. I think this is the first time that civil society asserted itself so strongly. The political parties or politicians were not the leaders in Euromaidan; it was civil society.
At the core of Euromaidan was the self-organization of civil society. People helped people. Mutual help and volunteering was amazing! Self-organization happened spontaneously and at the same time it was professional. People supported protesters as much as they could; they brought food, clothes, blankets, medicine. There were lots of volunteers. It seemed that people built barricades from nothing. There was no aggression in Maidan; protesters and volunteers even fed and brought food to people in Anti-Maidan and to the police force Berkut; they did this before the police started to shoot the protesters.
From my own experience Maidan was the safest place in Kyiv, except the days when Berkut was shooting. Regarding the other districts of Kyiv, it was quite safe except for the days when there was shooting. Thugs hired by former President Yanukovich’s government called “Tytushki” acted as provocateurs on the margins of the protests, intimidating people and beat them in the streets of Kyiv. The protesters in turn organized themselves in groups of self defense leagues to patrol Maidan and Kyiv’s districts and to protect people from the “Tytushki”. People understood that the police and the court system were controlled by the former government and they realized that the only way to help each other was to protect each other. Now civil society has to continue to influence decision-making in Ukraine through a dialogue between the communities, the government and politicians.
How do you see the future of Ukraine's young generation?
The young generation in Ukraine is very different from the political elite, which has the old soviet mentality.
Euromaidan was started by the youth. Thousands of young people were the first ones to raise their voices after Yanukovich’s government postponed signing the Association Agreement. Most of the protestors who were killed or injured were young people as well.
I think the young people should be more active in civil society and should also be represented in Parliament and government. The youth consider themselves Ukrainians, Europeans and part of the European community. Young people do not carry the burden of communism, they have a different mindset and a fresh outlook.
I think this is also a reason why Russia's President Putin is in a hurry to destabilize Ukraine and to use this opportunity to rebuild some kind of a "new Soviet Union". Some people from the older generation look back and feel some nostalgia about that time. They are a good target for propaganda, while the youth is totally different. The perspective of going back to the past would be a nightmare for the new generation.
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DRIM, R., "The voice of Ukrainian Youth in EuroMaidan,"YouTube, published on February 16, 2014, last access April 20, 2014.