This past week Ukrainian President Yanukovich crossed his Rubicon. In response, over one hundred thousand Ukrainian citizens were brave enough to gather once again on ‘their’ Maydan to protest this renewed usurpation of power. It is time for Europe to stand with them.
On (Black) Thursday, January 16, the majority party in the Ukrainian parliament voted, in a procedurally unacceptable way, in favor of some of the most far-going repressive laws in Europe today. The President immediately signed these laws into effect. The Black Thursday laws ban unsanctioned gatherings and impose unprecedented restrictions on mass demonstrations, media, mobile phones and the internet. As in Russia, non-profit organizations who receive funding from abroad are now obliged to register as “foreign agents”.
Many Ukrainian people are responding to this retrograde attempt to re-impose old-style control over what remains a modern, vibrant civil society with the same delightful creativity that we have come to admire over these past months. Undeterred, they brandish weapons like music and humor that are far more powerful than anything the authorities could muster. Whereas the law prohibits wearing helmets and masks at demonstrations, people just once again joyfully and massively headed to the Maydan donning the most diverse types of head wear ranging from feathers to colanders. 25 years after the amazing velvet revolution in what was then Czechoslovakia, we are now witnessing an equally astounding helmet revolution in Ukraine. Yanukovich and his regime have profoundly misread the situation. The times when such laws could just be imposed unilaterally on a vibrant civil society are long gone. Ukrainian society will not accept it. Europe should not either.
For weeks now, over one hundred thousand Ukrainians of various ages, regions, socio-economic and political backgrounds have braved rain, cold and snow to take to the streets and maydans and let their voices be heard. They have done so, for the most part, in an admirably peaceful way, despite some - so far relatively contained - excesses by some extremist groups and by some parts the security forces. One of their main battle cries was to join ‘Europe’ – to them a symbol of rule of law, individual freedoms and a ‘normal’ way of life.
Europe remained silent. Today, European flags have virtually disappeared from the Maydan. A pamphlet started circulating on the internet saying: “Dear European Union and United States of America. We don’t need your moral support. Act or f*** off. (signed – with a small red bloodstain in the corner) With EuroLove, Your EurUkraine”.
The writers of this pamphlet are right. It is time for Europe to respond to Ukrainians’ ‘cri de coeur’ and to act. This has to go significantly beyond the usual diplomatic rhetoric. Here is a list of possible actions that the EU and/or individual European states - hopefully in close coordination with the United States and any nations that embrace liberal democratic values - could contemplate:
Hold those responsible personally accountable for these laws. This includes freezing and investigating bank accounts and denying visas to all members of the regime, including the members of Parliament who voted for the retrograde ‘Black Thursday’ laws. A broader watch list of individuals “who by reason of their position, authority, or specific reports appear to have willfully participated in or benefitted from the repression of peaceful protests, the violation of human rights, or the criminalization of power in Ukraine” that was drawn up by a Ukrainian NGO called 'За Відповідальність' ('For Accountability') could serve as a useful basis for determining who was should be held accountable for the laws. Other NGOs (such as the Center for Fight Against Corruption and PEPWatch) have also accumulated evidence of alleged money laundering and other criminal activities by Ukrainian officials in European countries that could be pursued with more vigor.
Stop high-level official interactions with this government until the 'Black Thursday' laws are rescinded. This includes EU meetings as well as meetings with high dignitaries of individual European countries.
Ratchet up support to civil society. The EU could considerfreezing all EU assistance money that currently goes to Ukrainian government capacity building and re-channeling it into supporting civil society. Based on the astounding vibrancy and resilience that Ukraine’s society has so amply exhibited over these past months, opportunities abound. Special support could be targeted for the many Ukrainian NGOs who have focused on corruption in and around the highest spheres of government. The EU could commit itself (if the laws are not reversed and are actually implemented) to paying the extra taxes for NGOs that will have to register as ‘foreign agents’. It could create an new educational instrument and name it after the Maydan.. The EU-Maydan program would allow significant number of Ukrainian students to study in Europe over the next few years.
Relax visa policy. The European Union should seriously consider , even in the absence of progress in the ongoing negotiations with the government, any measures that can facilitate Europe’s informal visa policy towards people such as issuing long term visas and minimizing fees.
Ensure honest and transparent coverage of what is happening. To help fight the social-network-fueled rumor mill and various forms of provocation (by both sides), Europe should fund local initiatives that enhance transparency on and around the maydan and can verifiably fixate any abuses or provocations. This may become especially important if events were to spin out of control in the next few days/weeks and lead to large-scale violence. Anybody responsible for any acts of violence should realize that his/her actions will be registered and s/he will be held personally accountable. Concrete measures could include supporting various new media initiatives ranging from internet tv (like hromadske.tv or espreso.tv) to providing other new technologies that would allow local NGOs and human rights activists to gather, verify and curate information.
Help in developing more sustainable policy options forthe country’s predicaments. It is becoming increasingly clear that the deeply divided country is politically unable to bootstrap itself out of its current quandary. If we want to avoid Ukraine becoming a failed state, the international community, and especially Europe, will have to play a more active role in bridging the positions of the different parties. The European Union has accumulated unprecedented knowledge about this during its process of enlargement. It should renew its efforts - especially towards the population - to spell out the consequences of various policies. This should not be based on ideological preconceptions, but on accumulated European and international evidence. Concrete measures could include funding programmes that encourage intra-Ukraine mobility and various mediated interactions between the various sides.
Ukraine’s future is - and should remain - in the hands of the entire Ukrainian nation. That nation is now divided as never before and on the verge of the precipice. The dangerous escalation triggered by President Yanukovich’ ‘Rubicon-week’ has brought the country one step closer to total chaos and possibly even civil war. Only a reversal of these unacceptable laws is likely to offer a chance to find a more truly sustainable solution.
Europe cannot and will not solve Ukraine’s problems. It also has to recognize that it is not seen as an honest broker by the entire Ukrainian population. But it cannot stand idle as the country is brought closer to civil war. This is not about geopolitics. It is first and foremost about human lives and dignity. It is also about sustainable stability in one of Europe’s biggest neighbors. No sustainable solutions to Ukraine’s dire political and economic predicament will be achieved by any attempt by either side to impose its prefered solution on the other side. Strong-arming this highly controversial set of laws through parliament without even debating them was a mistake. Europe should - and can - send a signal that if these laws are not reversed, it will act.
January 19, 2014