One year has now passed since the night of November 21, 2013 when the first protests began on Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square) in Kiev. The mass demonstrations, which by December 1 reached an estimated 700, 000 protesters were a response to Ukrainian president Yanukovych’s sudden withdrawal from the signing of an association agreement with the European Union.
In the West, the association agreement, which was intended to enhance political and economic relations between the EU and Ukraine, was seen as a vehicle for the promotion of good governance and democracy. Its initial failure, however, showed (to the disappointment of Western leaders) that the EU’s power of attraction failed to coopt Ukraine’s ruling elites. The Yanukovych government had been playing a double game between the EU and Russia.
It would be wrong to conclude, however, that the EU had no impact in Ukraine.
For the Ukrainian public, increasingly frustrated with corruption, a bad economy, and a flawed democratic system in the country, the perspective of an association agreement – especially the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (DCFTA) it promised – brought hope for positive change. Moreover, for many Ukrainians, closer ties with the West symbolized a move in the direction of greater freedom and democracy. For these reasons, Yanukovych’s withdrawal had been the last straw: it awakened Ukrainian people’s striving for change.
Few in the West anticipated the events that followed: Despite the government’s violent attempts to crush them, the mass protests on the Maidan eventually brought the fall of the Yanukovych regime. This led to Russia’s annexation of Crimea and, since April, proxy war with Russia in eastern Ukraine, in which at least 4,317 people have been killed.
The Ukraine crisis revealed that promotion of governance norms in the region is not possible without geostrategic considerations. Yet throughout the process the EU appeared passive and restrained, showing that it – and the West in general – is undecided about its role in the region.
Despite sanctions against Russia and declarations of solidarity with Ukraine from Western governments, the public reaction in the West was rather reserved. One often comes across the ‘optimistic’ outlook that the current conflict is still better than an ‘open war’ – even though the only difference is a matter of definition. Some suggest that a declaration of permanent “neutrality may be Ukraine’s most viable option,”  or that Ukraine should agree to cede its eastern territories. The discourse in the Western media often creates the impression that the discussion about Ukraine’s future is between the West and Russia. Ukraine is treated as a passive object in this discussion – a battleground between regional powers. Some voices even ague that the international community should recognize the annexation of Crimea, stressing the need to take into consideration Russia’s interests in the post-Soviet space. It is also considered that Western involvement would only exacerbate Russia’s ‘sense of threat’, which has caused the crisis in the first place.
Implicit here is a stereotype of ‘Eastern Europe’ as a place where chaos, dysfunctional political systems, and territorial instability are commonplace. It also suggests an acceptance of the ‘unfortunate truth’ that places like Ukraine, which have been caught in a space between the West and Russia’s ‘sphere of influence,’ have little chance of full self-determination. Moreover, this logic runs, challenging this status quo would only result in war and disaster.
Coming form a country – Poland – that had been on the other side of the Iron Curtain, this discourse seems deceitful to me. Before 1989, few people in the West, and even in Poland itself, saw hope for substantial change. However, the Polish opposition movement Solidarity, joined by millions of people, eventually succeeded in bringing the communist government to conduct the first semi-free elections in 1989, and on the larger scale decisively contributed to the fall of Soviet-style communism in Europe. From this perspective it is difficult to accept the claim that the will of the people is powerless against larger geopolitical and economic forces.
This it not to say that popular will suffices. Incentives for change in Ukraine face a difficult battle against a corrupt domestic system and Russian interference. Equally, norms of democracy and good governance promoted by Western institution cannot be inserted in a state, which has not solved its fundamental problem of achieving full political sovereignty, nor that norm promotion can proceed without addressing geopolitics.
Nevertheless, the Maidan movement has made certain achievements. The EU-Ukraine association agreement was finally signed on June 27, 2014, and was simultaneously ratified by the Verkhovna Rada (Ukrainian national parliament) and the European Parliament on September 16, 2014. However, as a result of the conflict with Russia the establishment of the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area was delayed. The future of Ukraine’s territorial integrity is still uncertain, and both Ukrainian oligarchs and Russia are trying to prevent the emergence of a democratic and free Ukraine. Nevertheless, as one commentator put it, “twenty-five years after the Soviet oppression of Eastern Europe came to an end, a European people is once again fighting for self-determination. It is not just spheres of influence that are an issue here: it is also a question of people’s dignity”
Molly Krasnodębska is a PhD candidate in the Department of Politics and International Studies, University of Cambridge. Her research examines the role of the EU and NATO in the post-Cold War transformation of Eastern Europe.