Turmoil continues in Ukraine, with President Viktor Yanukovych — who went on an unexpected sick leave Thursday — and government protestors each accusing the other of stalling efforts to resolve a political crisis which many fear has left the nation on the brink of civil war. Sophia Opatska, CEO of the Lviv Business School, and Veronika Savruk, deputy chief of the information department and external relations at Ukrainian Catholic University, discuss how the situation is a cautionary tale for nations desiring democracy, and they offer thoughts on how Ukraine can rebuild. (Opatska recently wrote an opinion piece for Knowledge at Wharton underscoring the reasons Ukraine’s citizens have become so dissatisfied with their government.)
Right now, Ukraine is a good learning example for those countries that desire democracy, especially in the context of how this democracy and its basic institutions can be lost.
President Viktor Yanukovych paved the road toward a dictatorship from the first days of his presidency. His approach: Everything has to be controlled. In 2010, right after his election, Yanukovych saw to it — through the Constitutional Court — that the form of governance in the country was changed from parliamentary-presidential to presidential. In today’s Ukraine, Yanukovych appoints power ministers and controls the army and all law-enforcing departments. In addition, throughout the years he has controlled the majority in parliament (which is a separate branch of governance), and at the same time has exerted control over the deputies of the opposition. Yanukovych has also ruthlessly gotten rid of his strong opponents, such as the leader of the opposition, Yulia Tymoshenko, who was jailed on what many believe are false charges.
Events in Ukraine are changing very quickly. Yet, experts contend, right now, in the midst of chaos, there finally is the development of a civil society. The opposition to the government is represented by three parties: Batkivshchyna, a party headed by the imprisoned Yulia Tymoshenko and currently by Arseniy Yatsenyuk; UDAR, headed by Vitaliy Klychko, and Svoboda, headed by Oleh Tiahnybok. In December 2013, these party heads became the formal leaders of the Maidan – the movement named after Kyiv’s central square, which has become the focal point for the protests.
Events in Ukraine are changing very quickly. Yet, experts contend, right now, in the midst of chaos, there finally is the development of a civil society.
At present, the government can outmaneuver the opposition through illegal means, and the opposition often looks lost. However, as events have continued to develop, it has become evident that the Maidan is an independent organism geared toward fulfilling the will of the country’s citizens. The Maidan has outgrown its leaders and has become a full-fledged entity comprising civil leaders and active citizens. There is also a whole subset of informal Maidan leaders, including some prominent politicians, businessmen and social activists.
The threshold of tolerance among Ukrainians is quite high. It is a nation which calmly and silently suffers almost everything: massive impoverishment, scorn, corruption and life outside the law. In fact, the average Ukrainian does not have to live but instead has to survive in these circumstances. Civil unrest comes in waves — sometimes weaker, sometimes stronger — yet in the country there is a constant battle to retain personal dignity.
Rich in both natural and people resources, by the irony of fate, Ukraine has a large number of poor people. According to Ukrainian Catholic University professor Yaroslav Hrytsak, a historian, this is largely because the country’s middle class has declined, and midsize businesses are now the most threatened in the country’s corrupt environment. “Magnates and oligarchs can manage; they always find some sort of method of co-existence with the authorities, because they have always been tied to them. And right now there is simply a re-division of wealth and pressure on midsize businesses, which understand this is a time of either life or death,” he says.
With good reason, the Eurorevolution in Ukraine has been named the “Revolution of Dignity.” Standing right next to simple workers are wealthy individuals, and the middle class stands shoulder to shoulder with students and workers, protecting the right for the very existence of their nation.
Therefore, behind the mask of the protestors on the Maidan, there are those with two advanced degrees, and those who are fluent in at least one foreign language. “We are moving nowhere. The cynicism of the authorities has crossed all boundaries, and therefore one has to actively oppose the present authorities,” says Mykhailo Yusyp, a co-owner of a jewelry company in Western Ukraine, who joined the Maidan movement right after the beating of students, which took place in late November.
The Maidan movement attracts Ukrainians, foreigners — and especially, Russians — who upon visiting the square fill their blogs with emotional stories. One of the reasons for the emergence of the Maidan movement was the refusal of the citizens to accept the broken functioning of state institutions, an unbelievable range of corruption and the constant degradation of human rights over many years.
The Maidan movement became a prototype of a state incorporating those values about which all Ukrainians and the successors of the post-communist system so dreamed.
According to a survey conducted by the Democratic Initiative Fund in December 2013, among the top reasons that compelled people to join the protest were the cruel beatings of peaceful protestors and Yanukovych’s unwillingness to sign the Agreement of Association with the European Union. However, one weightier reason (for 50% of those surveyed) was the desire to ignite criminal proceedings against those involved in government corruption.
Although Ukraine’s citizens pay taxes — and not meager ones — to the state, historically, they have not been treated fairly in the medical, education or communal sectors. In order to resolve any kind of issue, common citizens and businesses alike have to pay bribes. Often, there are situations when the sick die from not receiving adequate medical care because their relatives cannot pay the bribes. Businesses are constantly pressured by the government. Moreover, neither law enforcement nor the justice system guarantees any protection; this branch is centralized and incorporates corruption from the lowest to the highest levels.
In opposition to this corruption, the Maidan movement became a prototype of a state incorporating those values about which all Ukrainians and the successors of the post-communist system so dreamed. It is a self-organized structure. Here, everyone — from an artist to a plain villager — does that which most suits his knowledge, competency and vocation. However, whenever there is a need, a danger or the threat of an attack, Maidan mobilizes itself and protects its members. It acts as one organism. If you are a good manager — organize work; if you can cook — feed the people; if you are a doctor — provide medical care; if you are strong and brave — guarantee order; if you are creative and inventive — create initiatives. One of the examples is the IT tent — an initiative under which all are able to receive technical consultations, use a computer or have free access to the Internet.
Crowdfunding Hospitals, Libraries and Schools
Another initiative which developed is called “The People’s Hospital.” Many wounded activists who were supposedly taken to Kyiv hospitals by law enforcing forces were simply kidnapped or thrown into prisons where they were tortured. Maidan’s “People’s Hospital” supplies field brigades and medical needs including instruments, medicine, protective gear, uniforms and other necessities. Medical volunteers from all over Ukraine work here in order to save and treat those who need assistance. This came into being through funds collected with the assistance of crowd funding.
Today, most Ukrainians understand one thing – the whole system of government needs a total rebuilding.
The Maidan Library, for the cultural edification of the protestors, was also organized. Citizens donate their own books, which at the end of the protests will be sent to village and regional libraries — a book fund which the government today does not support at all. There is also an Open University on the Maidan, which provides daily lectures and master-classes by the best professors and practitioners in Ukraine. All who desire can learn something there.
Social networking efforts are also playing a role. A global Twitter initiative with the hashtag #digitalmaidan — through which individuals share news on the protest activities in Ukraine — has attracted much attention on the popular social media platform.
Examples of such initiatives serve as affirmation of the incredible self-organization of Ukrainians. Given the right effort, people can work more effectively than the state.
What Road Will Ukraine Take?
Today, most Ukrainians understand one thing – the whole system of government needs a total rebuilding. The crisis has led to five deaths, hundreds of protestors throughout the country being prosecuted for their activities and more than 100 injured journalists. Many individuals have disappeared without a trace. That the riot police and the government officials giving the orders have not faced any consequences for their actions has made Ukrainians focus on their current situation and the future with renewed energy.
Ukraine needs deep systematic, economical and cultural changes — and these develop very slowly and often very painfully. The main catalyzer of these changes can be the middle class and midsize businesses. As Lviv Business School professor Yaroslav Prytula notes, education and empowering the middle class are important factors in preventing Ukraine from falling into a dictatorial regime.
As a country, we need to form alternative institutions to counteract ossified state cabinets. Media has to remain independent. Unions cannot be puppets of the state but should represent the interests of workers. Educational institutions should be autonomous. Political parties need to have long-range plans of action instead of popular and ever-changing declarations. NGOs should work for the needs of the community. Ukrainians also need support and international attention paid to events in their country. It is important that the international community not sleep through the establishment of a dictatorship in one of the largest countries of Europe, just as we Ukrainians have slept in recent years.