By Elizabeth Pond
"The country is united," says a friend from Kiev, whom for the sake of this article, I'll call Ihor, an international civil servant who is not allowed to comment publicly on political issues. Rather than a split between Russophone Ukrainians in the east and West-oriented Ukrainian speakers in the west, the main divide now is generational.
“The generation of my parents, while devastated by the killing of Ukrainians [in Stalin’s brutal premeditated famine of Ukrainian peasants in the 1930s], still turned out to be against the European Union. My generation and the next generation see that we have to break from Russia, no matter what the cost,” explains Ihor.
Solidarity among the under-40s, the first Ukrainians in history to grow up in a state of their own, is very new. In the decade after Ukraine had statehood thrust upon it by post-Cold War disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991, the central question was whether the populations in the east and west would identify themselves with the new state fast enough for Ukraine to survive as an entity. Europe was a distant abstract. No more than a tiny percentage could even conceive of themselves as potential Europeans.
Yet by last fall, hundreds of thousands of young Ukrainians felt so passionately that their future lay with Europe that their grass-roots civil society started a street protest against then-President Viktor Yanukovych's last-minute rejection of association with the EU. Their three-month vigil in freezing weather—and especially the deaths of at least 80 of their comrades who were shot by riot police and snipers two weeks ago—bonded demonstrators from west and east.
The common cause also included a determination to heal inherited ethnic and other enmities. The convener of the protests at Independence Square was a Kiev-born Afghan Muslim and investigative journalist named Mustafa Nayem. Kiev Jews quickly joined him in organizing the demonstrations—and the regime blamed a Jewish conspiracy for the unrest domestically, even as it broadcast to the West that "Nazis" were the masterminds. Ukrainian veterans of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 then rallied to defend the protesters against abductions and torture by the regime's secret services. Gay activists monitored the hotlines for families seeking missing relatives. The nationalist Svoboda party and especially the radical Right Sector group came from the west and threw cobblestones and Molotov cocktails at riot police who tried to breach the demonstrators' perimeter defense of burning tires. Kiev neighbors brought food and drinks to the Square. Doctors volunteered their services in improvised clinics. Two of the 80 who were killed by snipers were a Russian-speaking environmentalist from eastern Kharkiv and a Pole from the west.
The shock of that sacrifice—and an EU-brokered truce between Yanukovych and the street that preempted the president's order of a mass crackdown on "terrorists"—finally pushed senior oligarch allies and factions of his own party to desert him. A majority in the hitherto rubber-stamp parliament suddenly voted to oust Yanukovych, call new elections, and dissolve the Berkut riot police.
The ex-president fled secretly to Russia. Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the military operation that now occupies Ukrainian Crimea.
Putin, angry over the insubordination of the Ukrainians to their older Russian brothers and humiliated by it, will never understand their flight from top-down Soviet-style politics or the strength of a voluntary bottom-up political culture. He will never understand the aspiration for a European identity by fellow East Slavs whom most Russians still seem to regard as immature younger brothers to be bossed around. He will never understand why members of a vastly outnumbered and outgunned Ukrainian air force unit in Crimean Belbek—most of whom are probably themselves Russian- rather than Ukrainian-speakers—refused to surrender to well-armed Russian troopers and instead left their own weapons behind and marched directly up to their captors singing the Ukrainian national anthem.
Nor will he understand that it is 23 years too late for the Russian seizure of Crimea to destabilize Ukraine and stoke a repetition of the terrible civil war that engulfed Ukraine just a century ago. Now further threats of invading eastern Ukraine would succeed only in accelerating consolidation of the nascent Ukrainian and European identity.
Already Russia's military invasion of Crimea has prodded the provisional Ukrainian government to build a new east-west coalition by appointing eastern oligarchs as mayors and governors in their localities. It has agreed to the urgent anti-corruption and economic reforms the International Monetary Fund requires before advancing the money needed to rescue bankrupt Ukraine. Even two weeks ago, if Putin had not threatened Ukraine's very existence by his military expedition, these steps would have been politically impossible.
"I think that Ukraine faces terrible choices," Ihor concludes. "To lose Crimea? To lose eastern Ukraine but preserve its core? Or to push back [by ordering the Ukrainian army to fight any Russian incursion in the east] and unite the country?…My only hope at this stage is that Ukraine will use this moment to pave the way to its future in very clear terms."
In his view, and in a growing consensus of the younger generation, those terms would include breaking with the corrupt Soviet-style governance that Yanukovych embodied, building real institutions in parliament and rule of law—and embracing democratic European values.
Elizabeth Pond, a Berlin-based journalist, is the author of From the Yaroslavsky Station.
[Photo from Flickr]