Well, the holidays are over, and sure enough, more clashes between protesters and riot police have erupted in Kiev. If you haven’t been paying much attention to what is happening in the Ukrainian capital, you should know that the protest movement there was galvanized back in November, when the government backtracked on signing an association agreement with the EU. Protesters have since then occupied Kiev’s Independence Square (Maidan Nezalezhnosti) – and a violent crackdown on November 30 only served to swell their ranks dramatically.
There are lots of things to say about the protest movement that has come to be known as EuroMaidan. Some are hopeful and reassuring. Others not so much.
As journalists, we tend to want to focus on the dramatic parts of the story – on bright young revolutionaries, on ladies in traditional dress offering burly riot policemen kisses and messages of peace, on fiery speeches from the tribune, on the general feelings of unity and elation in some of those protest tents.
But I want to focus on the boring, unattractive part. I want to focus on the notion that Ukraine as it is today is a heavily divided country, where there is no real consensus on how to move forward. I want to focus on the fact that Ukraine is in deep financial trouble (the $15 billion loan Russia just granted the Ukrainian government in a bid to keep it gazing eastward, as opposed to westward, was badly needed). I want to focus on the fact that the ongoing EuroMaidan protest is just one piece of the great political puzzle we must all collectively scratch our heads over – and that head-scratching process could take years.
As a native of Kiev, I cannot remain unemotional and detached when I see photos and videos of unarmed people being beaten in the streets of my hometown. But beyond the shock and outrage, in a cold, reptilian part of my brain, a little voice always pops up, and that voice says, “It could always get worse.”
The notion of stability is a cornerstone of post-Soviet politics in Russia, but Ukraine, for one, never had much stability to speak of. Russia moved on from the turbulent 1990s – not always gracefully, mind you, but it did move on – whereas Ukraine appears to be permanently stuck in that decade in some twisted version of “Groundhog Day” with guns and mobsters and corruption and terrible health care and social inequality and bitterness, and, above all else, deep, profound division, alienation, and lack of community.
The Ukrainian east and the Ukrainian west talk past each other – and have been doing so for years. Go to the Autonomous Republic of Crimea and things get even more complicated. Within the USSR, Crimea was technically Russian territory (it belonged to the Russian SFSR) until Nikita Khrushchev decided otherwise, and it’s not as if the Crimeans have forgotten that. Never mind the fact that ethnically speaking, most of Crimea’s residents are either Russian or Tatar, not Ukrainian. I would venture to say that political and ethnic divisions are less pronounced in Ukraine’s younger generation, born either when the USSR was crumbling or had already crumbled – but the younger generation is not in charge, and won’t be for a long time.
Certain EU politicians, such as Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt, for example, are fond of issuing platitudes and blanket statements on Ukraine – painting it as a scrappy little nation that’s struggling to overcome the forces of Evil (Russia) in its quest toward the Light (that light being the EU, of course). Back in December, Bildt actually went as far as to categorize the events in Ukraine as a conflict featuring “Eurasia vs. Europe,” which was just ridiculous – and a real slap in the face for those of us whose ethnic backgrounds are a little more diverse than Bildt can probably imagine (and my Russian relatives are not “Eurasians,” thank you very much).
“So what do you want then, Natalia?” A foreign friend of mine asked me while I was over in Kiev for the holidays and complaining about how outsiders just don’t get it. “Do you want the protesters to shut up and go home? Is that it?”
Well, no. The protests are a natural extension of Ukraine’s many social and political ills. They exist for a reason. And I happen to respect that.
What I do want is a semblance of nuance in our discussions of Ukraine. I also want for stupid political posturing from both east of Ukraine and west of Ukraine to cease. Ukraine is in a difficult period, and political grand-standing is not helping matters, it is making everything that much worse. Looking at Kiev, I personally feel a little like James Dean from “Rebel Without a Cause” – I want to grab my head and scream, “You’re tearing me apart!”
It’s not that anyone is likely to heed my call or anything. But it never hurts to try.
Photo by JLori, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.