How modern Ukraine was made on Maidan
As Ukraine marks three decades of independence, it is a country increasingly defined by the domestic pursuit of democracy rather than authoritarianism and a historic geopolitical diversion from Russia to Europe. These civilizational choices emerged most immediately during the two post-Soviet popular uprisings in Ukraine, the Orange Revolution of 2004 and the Euromaidan Revolution of 2013-14, both of which took place primarily in Kiev’s Independence Square, Maidan Nezalezhnosti. Indeed, it is no exaggeration to claim that modern Ukraine was literally made on Maidan.
Separated by nearly a decade, the two people’s power movements of independent Ukraine were sparked by different immediate causes, but shared the common goals of defending the country’s nascent democracy and preventing a return to authoritarianism in the Kremlin. Looking back, it is now clear that they played a crucial role in shaping the country’s national course, while also having a dramatic impact on the wider geopolitical climate.
In order to grasp the true meaning of the Maidan revolutions in Ukraine, it is crucial to understand what kind of country Ukraine was on the eve of the first uprising in 2004. During the first thirteen years of independence, Ukraine had done surprisingly little efforts to break decisively with the Soviet past. Instead, many Soviet-era officials remained in office, while reminders of Soviet authority continued to dominate public spaces across the country, often awkwardly seated alongside the recently erected symbols of the Ukrainian state. Tellingly, a giant Soviet hammer and sickle emblem continued to loom over Independence Square in the heart of Kiev until 2003.
In terms of politics, business and culture, Ukraine before the Orange Revolution was still in many ways almost indistinguishable from Russia. This blurring of borders was so pronounced that the second post-Soviet president of Ukraine, Leonid Kuchma, even felt pressured in 2003 to publish a book called “Ukraine is not Russia”.
As Ukraine’s fourth independent presidential election approached in the closing months of 2004, the country appeared to be approaching a major historic crossroads. Would Ukraine finally break with the Soviet past, or join Russia in rejecting the dysfunctional democracy of the 1990s and returning to authoritarian stability?
Russian President Vladimir Putin was so confident in his ability to influence the outcome of the Ukrainian presidential vote that he even came to Kiev and lectured Ukrainians on the need to support his chosen candidate. This was to prove a dramatic miscalculation, sparking outrage from many previously apolitical Ukrainians who felt their country’s regained independence was in jeopardy.
Putin’s blunder was one of many factors that served to generate an unprecedented wave of popular opposition to the Ukrainian authorities and their attempts to rig the country’s presidential election. In the days following the deeply flawed vote in Ukraine in November 2004, huge crowds flooded into central Kiev to express their opposition. The Orange Revolution was underway.
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The most immediate result of the Orange Revolution was the victory of opposition candidate Viktor Yushchenko in the new presidential election of 2004, but the impact of the uprising was felt far beyond the ballot box.
The Orange Revolution confirmed Ukraine’s democratic credentials and set it on a divergent path towards the increasingly authoritarian Russia of Vladimir Putin. In the sixteen years since the Orange Revolution, Ukraine has staged eight national votes without ever seeing a return to the kind of political repression and electoral fraud that remains rampant elsewhere in the former USSR. Instead, free and fair elections have become the norm, along with peaceful transfers of power. This has helped to strengthen notions of European identity within Ukrainian society while deepening the feeling of psychological separation from Russia.
The Orange Revolution was also a turning point for Ukrainian media. Prior to the November 2004 protests, Ukraine’s mainstream media were under tight control by government censors who largely dictated the news agenda. As the scale of public support for the protests became impossible to ignore, channel after channel broke with the authorities and began to broadcast objective coverage of events unfolding on Maidan. No subsequent Ukrainian government has been able to squeeze the genius of a free press into the bottle.
Ukraine’s information space is of course still far from perfect. Like the entire party political system in the country, the media landscape continues to suffer from undue influence from the oligarchs and is prone to corruption. Nevertheless, the events of winter 2004 marked a turning point in the transition from centralized state censorship to media pluralism. This has had a profound effect on Ukrainian society as a whole, shaping the way the country sees itself and creating fertile ground for the consolidation of a vibrant civil society.
In the years following the Orange Revolution, euphoria gradually gave way to disillusionment as Viktor Yushchenko struggled to meet the high expectations raised by the 2004 protests. This created an opportunity for pro-Kremlin forces to make a comeback and ultimately helped Orange Revolution villain Viktor Yanukoych win the 2010 presidential election in the country. However, the revival of Russian fortunes in Ukraine was to prove short-lived.
At the end of 2013, when Yanukovych tried to reverse his earlier commitment to sign an association agreement with the European Union, crowds once again took to the streets of Kiev. A muscular response from the increasingly authoritarian Yanukovych administration then quickly turned these protests into a full-fledged revolution. At the beginning of December 2013, the second great Maidan movement of the post-Soviet era in Ukraine was underway.
While the Orange Revolution had been remarkably peaceful, the Euromaidan Revolution, as it became known, eventually spiraled into violence as repeated repressions by the authorities drew a militant response from protesters. By the time President Yanukovych fled to Russia in late February 2014, more than a hundred people had been killed.
More than seven years later, the Euromaidan revolution remains a controversial subject. Ukraine officially commemorates the victims as martyrs and holds annual vigils in their honor, while streets and squares across the country have been renamed in recognition of their sacrifice. Public opinion towards the uprising is less direct and cannot be easily separated from the trauma of the ongoing war with Russia, which was initiated by the Kremlin in direct response to the events in Kiev and began just days after the sinister climax of the revolution. However, while attitudes towards the Euromaidan revolution may differ, no one would question the historical significance of the uprising.
Like its 2004 predecessor, the Euromaidan revolution underscored Ukraine’s European choice and cemented the country’s rejection of a Russian meeting. Importantly, in the months following the revolution, the spirit of Maidan gave the Ukrainians the courage to retaliate against the Kremlin forces and prevent the partition of Ukraine. It is no coincidence that many of the makeshift volunteer battalions created to oppose the Russian invasion of spring 2014 came directly from veterans of the Maidan barricades.
As Ukraine celebrates 30 years as a state, it is possible to identify echoes of Maidan across the country and far beyond. The undeclared Russian-Ukrainian war, which Putin started in the spring of 2014 because of his fear of a Moscow Maidan, is now in its eighth year. More than 14,000 Ukrainians have been killed in the conflict, while Crimea and parts of eastern Ukraine remain under occupation by the Kremlin. Despite this tragic cost, Russian aggression has failed to derail Ukrainian democracy. On the contrary, the country has held a number of highly competitive presidential and parliamentary elections since the fighting began.
Meanwhile, Russia’s broader geopolitical response to the Euromaidan revolution has plunged the world into a new cold war that is expected to continue as long as Russian troops remain in Ukraine. Every new Russian assassination, cyberattack, disinformation campaign or act of electoral interference in the world can be traced back to Kiev’s central plaza.
Ukraine’s two Maidan movements have had a decisive impact on the country’s democratic development and nation-building efforts. They gave Ukrainians a sense of control over their own destiny while helping to foster a distinctive national narrative. This allowed Ukrainian society to overcome the political passivity and shared identities of the Soviet past. While Putin continues to insist that Russians and Ukrainians are “one people”, the Maidan revolutions in Ukraine offer compelling evidence that the two countries are actually very different and are now moving in totally opposite directions.
Peter Dickinson is editor-in-chief of the UkraineAlert service at the Atlantic Council.
Tue 11 May 2021
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The opinions expressed in UkraineAlert are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Atlantic Council, its staff or its supporters.
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