If you watch the TV news and read the tabloid newspapers in the West, you would understand the crisis that has been playing out in Ukraine as a conflict between the Ukrainian people demanding freedom and a corrupt, pro-Russian government desperately clinging to power.
The reality is actually far more complex.
I was born in Kiev, the capital of Ukraine, and emigrated as a young boy with my family in the late 1970s when the country was still part of the Soviet Union. It was a grim and repressed society of material shortages and ubiquitous corruption under a heavy and blunt police state.
I returned for the first time in 2006, as an adult, keen to find out how Kiev and Ukraine had changed since they had thrown off the manacles of communism and become an independent, capitalist country. The so-called Orange Revolution, in which a fixed election had been overturned by popular protest and political pressure, had occurred just two years before.
When I arrived, I expected the relatives I was staying with in Kiev — intelligent and open-minded people — to be supporters of the Orange Revolution. To my surprise, they were not.
They, and others to whom I spoke, were cynical about the motives of the movement for pro-Western democratic change. While they wanted greater democracy, they saw the movement as being driven by corrupt pro-European politicians pursuing their own ends. To my relatives, it was essentially a struggle between two factions of the ruling elite.
To understand Ukrainian politics, you have to know that the east and south of the country is predominantly Russian-speaking and generally favourably disposed to the political system in Russia. However, the west and the centre (of which Kiev is a part) lean strongly towards Ukrainian nationalism and Europe in general. There has been a tussle between the two power blocs in Ukraine for years and they, in turn, are proxies in a bigger game between Europe and Russia.
The current crisis has to be seen with that in mind. The earnest demands of the protestors for a freer political system, an end to official corruption and improved social conditions occur within the context of a larger power struggle: Europe wants Ukraine in its fold for economic and strategic reasons, Russia wants to maintain domination of a large bordering country and is fearful of the potential of NATO troops on its doorstep.
The easy “good versus bad” picture portrayed in Western media of the current struggle in Ukraine is further complicated by the fact that it has stirred up and fed nationalist sentiment in the country, with a far-right hard edge.
According to reports, far-right militants were involved in some of the heaviest clashes with security forces in Kiev.
What struck me most when I was in Kiev in 2006 was the almost complete absence of civil society. There seemed few, if any, local groups or institutions that were independent of the ruling elite such as independent trade unions, local government, community groups or NGOs.
The will of the people essentially had no outlet but the very dysfunctional political system. Among people to whom I spoke there was grumbling and dissatisfaction about many aspects of life, but little idea about how to bring about change. A mentality of disempowerment, an overhang from the communist days, was still fairly prevalent, and it was clear that a vibrant, democratic spirit was a long way from being achieved in Ukraine. Without a robust civil society responsive to popular needs it seemed to me then that the only two options available to the people were simmering dissatisfaction or outright revolt. In 2014 we have something of the latter.
I know that I write from a privileged Western position, but embracing Europe comes with its own perils: the disaster of Greece is the obvious case in point, but there are other European countries that are struggling economically and socially.
Europe for Ukraine may, in the end, be the lesser of two evils, but surely the lesson for the protesters in Kiev is not to rely on one side or the other. Rather, the task is the gradual building of grassroots networks and institutions that reflect the will of the people, in all different ways and complexity. This requires hard, persistent, day-to-day work and is ultimately more effective and longer-lasting than setting up barricades and battling with police. Democracy has never been built in a day.
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