All too often you can hear people opine that the last five years have been a complete loss for Ukraine. The current administration is accused of taking advantage of the window of opportunity that the Euromaidan presented but did not live up to its demands, hiding the old rotten system under a façade of decorative and half-hearted reforms. This point of view is based on a lot of serious arguments – and where there aren’t any, serious collective emotions.
Nevertheless, the final balance for this period is impossible to consider negative. Yes, there are plenty of objectives that were not reached, but in other strategic areas, Ukraine progressed far more over 2014-2019 than in all the previous 23 years of independence. Indeed, there are areas where even the most ambitious goals were surpassed. When it comes to Petro Poroshenko’s actions, it’s harder to summarize the impact of his term of office than might seem, because the result will vary based on the worldview being applied. In any case, Ukrainian society has drawn its own conclusions, with a result that was very evident in the April 21 vote. Regardless, it’s very important for Ukrainians to recognize the achievements of the last five years in order to prevent any kind of rollback. And if such backsliding were to begin, they will have to react to it in time.
Whatever anyone might say, the main demand of the Euromaidan was not only fulfilled, but even over-subscribed. In case people forgot, it was about signing an Association Agreement with the European Union, the political portion of which was signed in March 2014, and the economic part in June 2014. Since May 2017, Ukraine has also had a visa-free regime with the EU. Yet, closer ties with the West weren’t even limited to this. True, Ukraine is still not a member of NATO and has only associate membership in the EU, but we have become one of the key elements in restraining Russia. This country, which just yesterday was referred to as a “transit territory” and a suburb of Russki Mir, is now being noticed by both Washington and Brussels.
Of course, the situation with Ukraine has to be viewed realistically: in large part, the West’s attention to Ukraine is the result of worries that Moscow is systematically undermining the foundations of the post-WWII world order. Given its relatively low geopolitical caliber Ukraine is not and cannot become the architect of international sanctions against Russia and its economic weakness means it depends very much on its allies for assistance. To a large extent, in the operation to get Russia to knuckle under, Ukraine’s role is a fairly passive one, even though the main burden of resisting Russia militarily falls to it.
But in 2014, the alternative was a national catastrophe: Ukraine could well have been dismembered and lost its statehood. The country was able to avoid this fate not only because of the determination of Ukraine’s volunteers and soldiers, but also because of effective international communication with the country’s leadership. In this way, Ukraine was able to achieve two objectives at the same tine: it withstood Russia’s attack and it established constructive relations with the West that today are far deeper than associate membership in the EU.
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Moreover, over 2014-2019, the decolonization process went very far in Ukraine. The necessary impulse provided at the Euromaidan was reinforced considerably by Russia’s military aggressions. Still, Ukraine’s leadership went far further than elementary security measures. The reduction of economic, diplomatic and informational ties to Russia to a minimum was forced by its attacks. However, this was not what led to decommunization, autocephaly, or language quotas, never mind the revival of Ukraine’s movie industry and other initiatives exclusively intended to establish a series of ongoing institutions: the Book Institute, the Ukrainian Institute and so on. Moreover, the president himself was the initiator and promoter of many of these measures, some of which, like lobbying for the tomos, were not part of his direct duties.
Of course, the process of decolonization began in Ukraine not in 2014, and not even in 1991, but earlier. But in the last five years, Ukrainians have come much farther than in the previous two or three decades. What’s more, this time the humanitarian initiatives were accompanied by the resurrection of the armed forces, which is key to the continuing existence of Ukraine as a state. In this sense, raising battle-readiness has been the main decolonization measure. The functions of the president are not equivalent to the functions of the Defense Minister or the Cabinet, but given what was going on in Ukraine, the revival of the military would have been impossible without the support of allies. And for this, Ukrainians have to thank the effective diplomatic work, part of which was carried out by Petro Poroshenko. Could he have chosen a different course and are the results achieved the most that could have been done are rhetorical questions. That the president made an overall positive contribution is incontrovertible – certainly in terms of carrying out the demand “Away from Moscow!”
With the election over, tension is still high. Will the new president maintain the previous course? If so, how effective will he be? And if not, will he be the president who drives a rollback in key achievements that the country needs as a state? Such questions are already pushing people to offer radical propositions: from eliminating the post of president altogether to preparing for massive protest demonstrations. Given the circumstances, radicalization may be a natural reaction, but it’s anything but constructive.
First of all, attitudes towards state institutions should not be based on attitudes towards the individual in a given position. The country’s leadership is always shaped by situational conditions and is not equivalent to the state itself, which is the common historical attainment of Ukrainian society. The people in high posts are variable, whereas the state is constant.
Secondly, effective state institutions, especially the system of central government, are no less important foundations of independence than an army. No matter how evolved civil society is – and it’s still relatively weak in Ukraine – it cannot replace either a regular army or a government. Theoretically, the functions of president can be taken over by the legislature, but in the current conditions in Ukraine, this will only lead to even greater chaos, possibly even to complete paralysis in the central government. That, in turn, could lead to a disruption in the processes of decolonization and eurointegration. The purpose of people’s actions often does not coincide with their real consequences. And so we need to take into account whether a rebellion against a supposedly “anti-Ukrainian” central government under the right circumstances could bring damage national statehood far more than sabotage by that same government.
Under certain circumstances, of course, open resistance to the central government can become the only chance for salvation for the nation. Still, the alarmist slogan “internal occupation regime” can be attached to any reality someone wishes. In order to understand the political reality that will begin to take real shape after the inauguration, Ukrainian society needs to formulate fairly clear criteria to determine what red line the future president may not overstep. After all, the task of citizens is not just passive observation. Those who are active in a society can influence the trajectory of both domestic and foreign policy. Indeed, this is their civil duty. In practice, influencing those in power requires the will to fight for this right with considerable effort and positive results aren’t always guaranteed.
And so, the short-term objective today should be to mobilize patriotic forces, from low-profile intellectuals to politicians, from street activists to members of the spiritual class. The short-term goal is to monitor the actions of the government and keep it under constant pressure to hold the country on course and reject any initiatives that could endanger its statehood. How effective this pressure will be is not obvious right now. It’s quite possible that the ratings of the newly elected president will begin to slip much more quickly than those of his predecessor and the public mood could turn explosive. There could be enormous temptation to use this for a premature change of government, because a nation that is not capable of rebelling is not viable. However, a society that used rebellion as a cure-all for any historical circumstance whatsoever will also not be successful. Ukrainians have mastered the art of the Maidan. Now it’s time to master more subtle forms of influence over their government.
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In the longer term, the task facing Ukrainians is to foster a new national elite. The current political situation shows that the old elites of the late- and post-soviet era have exhausted themselves. Modern Ukraine, with all its achievements and lost opportunities, its virtues and its neuroses, bears the stamp of their imaginations and they, in turn, are the product of the Ukrainian people. In the last few years, the maturation of Ukrainian society, especially of its active minority, has accelerated considerably under the impact of historical circumstances. Even the nationally-oriented part of the current elite is no longer capable of satisfying the demand for change. Even when they have been on a common course, the country’s leaders and its ordinary citizens have been moving at different speeds and so the gap between them has become charged with the resentment of the latter. As the events of the last few months have convincingly shown, the decline of the old elite has not only made Ukraine vulnerable to external threats, but has actually opened the door to internally destructive forces. That’s why nurturing a new national elite is a matter of survival for the state of Ukraine.
Over the last few years, Ukrainians have dealt effectively with a slew of important challenges, but, historically speaking, this was all due to the unlearned lessons of the more distant past. What Ukraine needs to do starting today is beyond the capacity of the current elite. To keep moving along the country’s chosen path, the country need a new leadership, one that is capable of dealing with current challenges. If Ukrainians don’t manage to take on this task, Ukraine will become the plaything of anti-Ukrainian forces, at best. At worst, it will lose its sovereignty. Guidebooks to civic activism offer no ready-made recipes for establishing a national elite, but Ukraine needs one in order to reach its historic goals.
Translated by Lidia Wolanskyj