Ukraine’s Revolution – Thoughts as of Dec 19

Dec 20th, 2013 | By | Category: In Depth, News, Politics, Protests, Ukraine

19 December 2013 at 21:24

It’s difficult to believe that only 1 month has passed since Mustafa Nayem first posted a call on Facebook for those who disagreed with the Yanukovych/Azarov government’s about-face on the EU Association Agreement, to gather on Independence Square to protest. Although after 12 years of calling Kyiv home, I’ve become accustomed to the fact that that life moves much faster here than in the West, right now I feel like I’ve lived half a life since mid-November: 3 nights of violence, 4 demonstrations gathering approx. 500 thousand people, a counter-demonstration gathering 50 thousand, an unprecedented 200 000 points of light singing Ukraine’s national anthem last Saturday, visits by EU and US leaders, a Presidential visit to China and 2 to Russia, 3 Presidential press conferences, a controversial 15 billion dollar rescue package, barricades, speeches, tents on Independence Square… And believe it or not, life in Kyiv goes on (sort of…).

It’s difficult to believe that my last note was written only 5 days ago. Clearly I need to discipline myself: if I pause for too long, events pile up, and then trying to recap them becomes overwhelming. Rather than turning this note into a small book, I’ll focus on three issues that I think are particularly relevant to anyone trying to understand Ukraine today: 1) Ukraine’s cleavages (real and imagined); 2) Geopolitics and the EU/US/Russia triangle; 3) the “anti-politics” of Euromaidan and what it means to its future development.


According to conventional wisdom, Ukraine is a deeply divided country. Apparently, language and identity issues are deeply rooted, and have a direct effect both on voting patterns, and on Ukraine’s political economy. On the one hand we have the Russian-speaking industrial east, the electoral base for Yanukovych and the Party of Regions, which produces coal and metal and is therefore considered “rich”, and whose population seems to prefer closer integration with Russia. On the other hand, for Ukraine’s supposedly poorer Ukrainian-speaking western regions, European integration is a matter of principle both due to historical closeness (for centuries the region was part of greater Poland and later Austria-Hungary), and because of contemporary close contacts with Europe (after the region’s Soviet-era military enterprises closed in the 1990’s, many in the region were forced to survive on money transfers from migrant workers).

During the past decade, although the proliferation of people who are able to speak and comprehend Ukrainian in the east has been increased dramatically (thanks to educational policy), the regional split largely remains valid with respect to conversational use of Ukrainian/Russian. At the same time, the stereotype according to which the Russian-speaking regions of the east “feed” the Ukrainian-speaking west is no longer based on fact. A recently published article in Ukrainian Week magazine ( graphically demonstrates that since the election of Yanukovych, the Donbas has become a net beneficiary of the Ukrainian budget due to extensive subsidies and government contracts (often won through corrupt means) being channeled to the region.

Statistics are always difficult to judge in Ukraine because of its massive shadow economy (said to be 50% of total GDP). However, one thing is clear: human beings tend to migrate to areas where opportunities are prevalent, and quality of life can be secured. It is therefore notable that of the top 10 fastest shrinking cities in the world (!), four are Ukrainian, and all are located in the eastern part of the country (ranking of cities with populations over 750 thousand in 1990: Dnipropetrovsk tops the list as the city with the world’s fastest rate of population shrinkage (decline of 16.78% projected for 1990-2025); Donetsk is number 3, and Zaporizhzhia is 4th in this global ranking. Ukraine is undergoing a fundamental shift in the structure of its economy, and the heavy industries of the east are gradually losing both their attractiveness to the population and their significance as economic engines.

On the other hand, the cities of Lviv and Kyiv are growing rapidly: the former, thanks to burgeoning IT and tourism sectors, and the latter, due to its magnetism as a financial center and trade hub. Ukraine’s regional political economy is changing rapidly. The magnetism of Ukraine’s capital needs little explanation, but the rise of Lviv as an economic hub is a significant novelty. During the post-2008 years of overall economic decline and stagnation, the Ukraine’s IT sector (outsourcing, offshoring, gaming, etc.) has stood out as uniquely experienced strong growth. The country’s software exports are expected to top 2 billion USD in 2013. For comparison: Ukraine’s grain exports in 2012 amounted to 7 billion USD, while metals accounted for over $15 billion. Clearly more growth is required for Ukraine to become an “IT powerhouse”, but with 20-30% sector growth projected for the next 3-4 years, this dream is no longer far-fetched. From a political standpoint this is important because the Ukrainian IT industry is centered primarily in Lviv and Kyiv – cities that are both solidly behind the current Euromaidan protests.

Any explanation of the current “revolution” requires some reference to class cleavages that are increasingly mapping onto regional and language cleavages. Although official statistics show that net income and GDP per capita in the east is higher than in the west, consumption patterns show the opposite. Certainly the contingent of people protesting on the “Anti-Maidan”, consisting primarily of unemployed and/or underclass residents bussed into Kyiv by the Party of Regions from eastern Ukraine, reflects the dependence of the regime on support from the proletarian poor. The vast majority of the populations of Kyiv and Lviv enjoy lifestyles that are closer to “middle class” than to traditional working class. Their incomes may not always come from officially registered sources, and so measurements are by definition inaccurate, but if such measurements were available, I have little doubt that the Gini coefficients (economists’ measure of income inequality) would be much higher in the east than in the west.

However, as Mykola Ryabchuk has pointed out ( the country’s regional cleavages are much less significant to understanding today’s Ukraine, than its evident generation gap. A colleague of mine from Kyiv-Mohyla, in her early 50’s, recently commented: “I am enthralled by the students on Euromaidan. But I realize that I can’t even try to help them. I can only stand back; offer support, but no guidance. This is their world now.” The generation gap that this quote illustrates is particularly evident in families where parents, who have traditionally been apolitical, but have provided their children with access to descent schooling, periodic travel, and all the benefits of a white-collar worker lifestyle, suddenly find their university-aged children expressing themselves publicly on the Maidan. The gap between the materialism of Ukraine’s last Soviet generation (not to be confused with the ‘sovok’ style hierarchical banditry of the current regime), and the post-materialist continental-European values of the country’s first post-Soviet generation come into acute focus in such families.


The current protests cannot be understood without reference to the outside world. The interests of Russia in its southwestern neighbor have been well described and need no repetition, except perhaps to stress that the Kremlin’s keen attention to events in Ukraine is motivated more by irrational emotions than by economic calculation. For three centuries, Russian school children have been taught that Kyiv (Kiev) is the “mother of Russian cities”; accepting the legitimacy of a truly independent Ukraine would be equivalent to accepting that this common history (the ideological basis for the Russian empire’s and USSR’s inclusion of Ukraine) has either ended or never existed in the first place.

However, yesterday, the Kremlin demonstrated that it is ready to use economic instruments to secure ideological/emotional objectives: when Yanukovych came to Putin “cap in hand”, the latter readily agreed to provide his “younger brother” with a deep discount on natural gas, and 15 billion USD in loans. At the same time, as Yanukovych explained in his televised interview today, Ukraine’s and Russia’s economic interests coincided on the gas issue: Ukraine needs a lower price whereas Russia needs larger export volumes because its wells are outputting more gas than its traditional customers can consume. With the removal of the sanctions regime from Iran, and the opening of supply infrastructures from Qatar to both the EU and China, supply deficits previously experienced by the world gas market are gradually becoming a thing of the past. By reducing its price by 30%, Russia can expect to increase its export volumes to Ukraine by about 50%: effectively, the price reduction cost the Kremlin nothing.

As for the 15 billion dollar loan announcement, it is notable that the total equals the amount of the IMF loan that Ukraine was expected to have received had Yanukovych signed the Association Agreement in Vilnius. The IMF loan was to be at a lower rate, and for a longer term. In addition, in case of difficulties with repayment, an IMF loan can be relatively easily restructured. In contrast, Putin has promised to invest into Ukrainian government bonds (3 billion USD during the coming days, and more later) for which any restructuring will be considered a technical default that carries serious consequences on world financial markets. The bonds carry a 5% interest rate, and mature in 2 years. Effectively, this means Putin has extended the dependency of Ukraine on Russia, and will have a very strong card to play in 2015 should any further political unrest, or economic disagreements arise.

Meanwhile on Ukraine’s “western front”, countless articles will be printed during coming days about how the EU “lost Ukraine to Russia”. To some extent the point is valid if one interprets the EU (as some do) as a “soft power empire” that requires expansion in order to justify its own legitimacy. But such an interpretation of the essence of the EU is marginal and overly critical of the European project.

A more mainstream interpretation of the EU’s current problems and motives focusses on the fundamental split between “old Europe” and the new member states from the east. As V. Yarmolenko has pointed out ( for the former, the EU is primarily a pragmatic creation: an economic union that also provides the convenience of a single currency, and passport-free travel. However, for the populations of the new member states in the east, “Europe” is an ideal category: a community of values, where individual dignity, rules-based government and national identity are respected as foundational principles. Ukraine’s immediate neighbors to the west intuitively understand the motives of the Euromaidan protesters because they resonate – perhaps even more than do the pragmatic values of their closest political partners in “old Europe”.

For Europe’s political elites, the current protests in Kyiv are nothing less than an ideological lifesaver. The Eurozone crises in Greece and Cyprus, and economic problems in Italy and Spain shook the foundations of the EU project last year. And suddenly at the end of 2013, Ukrainians have gathered in the millions to protest for Europe! In other words, in the midst of a growing feeling of doubt about the viability of the EU political project, suddenly, and unexpectedly, Europeans’ television screens are filled with millions of people demonstrating their willingness to engage in civil disobedience, brave attacks by riot police, and endlessly camp out in bitter cold temperatures – all for the cause of Europe!

Not surprisingly, in the wake of recent events, EU leaders have been tripping over themselves to declare “the door to Europe open for Ukraine”, making it very clear that they would prefer to sign an Association Agreement with someone other than Yanukovych, but also making it exceptionally clear (in the words of former Polish President Kwasniewski), that notwithstanding their distaste for him personally, Yanukovych is Ukraine’s duly President, and no other negotiating partner yet exists.

However, the EU factor as the prime motivator of the protests is often overblown. Clearly the current demonstrations are not just about the Association Agreement anymore: they are about European values, and a European lifestyle, and about an image of Europe as the symbol of rules-based government. To a large extent, this protest is about living according to “western” standards.

Indeed the overtly positive reception that US political leaders have received on the Euromaidan reflects the lack of distinction in the minds of the protestors between strictly “European” and more broadly “western” values. It is notable however, that visit last weekend by Senators John McCain and Chris Murphy to Kyiv was seen as controversial: it is one thing when European politicians are seen on Independence Square (and even on the stage), and quite another when the visitors are from the US. The Senators’ visit immediately raised questions: Why did they come? Was their visit a signal that the US might become directly involved militarily if the Yanukovych regime resorts to violence, and events degenerate? Why has the US administration suddenly become interested in Ukraine? Was this genuine interest, or a signal to Putin? Clearly there are more questions than answers.

If the US is really serious about removing Yanukovych, and thereby making a stand against Putin, it is not enough to have Obama boycott the Sochi Olympics, nor is it sufficient to have the State Department issue statements as to Secretary Kerry’s “disgust” with the Ukrainian regime’s treatment of peaceful demonstrators. If the US is serious, President Obama needs to state that he supports “regime change” in Ukraine. But, of course, this is unlikely to happen anytime soon…

The “Anti-politics” of the Maidan

A fascinating poll has been published recently by the Democratic Initiatives Foundation entitled “The Face of Euromaidan” ( According to this poll, 92% of the protestors who are living on Independence Square (i.e. are not from Kyiv) were not bussed to Ukraine’s capital, nor was their travel paid for by a third party. These people are not demonstrating because of loyalty to a particular party or leader, and this represents a key difference between the current protests and the Orange Revolution of 2004. For these people, none of Ukraine’s three opposition leaders (Tiahnybok, Yatseniuk, Klitschko) are considered authoritative. On the contrary, their degree of skepticism of the 3 opposition parties often comes close to their level of distrust for the Party of Regions and Communists. So who speaks for the demonstrators? Without a figurehead, how can their demands be met? Who will negotiate?

In the wake of the December 17 deal between Yanukovych and Putin, the issue of structuring the various groups of demonstrators in some sort of coordinating body has become particularly salient. During the past two decades, millions of dollars in aid has been channeled to Ukraine by the US, Canada and European countries to support the creation of “civil society” – often with highly dubious results. Today, the protestors on Independence Square proclaimed the formation of the “Civic Council of the Maidan” – a non-political organization that represents a very real first step towards creating a broad popular movement for change; a real grass roots manifestation of Ukrainian civil society.

As predicted, Ukraine’s regime has chosen to ignore the Independence Square protestors. Yanukovych has now engaged the demonstrators in a war of attrition: clearly he believes that they will disperse once temperatures begin to really drop. He has promised no further violence, and thanks to external pressures, it is very likely that this promise will be kept.

Whether or not the Maidan survives Ukraine’s harsh winter (which I believe it will), the fact that the events of the last 4 weeks have resulted in Ukrainians learning to coordinate their civil disobedience without politicians, and in fact, often in spite of politicians is very encouraging for the country’s future. However, from the President’s speech today, and from the actions of the opposition leaders who returned to Parliament today to review the newly tabled budget – removing their previous blockade of the roster without consulting the protestors in advance – it is clear that this country’s politicians (on both sides) do not yet understand the new reality of having to deal with a truly independent civil society.

I am often asked how the West can help the current situation in Kyiv. Two things come to mind:

1) Please be patient! Ukraine is in the midst of a very real and very significant social revolution. This revolution for many Ukrainians involves a new conceptualization of their values and identities. This is a painful process that needs to occur through collective action, introspection, and without external intervention.

2) Please keep the world talking about us! The demonstrations in Kyiv are a unique phenomenon for 21st century Europe. The core of the protests is fundamental dissatisfaction with a deeply corrupt political regime that has ordered the beating of students and journalists. The symbol of change that the protestors have adopted is the “lighthouse” of the EU, but in the process of proclaiming their right to a dignified existence, Ukrainians have also learned to organize; to act collectively; to become a civil society. This is a story worth telling (by the media) and a cause worth supporting (e.g. by celebrities – we need more Hollywood stars on the stage of Independence Square!).

Tonight, on my way home from a series of ongoing meetings of protest/civil society leaders, I descended into Independence Square subway station. As I waited for the train, a group of young ladies (in their mid-20’s) descended the escalator, and started singing Ukraine’s national anthem. Within 30 seconds several hundred people who had been waiting quietly on the underground platform stood at attention and sang.I sang too – and then cried tears of joy…

To hell with the EU, US, Russia, the Donbas, Yanukovych, Klitschko, Tiahnybok, and to hell with everyone else who simply doesn’t understand! This is what the birth of a nation feels like…

God help us!

Mychailo Wynnyckyj PhD
Kyiv-Mohyla Academy

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