IMPACT ARTICLE OF THE MONTH
I spent last week on the ground in Kiev talking to key political actors from the Ukraine, the EU and Russia. Kiev simply did not feel like a city at war. While there was additional security at the airport, an elevated number of police and soldiers on the streets, and a tiny handful of what I assumed were right sector activists hanging around in the town centre, I quite happily walked very merrily across the Maidan, Big Mac in hand, at three in the morning after several too many glasses of Georgian red wine.
Likewise, language and linguistic identity is simply not politicised in the way that it has been claimed by Moscow. Even with regional war in the East, Russian and Ukrainian was spoken by the citizens of Kiev interchangeably, with the norm being that almost all natives in the city simply spoke both. There was no hint of “Ukranianisation” by the government, a rather ironic term to be used in a city where more citizens speak Russian as their first language than Ukrainian itself. And yet, Russia Today and other news agencies influenced by the Kremlin make claims of a fascist Ukrainian government, in a situation where no far-right parties in fact met the 5% threshold for proportional seats in the Ukrainian Parliament.
Perhaps the most striking thing about my visit was meeting the sheer volume of intelligent young women who have been catapulted to positions of power by the complete refreshing of the government. Inna Sovsun, Deputy Minister for Education, is only 29 years old. Likewise, Oksana Shulyar, Deputy Director of FP Department and Columbia alumni is another member of the new young guard in her early thirties. As the old, corrupt guard was swept away by the “Revolution of Dignity”, young, “clean” politicians have filled the gap. Thus, the role of activist women on the Maidan, and their lack of involvement in corrupt institutions, has been a powerful elevator for these individuals, who now make up a large number of deputy positions in the Ukrainian government.
Something about Inna in particular touched me greatly. In our meeting discussing the challenges of fighting corruption in the Ukrainian higher education sector, Inna impressed with her candid analysis of the sorts of corruption taking place, and the difficulty of introducing measures to make change. But when she spoke of her experience on the Maidan, she claimed she did very little, and claimed she did not actually take part in the protests on the square. Although, when we questioned her further, and asked what “very little” actually meant, it turned out that she had been responsible for operating one of the 'hospital guards' organisations, that prevented the security forces from being able to arrest wounded protesters out of hospital. She ensured that the volunteers had money for food, and that the guard was changed every 24 hours. This sort of understatement caused a deep shock in our group, and was reflected by the Ukrainian member of our party, Jaroslava. She spoke causally about the fact that she had worked for three months completely unpaid in the Ukrainian transition government in order to ensure that the new regime would be able to begin a root and branch reform of the system.
There was a paradigm shift in Ukrainian society when those Berkut snipers began unloading their magazines into the crowds on the Maidan. It is right to call the protest the emergence of a civil society able to keep the political class in check. Gone were the days of accepting corruption, autocracy and pandering to Moscow as the norm. Among the Ukrainian people, there is a certain Blitz spirit, with people willing to do whatever is needed to make the system work for not against the people.
Regarding Western support, opinions among the Ukrainian politicians were more mixed. Former Foreign Minister, Borys Tarasiuk, was deeply critical of the lack of lethal and high tech aid from the West. He levied that the West is fighting as a proxy but allowing the Ukrainians to do the dying. However, in general, while critical of the time taken for sanctions to be put in place, Ukrainian politicians were grateful for Western assistance. On the EU and NATO, opinions were similarly split. Most saw the future of their country as moving into the EU, rooting out corruption and getting the economic growth that Ukraine has failed to achieve in comparison to the likes of Poland. On NATO, many were concerned that in the aftermath of the Donbas conflict, joining NATO would merely restart conflict. On the other side, EU representatives tended to take a longer term view on Ukrainian entry, with the figure of 25-30 years appearing more than once over our trip.
However, it seems that little progress with Russia is likely to be made in the short term. Talking to Sergey Andreev, Russian Ambassador to Poland, he remained close to the party line, stating clearly that “there are no Russian troops in the Ukraine.” But he also made clear that Russia saw a “red line” in Ukrainian troops attempting to destroy rebel forces by strength of arms. It seems clear, Russia remains tight lipped and hegemonic in its approach, though economic woes seem likely to weaken its ability to influence events on the ground in the Ukraine. We seem to be at a crossroads between escalation and climb-down, and it seems internal Kremlin politics, rather than geopolitical realities, are likely to be the driver.
So there it is. In policy terms, with some variation, politicians tend to speak with the same voices. The Ukrainians desire greatly for change. They will simply not accept the status quo, and during my trip to Kiev I heard many clear examples of corruption being clamped down on. Whether that change leads Ukraine into the EU is an open question. Geopolitics and economic shifts may dictate the answer. What is not an open question is that Ukraine will no longer tolerate Russian attempts to control its destiny.