To understand the Maidan protesters in Kiev, just go to Prague, Warsaw and beyond. While other post-Soviet bloc economies have emerged, Ukrainians know too well that their leaders have failed them.
MOSCOW — Do Russians care what happens in Ukraine? It’s a complex question. A 2007 survey showed that 51% of Russians actually consider Russians and Ukrainians to have the same ethnic roots. But opinion polls about the Ukraine protests in particular show a surprising lack of solidarity.
In fact, 51% of Russians say they don’t care what happens in Ukraine. They consider it a domestic Ukrainian issue, sort of like a cop responding to a domestic violence call but refusing to intervene because it is “between a man and his wife.” Though they may feel theoretical solidarity with their fellow Slavs, a large percentage of Russians still oppose sending money to Ukraine and giving the country steep gas discounts.
But the issue in their neighboring country isn’t a question of “sphere of influence,” and Ukrainians aren’t protesting out of self-hatred for their Slavic roots. It’s the standard of living, stupid.
There is something more basic at stake here. Poland, the Czech Republic, East Germany, Slovakia, Hungary and other former Soviet Bloc countries have figured out how to create an acceptable standard of living for their citizens. And now Ukrainians, Belorussians, Moldavans and Georgians want the same. It’s that simple. They see the former Soviet Bloc countries able to pay market rates for gas imports and yet still provide a standard of living that is two or three times higher than that in Ukraine and Moldova.
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The benefits of modernity have arrived in Prague (Aktron)
It takes a very specific type of person not to understand the difference between the two situations: specifically, an ardent supporter of the Ukrainian regime. Ordinary Ukrainians and Moldovans understand everything perfectly. The difference in standard of living is starkly obvious.
So what is the strategy of leaders who are painfully aware of their own inability to compete regionally and globally? They launch censorship programs and investigate everyone who tells the truth about systemic corruption and government ineffectiveness. They try to obstruct or slow the process of change.
Change will come one way or another
But change is inevitable. As incomes rise and citizens’ horizons expand, people begin to expect more from their government — in terms of health care, security, education, the environment and the free flow of information. If people are too poor to have cars, they don’t care if the roads are good. Once they buy a car, they care about potholes, traffic jams and corrupt traffic police.
The first reaction of a government unaccustomed to conversations about rights is reactionary: There has never been anything like this before, and we’re not going to change now!
But they’re wrong. What happened in Czechoslovakia in 1968 is one example of how things could play out, but regularly scheduled, democratic elections provide another potential outcome.
And what does Ukraine really want? It’s not to join the European Union tomorrow. The EU is not really that eager to have them, and any rational person understands that. The EU hasn’t even quite figured out how to deal with it’s current black sheep — Greece, Spain and Portugal. The last thing it needs is another gift from the great Communist past.
No, Ukraine wants something else: European standards. Human rights. Respect for private property. Honest, independent courts and fair elections. A competitive economy. Leaders who are accountable to the voters and a government free from corruption.
[rebelmouse-image 27087796 alt="""" original_size="800x600" expand=1] Where to now in Kiev (Smerus)
But will President Viktor Yanukovich’s ultimate replacement be any better? It’s uncertain, but the protesters at Maidan are as smart as we are, and they understand the gamble perfectly. They are counting on a compromise. They will make any successor more accountable and easier for voters to keep an eye on. People are freezing their butts off in the cold not for a specific person, but for a change in the system.
Yanukovich started his career in office by putting his most important challenger in prison. He freed his hands, you could say. Then he immediately stuck them in the state’s purse. At the same time, he was making it impossible to leave power because a loss would mean going to jail.
Now Yanukovich is desperate. He doesn’t know how to establish or maintain balance. He overestimated his own power and underestimated the power of the popular opposition. He would lose early election, and he would also lose in the regular elections in a year.
It’s unlikely that he could mobilize his supporters to commit fraud on a massive enough scale to get him re-elected, and the local governors he appointed are not going to risk their own careers by sticking their necks out for him. His fellow oligarchs are feeling pressure from Europe, where their businesses and money are. It’s bad times for Yanukovich. It’s also bad times for anyone who stands with him.
He has to retreat on everything, and perhaps that is where he can find redemption. A weak, dependent Yanukovich might be just the person to stay in office for another year and then quietly retire to a settlement for rich losers.
The alternative to a sad ending for Yanukovich is a much sadder ending for all of Ukraine — one that leads to nothing less than civil war and partitions, like Yugoslavia. Even if civil war doesn’t break out, that would be almost the same as a lost civil war, with one party feeling complete impunity to do whatever it wants.
It’s not something anyone wants to dwell on, but it seems like it’s closer and closer to becoming reality.