Benjy Goodwin examines the state of Ukraine, five years on from the beginning of the Euromaidan protests.
Last week marked five years since the start of Euromaidan, the momentous protests on Kyiv’s maidan nezalezhnosti (Independence Square) that ended in revolution. Many of its participants have been reflecting this week on the mixed results of Euromaidan, and the crossroads at which the country still stands.
The protests came in response to what many in the country saw as a betrayal. The President at the time, Viktor Yanukovych, had just decided at the last minute not to sign the long-negotiated Association Agreement with the EU, and announced instead that his government was seeking to align with Putin’s pet-project, the Eurasian Economic Union. Pro-European Ukrainians were enraged and, after social media appeals to come to the Maidan, the protests began. Demonstrators initially simply called for the Association Agreement to be signed, but as the protests wore on, and when government security forces began repressing the protestors with violence, the demands grew in line with the response: they wanted Yanukovych and his government out.
Termed “Euromaidan”, its darkest moment came as the curtains closed, when 100 protestors were shot dead by police forces during clashes in the capital. Yanukovych fled, and early presidential and parliamentary elections were scheduled. However, Vladimir Putin, enraged at the ousting of his ally, saw opportunity amidst chaos. He sent agents into Crimea and the Donbas region of Eastern Ukraine to sow discord and support separatist movements, leading to the illegal annexation of Crimea by the Russian military and a war in Eastern Ukraine between Russian-supported separatists and the Ukrainian army.
For its participants, Euromaidan was a movement for a brighter, more Ukrainian and more European future. It was against corruption, cover-ups, and foreign interference – indeed, many in Ukraine refer to it as the Revolution of Dignity. President Petro Poroshenko’s resounding election victory in 2014 was meant to deliver this bright future for Ukraine.
Fast-forward to the present day, and things do not look quite so positive. The promised political and economic upheaval has failed to materialise. Euromaidan did revitalise Ukrainian civil society, and many independent organisations were formed in its wake, but the struggle is ongoing. Kateryna Handziuk, a prominent activist, was attacked under suspicious circumstances earlier this year, and recently succumbed to her injuries. After calls for the resignation of Prosecutor General Yuriy Lutsenko over the police incompetence during the investigation into her death, Lutsenko and President Poroshenko demonstrated how seriously they took the matter: Lutsenko offered his resignation, and Poroshenko refused it. If they really cared about addressing this, they might have taken the whole thing a little more seriously.
It also appears that Ukraine has a way to go on being a comfortable environment for activists, journalists and the LGBT+ community, after a trans rights rally was disrupted by far-right demonstrators. A Canadian journalist was assaulted, as were several protesters, while the police turned a blind eye.
What’s most concerning, though, is that Crimea remains under Russian control – and there appears to be little chance of Ukraine wrestling control of the peninsula in the near future. The war in the east continues, in violation of the ceasefire agreed more than three years ago, with over 10,000 Ukrainians having died as a result. Worse still, a fresh conflict in the Sea of Azov appears to have opened between Russia and Ukraine. While we do not yet know where this will lead, an open attack by Russia on Ukraine is certainly a worrying development.
With Ukraine’s parliament voting to approve a 30-day period of martial law as a result of the attacks, developments in Ukraine at present remain uncertain. The extraordinary legal system will provide the authorities with emergency executive powers in 10 regions of the country that could be rather draconian. Poroshenko’s justification is in part based on his claim to have seen plans for a larger Russian invasion. Waving a stack of documents in front the cameras, he demonstrated his love for theatrics. Of course, the veracity of these claims is unknown, and we can only hope that the ‘plans’ fail to materialise.
With parliamentary and presidential elections around the corner, some are even suggesting that his support for martial law after Sunday’s events is a means of interfering with the elections. Indeed, opinion polling shows that the public’s trust in its institutions has fallen to new lows, with more than 80% of people disapproving of the actions of Ukraine’s parliament, and more than 70% disapproving of the actions of Poroshenko. However, such claims about the President’s motives remain mere speculation at this stage, and in any case, the current 30 day period would not prevent the elections from going ahead as planned.
The elections provide an opportunity for Ukraine to accelerate its reforms. They risk, however, stalling them. The candidate leading in almost every poll is former prime minister and controversial figure Yulia Tymoshenko. Described as a populist by many, she has a very high negative rating. Her Batkivshchyna party has a poor record of voting for anti-corruption measures and other important reforms, and as part of Ukraine’s oligarchic elite for the last twenty years, she is unlikely to take reform seriously. Many place their hopes on the pop star Svyatoslav Vakarchuk, who many speculate will run, but at this stage his potential candidacy indicates little more than blind hope. Once again, Ukraine is struggling to shake its old elites.
Five years on, there is much to be said about the success of Euromaidan. The movement clearly changed the direction of the country: Ukraine’s civil society is progressing, it has ratified the EU Association Agreement, and at long last its new Anti-Corruption Court is being established. But the fact is that these reforms are far from complete, and Ukraine still has several serious problems. Ukraine’s last revolution was in 2004, and suffered a similar fate: infighting in the government stalled reforms, leading to an election in 2010 where the very target of the revolution – Viktor Yanukovych – won the presidency, and we know how that ended.
In the face of military threats in both the east, and the Sea of Azov, the West must redouble its efforts to support Ukraine’s territorial integrity, and to guide it in making necessary reforms. The hope for Ukraine is that these reforms can continue, and help bring about true liberal democracy . With that in mind, the election of a populist, reactionary leader in 2019 is the last thing Ukraine needs.