Feb. 16, 2014
A recent cover of a main Dutch newspaper said it all: on top of a photo of a street demonstration the word “Ukraine” had been crossed out and next to it was written “Bosnia!!” The message was clear: Bosnia was where the real action was, where the real demonstrations against the government took place, in Ukraine things were slowly withering away.
However wrong that impression might be, many people in the West indeed think that only little has been left of the force of the opposition against Yanukovych and his regime. And it is a stiff competition: Putin is having his Sochi-show in full galore, Britain is under water, and then there are the occasional other mishaps on the international scene. And thus Ukraine is sharing the position of Syria, where barrel bombs keep on falling from the air creating immeasurable destruction and human misery, but where the eyes of the West have turned away because it is ‘old news’ and the international community does not know what to do or how to behave.
Political impotence of political leaders in the United States and the European Union goes hand in hand with the brevity of the span of attention of the general public. People want action, they want something new all the time, and when Molotov cocktails stop raining and people are seemingly no longer arrested, abducted and killed, they prefer to watch something more exciting, whether a war or Olympic Games. In the case of Ukraine this is combined with the fact that Western media is seemingly obsessed with scandals or ‘the real story’ behind the scenes. So they try to uncover the tensions between the leaders of the opposition, the extremists that dominate Maidan, the Banderovtsy and right-wingers that are anti-Semitic and racist and hide behind the facade of less-extremist groups. Again we see a comparison here with the Syrian situation, where the West debated for such a long time whether the demonstrators and opposition were Al Qaida-related Islamic radicals and jihadists, that gradually the situation on the ground changed and the moderate and liberal majority in the opposition was replaced by exactly the groups that they feared. A self-fulfilling prophecy, in which in my view the hesitance of the West played a major role.
What very few people in the West seem to understand is that silence over Maidan does not mean that nothing is happening, it does not mean that Ukrainians are giving up hope and opposition to the regime. And they don’t seem to realize that the far out majority of those at Maidan – and the many smaller maidans all over the country – are educated people: students, professors, doctors, lawyers, business people… people who are not waging a fight ‘East or West’ but who are fed up by being treated like cattle by a thieving government. It is a fight for human dignity, for the right to live in a free country without a government that steals the assets of the country at the expense of its citizens. People in the West have no idea that the Maidan in Kyiv is not a totally disorganized place where everything is dirty and disintegrated, but that it is a well-organized machinery, with its own defense force, its own library and with its own hospital. This is news that is not exciting, and thus hardly ever reported upon in the media.
This ignorance also spreads to political circles in the West. I recently had an exchange with a European foreign minister whom I asked why his government was not offering free treatment to the victims of police brutality and torture in Ukraine. I pointed out to him that a small country like Lithuania was doing so and that for instance Dmytro Bulatov was undergoing treatment in Vilnius. His answer was telling: “we do not engage in symbolic politics. I have telephone conversations with the Ukrainian foreign minister and the opposition.” Yes, with the same minister who publicly stated that Bulatov had “only a scratch on his cheek”. What this minister did not understand that the corrupt government in Kyiv, only busy with safeguarding their stolen goods, doesn’t care at all about his phone calls, but that the demonstrators in Kyiv very much need this ‘symbolic politics’. This shows them that there are people out there who care.
So the end result is that the demonstrators see, and with them a large part of the Ukrainian population who are fed up with their leaders, that the West does not really care when it is not in their own interests. They see how far nice words and expressions of support by Western European leaders carry: not very far, actually, only as far as they think it is good for themselves.
This is a hard message. But I think it is a good and important one; maybe not in the short term, but in the long for sure. Yes, this is political reality: Western Europe and the United States are – some people excluded – self-centered and only interested in what advances their own positions. They are not going to liberate Ukraine, they are not even going to help you on a massive scale. You are on your own, you will have to do it yourselves.
And I think that is good. It is also part of the breakaway from Soviet times, when people were supposed not to think and not to take initiative and let the state take care of them. It is up to the Ukrainian people to shed the shackles and get rid of the political caste and culture of which Yanukovych is only one example. It is time for a new Ukraine, created by the people themselves. It might take longer, there might be many crises still ahead, but if you reach that goal it will be a far more stable and prosperous freedom than if it was created with help from outside. In that sense I very much like that poster that was circulated some time ago: “Dear European and United States of America! We no longer need your moral support. Act or fuck off.”
Robert van Voren is Professor of Soviet and Post-Soviet Studies at VytautasMagnusUniversity in Kaunas and IliaStateUniversity in Tbilisi, and was Permanent Representative of Ukraine in the Benelux for Humanitarian Affairs in 1994-1997.