I will never forget the 12 hours I spent in the Ukrainian women’s prison in Kharkiv. Never in my life have I seen such misery or degrading treatment of prisoners, Nor will I forget my brief conversation with imprisoned former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko when I finally arrived at her sickbed: “Promise me you will not forget Ukraine’s struggle for democracy”.
Since President Yanukovych rejected Europe in favour of Russia in late November, the streets of Ukrainian cities, Kiev in particular, have been filled with young demonstrators. But whereas in 2004, orange was the colour of revolution, this time it’s the blue and yellow of the EU that symbolises change. Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony echoes around Independence Square in Kiev, which has long since been dubbed Euromaidan.
Many Ukrainians, the young in particular, want to return to the European fold; they strongly oppose Yanukovych’s rejection of the EU’s offer of an association agreement. Being part of a Russian customs union or becoming a pariah state like Belarus is not for them. To paraphrase the American historian Timothy Snyder, we are witnessing a “common-sense revolution” fuelled by the desire of the young to live normal lives in a normal country.
The political map of Europe is back on the drawing board, much as it was in 1989, with a crucial decision to be made: whether Ukraine should be part of Europe, with everything that entails – from respect for human rights to free trade – or fall further under the influence of Russia.
But what is Europe doing for them? Particularly the 1989 generation, the one that hailed the fall of the Berlin Wall and the liberation of Central and Eastern Europe as their “defining moment”. What are they doing to support the protesters on the streets of Kiev and Kharkiv – like the previous generation did when it lent its support to Lech Walesa, Vaclav Havel and the East Germans in Leipzig with their rhythmic chant of “Wir sind das Volk” – “we are the people”?
Europe to the rescue
Yes, the EU and NATO have denounced the recent police violence, but European politicians have mostly spent the protests fretting over the question of “who lost Ukraine?” Was the West wrong to put so much emphasis on the release of Tymoshenko? Should we have realised much earlier on that Ukraine had dragged us into a modern version of “chequebook diplomacy”, in which the West was encouraged to outbid Russia’s offer of cash and liquid gas? Did the EU commit a strategic blunder in 2004, when it reacted too slowly and failed to offer the parents of the Orange generation the prospect of full membership?
Whatever the answers to these questions, soul-searching is not an adequate response at a time when protesters continue to defy the cold and tens of thousands are singing for their country on Euromaidan. Now, with a presidential election just around the corner, is the time for action.
Rather than focusing on the dead-in-the-water association agreement, the EU should change course as fast as possible and devise a longer-term policy towards Ukraine, one that sends a strong signal to the protesters and the government alike. It goes without saying that the EU should be prepared to implement real crisis management measures if the situation escalates further.
The EU countries need to focus on the presidential election in 2015. As we know, Yanukovych will do everything in his power to ensure this is a pseudo-election with no real opposition. In fact, he has already begun: Tymoshenko is still behind bars, and the President is currently striving to disbar the opposition’s new hope, the Udar party’s Vitali Klitschko, on the grounds that he has not been continuously resident in Ukraine in recent years. The West must, of course, protest against this. As they did in 1989, the EU countries should openly and enthusiastically support the opposition parties.
Germany, spearheaded by the CDU think tank Konrad Adenauer Stiftung, has already started this process. KAS is in full swing, providing the opposition with everything from financial support to basic training in building political parties. Germany is also trying to convince the opposition to coalesce around a single, strong candidate to challenge Yanukovych.
As a part of this strategy, the EU should mobilise in support of the group that most strongly backs the EU: the young. In practice, this means that the EU and its member states should offer scholarships to European universities and university colleges as soon as possible. Here, there are obvious parallels with the 1989 revolution, not least for Denmark. When the wave of change hit the Baltic countries, Denmark offered scholarships for talented students, particularly at Aarhus University. Many of these students went on to take up prominent positions in the young democracies, among them the current Latvian Minister of Defence, Artis Pabriks.
The EU countries should also ease up on visa requirements so that young people are actually able to enter the EU. The EU must also work out how best to influence Yanukovych to allow Klitschko’s candidacy for president and to stop the violence against protesters. If there is one thing the EU should have learned from the association agreement car crash, it is that money talks. Throughout the process, especially when he played the EU off against Russia, Yanukovych very much had his own fortune in mind – not to mention his son’s (Yanukovych’s son, a dentist, is suddenly one of Ukraine’s richest people, with a fortune of more than $510m). As has been suggested by the US think tank Freedom House and in the US Senate, the EU should consider freezing the Yanukovych family’s assets abroad and prevent them from travelling to the Europe they do not want their population to enjoy.
Last, but not least, Europe’s politicians must decide whether they consider Ukraine a potential part of the EU, or whether the country should, quite literally, remain on the periphery of Europe. In short, the EU countries must decide whether they are willing to offer a post-Yanukovych Ukraine the realistic prospect of actual membership. So-called “enlargement fatigue” and the excessive focus on “welfare tourism” make it politically difficult for EU leaders to advocate Ukraine’s full membership; still, something less –- free trade, economic aid, a voice in EU foreign policy, freedom of travel – would do, at least for now.
In all honesty, what will remain of the EU’s values and basic narrative of democratisation if its member states just stand idly by, wringing their hands as young Ukrainians wrapped in the EU flag are beaten to a pulp? The parallels with 1989 are clear. During that revolution, in the words of the Czech writer Milan Kundera, we let the protesters know that Central Europe was “the kidnapped West” and would soon return to the rest of the continent. It is high time we sent a similar message to the people on the streets in Ukraine.