The Revolution in Ukraine

If you search recent news stories for the cause of the violence in Ukraine this week that claimed at least 77 lives, you will be led back to discussion of a trade agreement as the proximate cause.

Last November, the government of President Victor Yanukovych rejected a European Union “association agreement” that would have created a free-trade zone between Ukraine and the EU (without necessarily leading to full political integration) and that most likely would have helped smooth the way for a fully visa-free travel regime between Ukraine and the EU. Though the Yanukovych government had given all outward appearances of actively pursuing the agreement, it was abruptly rejected in late November, under pressure from Russia. The government of Russia would prefer that Ukraine join a Russo-centric “customs union” economic partnership instead.

Many Ukrainians began to protest the decision to walk away from the EU deal, peacefully and in public, and a constant protest presence was established in Kiev’s Independence Square (the “Maidan”). The government tried squelching the protests with an array of tactics including riot police attacks, anti-protest laws criminalizing vaguely defined activities, and offers of negotiations (usually following the failure of one of the strong-arm methods). The responses by the government were not meliorative, to say the least. They caused the scale of the protests to grow, with some protest directed more towards the government response than the underlying trade agreement issues. At their peak, demonstrations involving hundreds of thousands of protestors occurred at the Maidan. Protests also spread beyond Kiev, with the government buildings of several of Ukraine’s administrative divisions (“oblasts”) being occupied.

This week, the Ukrainian government attempted two waves of violence to end the protests, first using a frontal assault by riot-police against Maidan protestors, followed by a second day of major clashes, that included sniper fire into the crowd, on a day when an ostensible cease-fire had been declared. The majority of the deaths that occurred this week were during the second attack.

In what is supposed to be our modern, civilized twenty-first century, these events leave a lingering question: How did Ukraine go from a failed trade agreement to government forces killing people in the streets, in a span of three months? The answer is that this choice of trading partners involves more than just simple economics.

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If you look at the most recent Freedom House map of Europe, to Ukraine’s west, all the way out to the North Atlantic, most of the countries of Europe are rated as “free”. To Ukraine’s immediate north and east are Belarus and Russia, rated “not free”. Ukraine, sitting between the free and not free regions, was rated most recently by Freedom House as “partly free” (prior to the events of the past three months, that is). One might reasonably suppose that Ukraine must eventually move towards one or the other, and the trade agreement forced movement in one way or the other.

Partly-free describes not just Ukraine’s political situation, but its economic one as well. Ukraine’s economy is heavily dominated by politically-connected business “oligarchs”, who use state-monopolies, price controls and other regulations to make themselves rich. However, while the advantages of the oligarchs may allow them become fabulously wealthy, Ukraine’s GDP-per person is mired at a level closer to that of a troubled place like Egypt, than it is to that of Ukraine’s immediate neighbors like Poland or Romania.

To the west of Ukraine, things are certainly not perfect, but institutions and traditions in the free bloc of nations, i.e. free and fair elections giving the people some ability to reward good leaders and remove bad ones, and a strong and independent judiciary and media that can highlight and remedy abuses, help limit the amount of vitality that corrupt office holders can suck out of the system, more than is possible in the unfree world.

Should Ukraine move towards the free world of Western Europe, rather than the unfree one of Russia, the oligarchs will have a much more difficult time creating the special deals to make themselves rich. At the same time, the oligarchs goals are grand; they wish to enrich themselves on a scale that only a free, modern economy can produce. These conflicting impulses of the oligarchs had led Ukraine to an uneasy equilibrium, which has now fallen apart.

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When corrupt office holders aren’t too brutal about the bite they take out of society, the great majority may decide that the easiest thing to do is pay the devil his due, work with what’s left, and go on with life. This is not something that’s unique to Ukraine, and anywhere that this happens is not an ideal situation, but it is one that people often try to live with — when government is not too rapacious in its demands.

That is a situation that has existed in Ukraine for a while. As Ukrainian expert Taras Kuzio wrote about a decade ago, the relationship between the people and the post-Soviet government of Ukraine has tended towards conditions where “the authorities ignored the people, who reciprocated by ignoring…the authorities”.

But rejecting closer relations with Europe in favor of Russia was more than many Ukrainians felt they could simply ignore, and with good reason. Favoring Russia would freeze in place the present oligarchical relations, which might benefit a few oligarchs, but would very likely worsen the conditions that have stunted Ukraine’s economic growth. Not everyone in Ukraine agrees with this view, but enough do so that their views must be taken seriously.

Two weeks ago the question was how far would the government go beyond Russian-style anti-protest laws in restricting the civil liberties of the people, in order to protect the economic arrangements of a few. We learned at the start of this week that the Ukrainian government then in place was willing to murder its own citizens, rather than let them have the same options for making their way in the world that an average European has. This is the attitude of an unfree government, one that believes that people are disposable when they impede government priorities.

For reasons strongly tied to the discipline, courage and character of Ukraine’s protestors, the justness of their cause, and the extreme corruption of those in power, yesterday’s assault failed. Since then, the Ukrainian parliament (the “Rada”) has passed a number of measures to try to reverse the state of emergency that Victor Yanukovych has created. Today, a peace deal was agreed upon by President Yanukovych and opposition leaders that includes reforms intended to reduce the power of the President. The Rada also voted to remove the interior minister who is taking much of the blame, at least right now, for ordering drastic and violent actions against the protestors. However, the fact that the peace deal includes President Yanukovych staying in office for a year may make it unacceptable to many protestors.

Because the Ukrainian people are standing firm, they are taking meaningful and necessary steps to show their government and the world that it is government that becomes disposable, once it becomes harmful to its citizens, and the people rise up to demand that it change its priorities as a result. Free people everywhere have common cause with those seeking freedom in Ukraine — literally today — to help ensure that the government there respects this reality, as Ukraine attempts to move forward.

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