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Europe and Ukraine: Resistance to the Virus of Fear

Constantin Sigov, February 8, 2014, Istorychna Pravda

Konstantyn Sihov is the Director of the European Centre for Humanitarian Studies at the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy

We have recently awoken to the issue of new victims in the clashes with the usurping regime. This mutant regime’s violence damages not only the lives of our compatriots, but the ideal of peaceful democratic development in an independent Ukraine (1991-2013).

Resistance to the virus of fear is the key test of our solidarity.

The strategy of intimidation is not limited to the conspicuous violence of the Berkut riot police. Our immediate and distant futures are also denied to us. Our present is being severed from the freedom to which the two generations of the post-Soviet period are accustomed.

The quintessence of this experience are the days and nights of the last two months, the days and nights spent defending freedom on Maidan. This reality cannot be obscured or erased by smoke bombs. It is the source of courage.

Ukrainians are defending the civil society and human dignity that are cruelly persecuted by post-Soviet authoritarian regimes.

“For our freedom and yours!” The timely sentiment of this ancient salutation is often expressed today by brave Russians and Belorussians in solidarity with Ukrainians. This struggle is not confined to the eastern region. It threatens the whole of European culture and its core values.

The civil movement in Kyiv has grown into the most powerful manifestation of the defense of European values since the EU’s founding. In proclaiming this, members of the European Parliament declare that the Ukrainian protests can breathe a second wind into the core values harbored by the architects of European unification after WWII. The driving forces behind unification have faded into the background as people forget the horrors of war and take for granted the advantages of peace.

Hannah Arendt spoke of “the loss of treasure” of European Resistance. She also spoke of the cycle of regaining and losing this treasure during the Budapest uprising in the autumn of 1956, followed by the Prague uprising in 1968 and the Polish Solidarnost movement in the 1980s.

Then, during 2004’s Orange Revolution, Vaclav Havel and Lech Walesa talked about the difficult road to freedom and the risks of losing the European treasure. The civil resistance movement in Kyiv this winter is the latest act in this drama.

In a significant departure from the events of December 2004, the reason for the current conflict is neither presidential elections nor political parties.

By early November 2013, a broad consensus in favor of signing the EU Association Agreement had been forged between the Ukrainian authorities, the opposition, and society. Public opinion polls showed more enthusiastic support of this decision in the western and central parts of the country and a rather passive acceptance in the east.

There was no distinct anti-European movement, not even isolated protests. The government’s abrupt refusal to sign the EU treaty and the sudden financial arrangement with the Kremlin sparked peaceful protests on Kyiv’s Maidan Nezalezhnosti.

The cruel beating of the protesters and journalists on 30 November 2013, the first since Ukraine gained independence, threatened our civil society. We responded with a rally, half a million strong, demanding the resignation of the government, impeachment of the president, and resumption of the course toward European integration.

In the very center of Kyiv, Maidan responded by erecting tents, building infrastructure, and transforming into a permanent camp of resistance to the usurpation of power. The primary structures of civil society began crystalizing right here.

A big canteen was set up in the nearby Trades Unions Building, where some 1500 people came to volunteer. A disabled girl from Eastern Ukraine named Lisa became the heart of this group. As a mark of respect for her work and her bravery, the whole corps of canteen workers called themselves Lisa.

Next to the canteen, doctors established a professional hospital with a constant rotation of highly skilled specialists. People bring medicines, food, and clothes from across Kyiv.

Lists of needed items are published regularly on social networks and specialized websites. The entire country donates to Maidan.

A score of senior managers took leave from their companies to be on Maidan. A university opened right on the square. There are designated tents for the press, for interpreters, for communications.

Self-defense units organized under the command of Afghanistan war veterans. Professional soldiers built barricades around the Maidan perimeter and adjacent streets.

One spacious tent became a chapel with clergy from different denominations. Their presence is visible day and night, especially in spots where it becomes necessary to mitigate confrontations with police. People make connections easily; working together in hot spots, clergy and journalists exchange unexpected gestures of solidarity.

Alcohol is prohibited here 24/7, whatever the weather. But this does not dampen the festive atmosphere. People from all over the country are gathered here to fight tyranny and even greater evils.

As Hannah Arendt put it, they became those who challenged, who dared to step forth with initiative, and who, without noticing it, began to create a public sphere and the space for freedom within it.

The spirit of Maidan is best expressed in the words of French Resistance member René Char: “At all the meals taken in common, we invite freedom to have a seat. Its place remains empty but it stays set.”

“L’Ukraine est européenne!,” a joint letter published by Le Monde on 21 January, became a great symbol of solidarity for us. Renowned intellectuals and scientists from different fields sent an important message from Western society to Ukrainian society. The letter continues to collect signatures.

Their message encapsulates the essence of European diversity: Kyiv’s historical and natural ties with its eastern neighbor do not imply “the weakening or severance of no less historical and natural ties with Europe, its culture, and its traditions.”

On the contrary, they call for the rejection of any form of isolationism.

Unfortunately, on 1 January 2014, Yanukovych attempted to legislate isolationism by enacting a law on foreign agents modeled on Putin’s law of July 2012. Now every Ukrainian NGO that receives foreign funds for social or political programs will be branded a foreign agent.

A Kharkiv human rights advocacy group issued a suitable response: “We will never agree to the government forcing us into a social ghetto and branding us ‘foreign agents’ like the Nazis branded Jews with a yellow Star of David during the Second World War.”

An extraordinary session of the Verkhovna Rada on 28 January abolished this law. But we must never forget those who fell on 21 January, giving their lives for our escape from the ghetto of post-imperial isolationism. Many human rights activists are still under arrest and the EU maintains a firm stance calling for their release.

The pessimistic scenario already outlined by some journalists is one of continuing repression. This frightening prospect could engender the emergence of a North Korea-style regime right on the EU border, bringing waves of refugees from Ukraine.

An alternate scenario is the continuing growth of civil society structures in Ukraine and their decisive influence on the development of democracy and the rule of law after the resolution of the current political crisis.

The alternate scenario requires resolute steps from EU leaders. Like the US, the EU should introduce sanctions against everyone guilty of criminalizing Ukraine’s government structures. Sanctions against oligarchs should serve to liberalize the major TV channels they currently own. It is time they stop brainwashing our citizens.

The mediator role of Western counties is important in the difficult negotiations between the opposition, the authorities, and their chief interlocutor: Ukraine’s civil society, the people who continue to come out on the streets in Kyiv and other cities, from Lviv to Donetsk, from Kharkiv to Odesa and Crimea.

During these unbearably long months, which have seen the close cooperation of thousands of activists and hundreds of thousands of citizens, political and civil awareness grew to a substantially high level.

Dozens of cars in Automaidan columns serve as an example of successful new initiatives. People selflessly fund the protests in Kyiv and other cities, risking their families’ livelihoods. Many of their cars have sustained damage.

This is clear and simple evidence of their resolve not to flee to the West, but to build Europe right here in Ukraine. Europe can support their initiatives by sharing information and expertise in developing European structures, and by involving Ukrainians in cultural, educational, and scientific projects. A renewed Eastern Partnership, as well as other practical initiatives, should be channeled to strengthen and develop our civil society.

I make a conscious effort not to elaborate on the pessimistic scenario (although our friends in Moscow and Minsk do not fail to remind us of its real risks and resulting phobias). Outside, it is 18C below. Our children and friends are on Maidan safeguarding Kyiv from gangsters and from fear, from “phobocracy.” Indeed, they safeguard the treasure of human dignity.

Maidan has stood firm for three months running, and it is destined to leave its mark on the history of Europe.

This article was written for the French newspaper Le Monde.

Source: Istorychna Pravda

Translated by Anatoliy Shara

Edited by Mariana Budjeryn and Robin Rohrback

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