Ukraine's 'Revolution of Dignity' Has Been Anything But

Five years ago, when Ukrainian protestors gathered in Maidan Square, hoping for a better future in the family of European nations and enthusiastically cheered by the Western establishment, nobody could predict the consequences of the “Revolution of Dignity,” as Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has since called it. What started as peaceful protests very quickly transformed into violent riots that led to the overthrow of former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych’s regime in 2014.

In the West, Russian aggression towards Ukraine is widely believed to be the primary catalyst that created the Ukrainian crisis, bringing disarray and economic collapse to the largest European country. There is no doubt that Russia plays a role in the post-Euromaidan events in Ukraine, but Russia cannot be exclusively blamed for the current situation within Ukraine.

As a country that is located between two major geopolitical entities – the European Union (EU) and the Russian Federation, and having limited power-projection capabilities, Ukraine has had to carefully balance its foreign policy. Heavily reliant on Russia as its largest economic partner with long-established labor and trade relations, Ukraine has since strived to modernize its politics, economy, and standard of living, according to the Western paradigm that was viewed as the ultimate golden standard. It has been looking to do this since its founding in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union. And, until the “Orange Revolution” of 2004, the country had successfully maneuvered between a rock and a hard place.

The subsequent Euromaidan revolution of 2014 revealed the multidirectional processes at work within Ukrainian society and the respective paths the society could choose. Two paths were evident -- one in pursuit of European integration, the other aimed to preserve close relations with Russia. In the past, these were carefully combined. Yet opposition elites presented these two paths as contradictory and exclusionary - the one could not be pursued unless the other was not. This very juxtaposition an either/or framing of the social and political path is what has catalyzed confrontation within Ukrainian society.

A rapid and chaotic course of revolutionary events had activated radical political elements that had been previously marginalized – such as neo-fascist militant groups that became the violent extremists of the “revolution.” Violent protestors who switched their agenda from European integration to anti-Russian rhetoric and practices, also provoked a strong reaction from supporters of the pro-Russian vector, which for historical and territorial reasons, are people are located primarily in the Eastern and Southern regions of Ukraine. The net result is that Ukrainian society became truly polarized on the basis of ethnicity, language, and religion.

Rather than trying to pacify and reassure those Ukrainian compatriots who had valid concerns regarding the overthrow of Yanukovych’s government, the newly appointed government in Kiev decided to recklessly pursue their own anti-Russia political agenda and disregard any consequences. Thus, one of the first decisions made by the newly elected officials in the Ukrainian Parliament, known as the “Verkhovna Rada,” was to repeal the law that stated that the Russian language is provided “regional status” within Ukraine. Getting rid of that significantly reduced the status of the Russian language in Ukraine, specifically with regards to its official use in matters pertaining to education, media, local government, and culture. It was just one instance of the post-Euromaidan order creating fuel for conflict.

There were others. Often overlooked during the events of Euromaidan and its aftermath are incidents that resulted in a devouring cycle of violence within Ukraine. Such events include the massacre of pro-Russian protesters in Odessa and Mariupol in May 2014 who were declared by the central government to be paid “Russian agents of influence.” There also was the imprisonment and killing of famous pro-Russian activists across the country. Other incidents of violence undoubtedly occurred against Ukrainian nationalists who wanted their country to move outside of the Russian sphere of influence, which is to say violence was seen on both sides.  The cyclical impacts of these events significantly escalated the conflict, ultimately resulting in the creation of a proxy war within the heart of Europe.

Five years later, Ukraine is still striving for progressive economic reform and definitive political reform. Although both western and eastern Ukrainians despised Yanukovych's regime for its corruption and inconsistency, the same groups of Ukrainians are undoubtedly questioning the resolve of President Poroshenko’s regime after more than half a decade since Euromaidan. 

Despite the fact that relations between the EU and Ukraine have advanced over the past five years through the Ukraine–European Union Association Agreement and the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area (DCFTA), and Ukraine now is recognized as a priority partner within the Eastern Partnership and the European Neighborhood Policy (ENP), the aforementioned advances have not yielded any of the much-anticipated economic and political improvements promised during Euromaidan for the lives of the Ukrainian people. The systemic corruption within the Ukrainian government and in Ukrainian society continues to remain an obstacle to the country’s democratic and economic development. The multiple anti-corruption institutions created in the past five years are not unified in their objectives and the country still lacks anti-corruption courts and effective corruption prevention mechanisms.

Ukraine’s Western-financed economy continues to fail, as even some of its ardent Western supporters now admit. According to the World Bank, the economy of Ukraine keeps shrinking, causing, among other things, an unseen level of labor migration from the country, which, in turn, accelerates economic decline.

At the same time, many Ukrainians now say that the greatest problem facing their country ahead of the next presidential election in March 2019 is the conflict in eastern Ukraine. As the conflict enters its fifth year, the administration of President Poroshenko is now forced to acknowledge that it’s been unable to defeat the separatists and find a political solution to the conflict.

The failure to resolve the conflict in the east has led to the people of Ukraine to look to alternate options in the next presidential election. As Ukrainians now prepare for the next presidential election in Ukraine on 31 March 2019, the time for reflection has come – people can choose between a record number of 44 candidates. Recent polls in Ukraine indicate that political veteran Yulia Tymoshenko and comedian Volodymyr Zelensky, both strongly critical of President Poroshenko and both significantly more popular than him, are the current front-runners in the election. 

Tymoshenko, a former gas executive and two-time Ukrainian prime minister, is rallying voters on an aggressively populist platform. Instantly recognizable, she’s also an unpredictable and Machiavellian master of politics, who has successfully veered from being a renowned Ukrainian nationalist to presenting herself as capable of working directly with Russia as a close partner. Her very presence in the campaign raises questions about whether anything has changed, or ever will change in Ukraine.

Vladimir Zelensky is now rapidly surging in popularity as an alternate to Tymoshenko. Since he does not have a well-defined campaign or platform, the policy implications of his potential victory are among one of the many unknowns. His lack of political experience and the questions about his ability to navigate the unwieldy Ukrainian political system to deliver reforms, as well as his alleged ties to oligarch Ihor Kolomoyskyi, may prove to be obstacles.

Although the political future of Ukraine remains unclear and the “Revolution of Dignity” may have failed, Ukraine will take the next step into the future. With a rotating cast of older and newer political characters, the paths for Ukraine remain the same as before. One path leads to the EU and the other path leads to the establishment of a closer relationship with Russia. It is now up to the people of Ukraine to select the way ahead or to find a delicate balance.

Veronika Kyrylenko, Ph.D. is a Research Associate at GeoStrategic Analysis (Arlington, VA) and a writer at the Western Journal.
Ryan Schinault is a Senior Defense Analyst at ARA with experience in arms control, international nonproliferation policy, countering weapons of mass destruction (CWMD), and emergency response planning focused on the former Soviet Union and Europe.   


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