More than twelve years as an American living in the capital of Ukraine cause one to stop taking much notice of the daily inconveniences: power cuts, Internet outages, up and down currency exchange rates that are cause for exchanging only enough money to get through the next day, murderous traffic, collapsing infrastructure. These are some of the niceties that come with life in the less-than-fully-developed countries that are what most of the wrecked post-Soviet republics still remain more than 20 years after they became independent.
One aspect of life that I never got used to was the progressively disastrous and criminal governments that ran Ukraine for more than two decades. The Ukrainian people put up with this condition for years but the recently-deposed regime of President Viktor Yanukovych went too far. The collapsing economy, massive theft by the president’s immediate family and its cronies and other rampant banditry—even murder by individuals in public positions—was more like the behavior of a Third World kleptocracy than a state with pretensions of someday joining the European Union.
Yanukovych and his inner circle became “toxic,” as more than one commentator described it, and the population finally decided “enough is enough.” This has led to the toppling of Yanukovych’s government by the “EuroMaidan,” the name given to the encampment of determined protesters that occupied Kiev’s main Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square) after the Ukrainian leader did an abrupt about-face on November 21 in which he refused to sign an Associate Agreement with the EU—despite months of prior assurances that he had every intention of inking the deal.
A whole series of wonders both made the victory of the EuroMaidan possible, while others now jeopardize the future of Ukraine as a nation. As Yogi Berra famously said “predictions are difficult, particularly about the future,” and nothing has validated the truth inside that witticism more than the events in Ukraine that transformed the political landscape of the nation in a period of five days: 18-22 February.
Looking back on the seven wonders of Ukraine’s EuroMaidan revolution is a reminder of how the desire to be free of a barbaric leadership can move people to commit heroic acts that no one could previously imagine. But the toppling of Yanukovych’s criminal state apparatus is also a reminder of the inherent danger in coddling brutal dictatorships.
The first wonder is how the Ukrainian people so defiantly mobilized against Yanukovych. Many observers, myself among them, discounted the possibility of the population ever again standing in defiance of an undemocratic government. The demoralizing aftermath of the 2004-2005 Orange Revolution that ushered in the failed presidency of Viktor Yushchenko made many people cynical about ever changing their system of government. Yushchenko’s almost complete lack of effective leadership made it possible for his long-time nemesis, Yanukovych, to defeat him in his reelection bid in 2010.
In years of covering uprisings in the former USSR and Eastern Europe I never saw a people so heroically and selflessly engaged as they were in trying to unseat Yanukovych. Fighting with their bare hands people took to defending the Maidan in the way hordes of ordinary citizens dug anti-tank ditches around Soviet cities during the Second World War. The scenes I witnessed of people passing bricks bucket-brigade style to build barricades were those of a people who have earned their freedom.
The second wonder is the delusional and incompetent handling of this crisis by Yanukovych. At several points in the last three months, the Ukrainian president had opportunities to defuse the situation. Instead, his promises not to use violence against the protest camp in the centre of Kiev turned out to be lies. Attempts by the hated Berkut riot police to storm the barricades resulted not only in dozens of deaths but also served to bolster the determination of those in the square.
The third wonder is how in the process, Yanukovych so effectively paved the way for his own ruin. Sensing that there was no way to come to an accommodation with his government, the demands of the EuroMaidan escalated. In November they wanted the EU agreement signed, by December they were demanding a change in the constitution and early elections. By January they were calling for Yanukovych’s out-and-out removal. By February 20—following a night in which more than 80 protesters were killed by the Berkut—the chant in the square became “zeku smert” (death to the convict), a reference to the fact that Yanukovych served terms in prison during Soviet times.