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Ukraine: 25 years of wandering in the desert

Oleshkiv desert in Ukraine’s Kherson Oblast – the largest desert in Europe
Ukraine: 25 years of wandering in the desert

It took Moses forty years to lead the Israeli people out of the desert into the Promised Land, enough to let the generation die that grew up in slavery in Egypt. In the end, the people that found their final home were free and hardened by the desert life, ready to build a new land and invest in it.

Twenty-five years have passed since Ukraine became independent, and Maidan has shown that a new generation has appeared that was born after the Soviet Union, that is ready to fight for freedom and democracy, and is ready to die while defending the borders of their country. Yet the post-Maidan period has also shown that the country as such is not yet ready. There are too many skeletons in the closet, too many people who still think Soviet, behave Soviet, and long for the Soviet past. For some, mainly older people, the Soviet past now seems easy, when everything was provided and free and personal responsibility had been replaced by an all-encompassing State that dominated all aspects of life. For others, the early post-Soviet period is the dreamland, where everything could be stolen, extorted and enormous wealth could be acquired through semi-legal means. And then there is still a considerable slice of the population that is indifferent or even cynical, who have no ideology other than short-term benefit at any cost, who want to get without having to deliver.

Maidan gave enormous hope, not only to Ukrainians, but also to the whole former Soviet region and further beyond. It showed that people can take their future into their own hands and rid themselves of a crooked regime.

However, Maidan also gave the hope that there would be an end to thievery and massive corruption, that the power of the oligarchs would be broken and that a normal free market economy could be built. Alas that hope was unrealistic, a matter of wishful thinking, because corruption continued, corruption schemes were maintained and taken over by new politicians, who very quickly forgot the promises that Maidan had made. It turned out that post-Soviet tendencies based on cronyism and thievery were still too strong and had become even more deeply rooted during the Yanukovych years, copy-pasting the criminal policies of the Putin regime.

Twenty-five years proved too short to kill the old and give free space to the new.

Yet Maidan also gave the nation a national identity. Before, few Ukrainians would have been willing to die for their country, and many accepted the notion that the birth of their nation had been rather coincidental, the result of unexpected historical consequences. Ukraine was a stable instability, a country that existed because it had no choice. That fundamentally changed. Putin’s imperialistic policies and his inability to keep his hands off other people’s property resulted in a nation that was reborn, a people that identified itself with Ukraine, and a large number of particularly young people rushed to the front to stop the Russian advance and managed to halt the disintegration of the country. That is a majestic feat, a totally unexpected one, definitely for Putin who thought that Ukraine was up for grabs. I am convinced that Ukraine was the beginning of Putin’s demise, and will sooner or later mean the end to his corrupt and criminal regime.

Yet for Ukraine the fight is not over. There is an external enemy, a very clear and dangerous one, and as long as the FSB mafia rules Russia that threat will remain real and imminent. It is Putin’s goal to destabilize Ukraine, to make sure it cannot even return to the state of “stable instability”. However paradoxical it might sound, this is in fact an asset, because the war will keep the country alert, the nation’s spirit strong and will help further strengthen Ukrainian nationhood. Opinion polls show that even in the East the overwhelming majority of citizens now see “Ukrainian” as their first and prime identity, irrespective of whether they are ethnically Ukrainian or Russian.

Yet there is also an internal enemy, the enemy of illegality and corruption, that enemy of “me for myself and God for us all”, the enemy of opportunism and egocentrism. On purpose I don’t mention the enemy of extremism, of extreme nationalism. In fact political extremism in Ukraine is surprisingly small, in particular if one compares it with the level of right-wing extremism in many Western European countries. Putin can shout what he wants, but right-wing radicalism in Ukraine is not a strong political force, and the biggest fascist movement in Europe exists in his own country. Rather, I would say, his own regime is fundamentally fascist and in his boated macho torso sits a new version of Mussolini, the fascist pre-war Italian leader. The more he shouts, the more he shows his real face.

I fear Ukraine needs another fifteen years. The forty years in the desert needs to be completed. But I have no doubt it will be completed, that with new Ukrainian generations growing up things will continue to change, step by step, and a new and democratic Ukrainian nation will be built. It will probably be the first “post-Maidan generation” that when reaching adulthood will find itself in this new country, this potentially very wealthy country. A democratic state that will have an importance not only to its own people, but also to the country that is now the main threat and menace, keeping its army at Ukraine’s gates. Russia needs an example, needs to see it can be done, that democracy can be built. It will be Ukraine that leads the way, which – how paradoxical – will be the headstone on Putin’s grave. It is his “bridge too far”.


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