By Isaac Webb
When hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians took to Kiev’s Independence Square from November to February, chanting “Ukraine is Europe,” their aspirations seemed clear enough. They demanded transparent and democratic government, and freedoms of speech, assembly, and the press. In short, the protestors demanded the rights that lie at the foundation of the Western liberal ethic. But is that what Ukrainians really want?
This rosy image of the Maidan movement—of protestors demanding their natural rights—seemed to contradict years of polling information, which showed that Ukrainians were at best apathetic about democratic governance and Western political rights. From October 26 to November 8, thirteen days before the first EuroMaidan protest, the International Foundation for Election Systems conducted a public opinion survey throughout Ukraine. Fifty percent of respondents said that a non-democratic system of government might be better for Ukraine or that the system of government did not matter to them. When asked to select five principles they associated most with democracy, 60 percent chose human rights. To many Ukrainians, Western-style human rights didn’t necessarily belong in Ukraine. According to the study, more Ukrainians were “likely to agree that it is more important for political leaders to maintain order than protect rights.”
Why, until the outbreak of the EuroMaidan Revolution, were Ukrainians willing to sacrifice political rights for economic ones? And did the EuroMaidan really transform Ukrainians' understanding of rights?
Rights in the Soviet Union
On December 10, 1948, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). Conspicuously absent from the list of signatories was the Soviet Union, which refused to ratify the declaration, arguing that it endorsed the western legal ideology of “negative rights,” what we call “inalienable rights” in the United States. Whereas negative rights were to be protected from the state, in the Soviet Union’s positivist tradition, rights emanated from the state. The communist Soviet Union had little use for the inalienable rights (Marx called them “bourgeois rights”) of the U.S. and Western Europe.
Although the Soviet government had officially pledged to uphold Western standards of civil and political rights by signing international human rights treaties in the 1960s and 1970s, it did not hide the fact that it considered social and economic rights to be more important. The USSR persecuted thousands of dissidents who attempted to express these political rights, thereby cementing a hierarchy of human rights. According to the Soviet view, economic and social rights came first because they were necessary to guarantee political and civil rights. As Viktor Chkhikvadze, the former director of the Institute of State and Law of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR, wrote in 1981: “It is precisely fundamental social and economic rights that guarantee the freedom of speech, the press, meetings, demonstrations, the inviolability of the individual, and the dwelling, the privacy of correspondence, etc.”
The collapse of the USSR in 1991 meant the collapse of the Soviet social welfare system that guaranteed jobs and pensions for everyone, and kept prices artificially low. Social and economic rights evaporated almost overnight. Though independence and closer association with the West could have entailed an expansion of political and civil rights, Ukraine remained behind what one scholar has called “the facade of an electoral democracy” in the 1990s and early 2000s. Even after the Orange Revolution, which promised to usher in a new era of rights in Ukraine, Ukrainians remained committed to a system that viewed social and economic rights as paramount. Since then, the state has remained the guarantor of economic and social rights, which still appeal to some Ukrainians who are, understandably, disenchanted with independent Ukraine's facade of civil and political rights.
Rights and the Maidan
The EuroMaidan Revolution clearly invigorated the desire for Western-style political rights in Ukraine, but perhaps only for those who participated in it. Chants of “Ukraine is Europe” resounded throughout Independence Square in Kiev, and in cities such as Lviv and Ivano-Frankivsk in western Ukraine; though pro-Maidan rallies were held in Donetsk, Luhansk, and other major cities in eastern Ukraine, they never garnered the support enjoyed in Kiev. Whereas support for the EuroMaidan in western Ukraine was a foregone conclusion, it was very much up for debate in eastern Ukraine and Crimea.
When Russia began its invasion of Crimea at the end of February, many Crimeans liked the idea of living in Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Though some cited the violation of their rights as a Russian-speaking minority as a reason to join the Russian Federation, there were more concrete reasons to welcome the surreptitiously invading “little green men” although Russia is increasingly autocratic and routinely violates its citizens’ basic civil and political rights, its per capita GDP is more than 3.5 times larger than that of Ukraine. Shortly after the annexation of the peninsula was finalized, Crimeans got their wish. At the end of March, Putin signed a decree nearly doubling pensions and another that increased salaries for public sector employees. The residents of the Donetsk People’s Republic seem to be calling for something similar: those who have been protesting the “Kiev junta” in eastern Ukraine talk just as much about order, pensions, jobs, and the cost of bread as they do about Banderite fascism.
In an International Republican Institute survey conducted in March, researchers asked respondents throughout Ukraine to identify three areas in which to prioritize reforms for Ukraine’s interim government under Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk. Ukrainians from every corner of the country identified “anti-corruption/public procurement" (the famously corrput and nepotic acquisitions of services, goods, or entities by the government) to be the most pressing issue. After that, however, opinions diverged. The next three answers from eastern Ukrainians focused on the government’s role in providing economic rights: pension/social benefits, industrial development, and healthcare. By contrast, for Western Ukrainians, pension/social benefits was only the seventh most important area for reform, followed by industrial development and healthcare. The Maidan had changed how its supporters viewed rights.
Though the EuroMaidan Revolution clearly re-energized desires for political rights among those who stood and fought on Independence Square, many Ukrainians, particularly in the east, still see rights through a Soviet lens. Some Ukrainians really do want Ukraine to be a European nation that respects and protects political and civil rights. As the International Republican Institute’s March survey shows, however, the desire for a European Ukraine is not universal among Ukrainians; people in the eastern regions view the government more as a provider of social and economic rights than as a protector of civil and political rights.
Isaac D. Webb is a 2013-2014 U.S. Fulbright Fellow in Kiev, Ukraine, and a 2014-2015 Carnegie Endowment for International Peace Junior Fellow.