Illustration: Man dressed in the colours of Ukraine stands in front of a door to the European Union.

Ukraine’s Games With Europe

Ukrainian president, Viktor Yanukovych, was keen to forge closer ties with the EU because he was tired of being dependent on Putin. However, the Ukrainians really do want to move towards Europe. To what extent can the West offer more material and political assistance?

Ukraine moves in mysterious ways. During the Orange Revolution of 2004, rebellious Ukrainians successfully prevented the favoured candidate of a corrupt system from becoming president. But in 2010 Russia-friendly Viktor Yanukovych eventually managed to get himself elected anyway – using the kinds of slogans that are typical of his regional, political and financial circles. These included building stronger economic relations with Russia and giving the Russian language a new status alongside Ukrainian.

In 2013, Yanukovych even led people waving Europe flags into the Maidan, Kiev’s independence square. In a TV interview, he suggested that while he did not really like protests (which have become known as Maidans in Ukraine), he did have some sympathy for the current Euromaidan.

I do not doubt the truth of this. I’m sure that when he was alone Yanukovych really did applaud those people camped out in the Maidan day after day, demonstrating in favour of closer ties between Ukraine and the EU. But only until he looked at the cards he had to play and compared them with the cards in Putin’s hand. Whether we like it or not, it was Yanukovych who led the people into the Euromaidan and for a moment needed those people more than ever.

It all began when Yanukovych suddenly announced a change of direction “towards Europe”. Many of his party friends were not happy. They failed to understand the point of such a move. But the president could understand it, and that was why he was president. He had become tired of fruitless discussions with Russian officials about making gas three or – better still – four times cheaper. He was tired of being publicly humiliated by President Putin and by repeated slights on Russian TV. Yanukovych wanted to get his own back. Really get his own back. He wanted to put President Putin in the same position he had been in for the previous three years: a position of pointless waiting. This was the reason why President Yanukovych suddenly, and to the surprise of everyone, including the democratic opposition, pointed his hand in a Leninesque manner towards the West and, with his eyes brimming with passion, said “Comrades, towards Europe!”

Russia began to feel edgy

Amazingly, while members of the ruling party were thrown into shock and struggling to understand their leader, the Ukrainian people simply chose to understand his actions the way they wanted to and were overjoyed. They soon started packing their things for the move to a civilised life, prosperity and the rule of law.

People and buses on the Maidan in Kiev 2014
Protests on the Maidan in Kiev, 2014, photo: pixabay

Russia began to feel edgy. It is well known for bearing grudges, and the first victim on the Russia-Ukraine trade front was Ukrainian chocolate. That summer, Russia banned the import of Ukrainian chocolates. I will refrain from listing all the other victims, as President Yanukovych did that for us during a meeting with his party’s parliamentary faction. He explained all the reasons for his change of direction and suggested that anybody who was unhappy with the changes should consider leaving the party and the faction.

And so Ukraine shot off at full speed towards Europe. And it might even have got there if it hadn’t been for Yanukovych’s old arch enemy, Yulia Tymoshenko, who was still in prison. The discussions on an Association Agreement with the EU constantly returned to the issue of her release or allowing her to go to Germany for medical treatment. This issue allowed Yanukovych to keep forgetting about President Putin. Putin was in another country, but Tymoshenko was in Ukraine. His worry was that if she were released, it would rekindle the political power struggle in Ukraine, and it would then be easy to predict the outcome of the 2015 presidential elections.

The power of the "Maidans“

But back to the Maidans, the protests in Kiev’s independence square. The main difference between these Maidans and those of 2004 is that the majority of protesters asked the opposition politicians not to turn up with their party flags. The students who have been actively involved in the protests in recent times, and who have organised strikes at several of the country’s universities, made the point that the aim of the protest was simply to force the government to sign the EU Association Agreement.

The protests were not against the government per se, otherwise the opposition would have had to lead them. The protests were an attempt to put pressure on the government. But the powers that be, as personified by Yanukovych, simply shrugged their collective shoulders and used the Maidans to prove to Putin that Ukraine actually has a choice when it comes to its future direction. Unless, of course, Russia were to make huge amounts of money available to resolve Ukraine’s internal budget problems.

Yanukovych was now in a position to show the EU and the rest of the world that the Ukrainian people would actually prefer an alliance with Europe. In reality what this means is that the West needs to relax its demands on Ukraine and offer more material and political assistance.

I have no desire to denigrate the protesters or diminish the importance of the Euromaidans with these observations. Far from it. It is just that, once again, a typically paradoxical situation arose in Ukraine, where the genuine desires of the people could be misused by those in power as a bargaining chip in discussions with Russia. If talks with Russia had suddenly shown signs of success, the Euromaidans would quickly have turned into opposition.

Return to a parliamentary-presidential republic?

However, President Yanukovych was deposed and has disappeared after meeting a few times with opposition leaders. One section of the opposition demanded an immediate return to the 2004 constitution, which was illegally amended by the country’s constitutional court in order to give the newly-elected President Yanukovych the broadest possible (practically dictatorial) powers. However, another part of the opposition – which includes Yulia Tymoshenko, who made a combative appeal to parliament – does not want a return to a parliamentary-presidential republic and is therefore not keen to revert to the 2004 constitution. Tymoshenko would like to see the president become a ‘constitutional’ dictator and clearly still harbours hopes of becoming president.

Once again, a typically paradoxical situation has arisen in Ukraine, where the genuine desires of the people can actually be misused by those in power as a bargaining chip in discussions with Russia.

Meanwhile, the tenor of the Maidan shifted from the romantic to the more radical. Not a single day went by without some kind of provocation against the demonstrators and, although an amnesty law had been passed, it had yet to be implemented. Maidan activists continued to disappear. The cars of AutoMaidan supporters continued to be set on fire at night. Tensions remained.

There were rumours in the city that 4,000 heavily-armed militants had entrenched themselves in the four occupied buildings and that their patience was quickly running out. And that they would attack first. But who? First the police, then parliament and its members.

It was not just the politicians who were to blame for this complicated situation, but their inability to think in a ‘coalitionary’ way. Every discussion between the parliamentary majority and the opposition in the Ukrainian parliament has traditionally been carried out from a position of power, the power of the majority.

The Europe that asks what it can do to help Ukraine to gain a civilised future needs to know that the future of the Ukraine lies with its youth.

Ukraine will never be able to get itself out of this political hole, which all four of the country’s presidents have helped to dig, until it rids itself of this kind of negotiation culture. It promises to be a long and difficult process.

Young people in Ukraine
Young people in Ukraine, photo: Yanny Mishchuk via Unsplash

Deposed president, Yanukovych is, of course, the one who has dug the hole the deepest, but I find it hard to believe that he is capable of recognising his mistakes. More hope probably lies with the oligarchs of the old generation, who know better than anyone what is awaiting if the country experiences a political and economic collapse.

Is sincere dialogue possible?

The Europe that asks what it can do to help Ukraine to gain a civilised future needs to know that the future of the Ukraine lies with its youth. There is little to be gained from dialogue with its current rulers, as such dialogue cannot be truly open. The Ukraine is represented by politicians who are more concerned about their own futures than the future of their country. This is why Europe needs to focus on the country’s students and open Europe to educated and engaged Ukrainian citizens.

The waiving of visa restrictions for travel to the EU is of course a long and difficult process. But perhaps Europe could at least make it easier for students or even all young Ukrainians to travel. Visa restrictions could apply after a certain age. Europe must also not forget about the undemocratic actions of Ukraine’s rulers. Many Ukrainians believe that these people should be banned from travelling to Europe.

It is often said that democracy is not a oneway street. I would like to echo this opinion and see more European teaching staff at Ukrainian universities – and more young Ukrainians at European universities.

About the author
Portrait of Andrey Kurkov
Andrey Kurkov
Freelance writer

Andrey Kurkov was born in St. Petersburg in 1961. He spent his childhood in Kiev and writes in Russian. He studied foreign languages (he speaks 11 different languages), was a newspaper editor and worked as a prison guard during his military service. After that he became a cameraman and wrote numerous screenplays. His novel 'Death and the Penguin' became a worldwide success. This article has been produced with the assistance of N-Ost, The Network for Reporting on Eastern Europe.

A selection of books:

  • Diary of an Invasion: The Russian Invasion of Ukraine. Welbeck, London 2023
  • Grey Bees. Deep Vellum, Texas, TX 2022
  • Ukraine Diaries: Dispatches from Kiev. Harvill Press, London 2015

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