Fighting for the Soul of Ukraine

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Stas Kozlyuk/Demotix/Corbis
Antigovernment protesters with a flag showing imprisoned former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, Kiev, Ukraine, November 24, 2013

“Revolution!” This is what they are shouting in Kiev. Ever since November 21 tens of thousands have been on the streets of the capital of Ukraine, defying the police and bans on demonstrations. On December 8 hundreds of thousands packed the city center, and a granite statue of Lenin was toppled in a scene recalling both Europe’s anti-Communist revolutions of 1989 and the symbolic fall of Saddam’s statue in Baghdad in 2003. Especially at the beginning of the demonstrations the riot police have reacted brutally, which brought out many more protesters. At times hard-liners among the demonstrators have resorted to violence but some of the violent actions seem to have been led by government-paid provocateurs.

As the first snows of winter fell no one knew which way the upheaval in one of Europe’s largest countries would turn. Protesters in Kiev’s Independence Square set up barricades and tents, occupied city hall, and blockaded government buildings. On December 9 security forces raided the offices of a major opposition party and took away computer servers. The websites of opposition media groups were attacked. On December 11 police tried to evict protesters from city hall before retreating. The same day, the protesters were rebuilding barricades the police had knocked down the night before. President Viktor Yanukovych was reported to have met with three former presidents and to have promised to revive talks with the EU.

Was this a rerun of the Orange Revolution of 2004–2005, which captured the imagination of the world and infuriated Vladimir Putin, Russia’s leader? Or would President Yanukovych reassert control and hence reassure Putin that he had won the latest battle of Kiev?

Whichever way things develop, one thing is clear. What we saw in the Orange Revolution, and what we are seeing now, is a fight for the very soul of Ukraine, a country of some 45.5 million people that stretches between the eastern marches of the European Union to the western borderlands of Russia. The protests began when the Ukrainian government announced it would not sign two rather dry-sounding agreements with the European Union at a summit meeting on November 28 and 29 in Vilnius, Lithuania. At issue were not really the minutiae of a trade deal and matters of political and economic reform but something far more profound. The question is whether Ukraine will end years of balancing between the EU and Russia and definitively throw in its lot with the countries to its west, or whether it will return to a Moscow-led order, in which it resumes its traditional role of Russia’s little brother.

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In October 2012, during Ukraine’s last parliamentary election campaign, I had lunch with Leonid Kozhara, then spokesman of the country’s ruling Party of Regions and now Ukraine’s foreign minister. At one…


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