The events of the past few weeks in Ukraine apparently took the government by surprise. The government has for a long time misjudged the mood of the Ukrainian populace and, even more egregiously, viewed it as inconsequential. Beneath the surface, however, was a long simmering frustration regarding the economic situation of the country and the role of the political leadership which over time always proved itself more interested in preserving its own economic and political positions rather than in promoting the welfare of the country.
The Orange Revolution of 2004 ushered in a period of hope that the tide may have turned but events quickly proved the expectation wrong. President Yushchenko, while strengthening the democratic foundations of the country, could not bring forth the type of dynamic economic and political changes that were needed and his administration quickly fell into internal squabbling and became marred by corruption. He was soundly defeated in his re-election bid, ironically, by President Yanukovych who, through the help of flagrant electoral fraud, had initially claimed victory in the 2004 election but had to succumb to a new election ---which he lost to Yushchenko---due to the domestic and international outcry.
While the Russia threat is real, one cannot but feel that the governing circles came to fear their loss of power if an EU agreement went through and all its strictures started to be put in place and the economic losses that could ensue to their interests by Russian retaliation. The Ukrainian people had no such fear. Yanukovych’s decision brought to a culmination the twin frustrations of economic decay and skepticism of the government and led the citizenry to take to the streets in peaceful demonstrations that span the country and bring hundreds of thousands together in Kiev.
What the Ukrainian leadership has failed to realize is that the new generation of Ukrainians has a vision of a modern, developed society that only Europe can provide and not Russia. The U.S. has played an important role in this process. The U.S. has provided bilateral support over the years and has backed the goals of the Ukrainian people as seen by Secretary Kerry’s statement condemning the use of force against the demonstrators and calling on President Yanukovych to fulfill the Ukrainian peoples’ desire for a European future.
In addition, organizations such as the US-Ukraine Foundation, the Ukrainian Congress Committee of America, The National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute have all played key roles by helping to foster the growth of a civic and democratic society. Several times over the last decade the United States Government has contracted with the U.S.-Ukraine Foundation to organize and run policy dialogues bringing together government officials and citizen groups from both countries to consider and make recommendations for change. Then over the last three years the US-Ukraine Foundation has played an important role in highlighting the achievements of Ukraine’s rising generation in business, culture and education through its annual Ukraine in Washington program.. This year the foundation through its December 12-13 conference in Washington will once again highlight Ukraine’s people and give support to their aspirations, including in its program a serious policy discussion starting today on Capitol Hill, in the Rayburn Building.
The Ukrainian government turned a deaf ear to the outcry by the people. Yanukovych continued with a planned visit to China in a failed effort to obtain large loans, met with Putin, thus further exacerbating the situation by raising fears that he was signing on to the Russian sponsored Customs Union, and unleashed the security forces against peaceful demonstrators. The three former presidents—Kravchuk, Kuchma and Yushchenko—called for a dialogue between the leaders of the demonstrations and the government and spoke out against violence by either side. Yanukovych met with the three in an attempt to signal national unity and as a show that he was listening to what is going on. He has also announced that the discussions with the EU will resume with a goal of signing an EU agreement at the March EU summit but that Ukraine will be looking for greater financial support. These are steps in the right direction.
The people of Ukraine have taken their future into their own hands. For their future and the future of the region it is important that the EU and the U.S. continue to give strong support to the Ukrainian people. Ukraine in Washington 2013 here on Capitol Hill well may contribute to that support.
Popadiuk is with Bingham Consulting in Washington, D.C. and served as the first U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine.