It was a year or two before the Berlin Wall fell in 1989. I was sitting in the kitchen of a small, second-floor apartment in the Thuringian town of Ilmenau, when my friend’s mother turned pensive and pointed out the window to a hill nearby. In 1945, Frau Loebner explained, American soldiers arrived one day, pitched their tents and seemed to settle in. A few days later, Soviet soldiers arrived and did the same. A few days after that, the Americans left. Only later would this woman and her family discover that they had been fated to live their lives on the wrong side of the East-West German border.
In Ukraine today there seems to be an awareness for many that the country is at a turning point. There’s much talk of a divide between western and eastern Ukraine. But the so-called pro-Russian Eastern part—which comprises about a third of the nation’s territory—is more complicated than some commentators would have it.
In 1991, while support was indeed weaker there, all of Ukraine supported national independence. There’s no evidence today that eastern Ukraine wants to leave Ukraine to join the Russian Federation. There’s every indication across Ukraine of broad, if uneven and in some places shallow, support for Ukraine’s integration with Europe and the West.
Municipalities across Ukraine have been renaming streets to honor heroes of the Maidan. Businessmen in Donetsk in Eastern Ukraine are providing billboards—with the permission of local authorities—to honor the victims of the police crackdown in their area. Southeast of Kiev, the Dnipropetrovsk city council has renamed Lenin Square the Heroes of Maidan Square. One of the first people killed, before the major crackdown in February, was Serhiy Nihoyan, a Ukrainian of Armenian descent from the Dnipropetrovsk region. It seems to be a fairly diverse lot that supports this revolution. Ukrainian sociologist Iryna Bekeshkina has conducted surveys that indicate a majority of young people, including in eastern Ukraine, favor association with the EU. In “belonging to Europe,” young Ukrainians see for their future rule of law, freedom, and prosperity—and escape from corruption, cronyism, and authoritarian rule.
How do we help these young democrats? First, manage expectations. At the time of Ukraine’s “Orange Revolution” in late 2004, spirits soared. There was swooning among pundits and NGOs. George W. Bush spoke of a “powerful example of democracy for people around the world.” Soon, though, there was dismay over Kiev’s gridlocked parliament, deferred reforms, and the incompetence and corruption of Ukraine’s new Orange leadership.
There is no Vaclav Havel in Ukraine. Certainly not in the person of Yulia Tymoshenko, the multi-millionaire former prime minister, who came to prominence during the Orange Revolution and who was recently released after more than two years in prison. The charismatic and ambitious Tymoshenko was seen as a threat by the departed Yanukovych regime. But of Yulia today, the mantra among activists is, “We’re glad you’re out, now leave us alone.” Tymoshenko was actually booed while on stage at a rally in Kiev.
Ukraine’s opposition is not unified. The revolution is not over. And there will be nothing “velvet” about it. A new government will not find it easy to tear itself away from oligarch money and the corruption that is part and parcel of Ukrainian life at all levels. Bret Stephens asks in the Wall Street Journal, “How does a nation become self-governing when so much of ‘self’ is so rotten?” That may go too far. Still, investing in democratic reform in Ukraine will require sticking for the long-term, bracing for inevitable bumps, and accepting serious blemishes.
The first step? President Obama must get over what Peter Baker in the New York Times terms his “clinical detachment” toward Ukraine. The country needs emergency financial assistance if it’s to avoid economic collapse. The United States can help, including by pressing for much-needed economic reform. The administration certainly can augment democracy and civil society assistance to Kiev. Congress is already working to redirect $150 million in aid to democracy assistance in Ukraine. That’s a start. Freedom House president David Kramer says the greatest specific need may be to help Ukraine prepare for presidential elections at the end of May. The United States should insist, adds Kramer, that Ukrainians focus “on justice and not retribution” for former regime members.