Report debate ‘Unrest in Ukraine’

In Ukraine, tensions between the people on the street and the current government are increasing every day. Demonstrations have turned deadly and hundreds have been injured as demonstrators clash with the `Berkut` the riot police. Currently, president Yanukovich is put under pressure by the outraged people, by the European Union, and even by the Russian president Putin. Even though the media have been reporting greatly on the unrest, many things remained unclear. Foundation Max van der Stoel figured it was time for a debate.

In the grand hall of the Aaron-church, about a 100 people gathered on Wednesday 29 January to talk about what is happening, and what the future could entail. Marina Ohanjanyan, project manager Eastern Europe at FMS, started by giving a brief overview of the events that have led up to Euromaidan, or the wave of demonstrations. It became clear that four main parties are central to this unrest: the Ukrainians themselves, the current Ukrainian government, the EU, Russia. In the debate the relations between these parties and all they could do to change the situation were discussed by Ohanjanyan, John Stienen, Ukraine expert, Thijs Berman, Member of the European Parliament, Alex Romaniuc, expert on Ukraine, democracy, governance and civic engagement, Arjen Berkvens, director of FMS and moderator, and the engaged audience, many of whom were Ukrainian themselves.

‘Will Yanukovich resign?’
Central to the discussion were three themes: possible scenarios, problems that need to be overcome in Ukraine, and the role of the EU. As the developments are changing every hour, the panel found it difficult to sketch future scenarios. What will happen to Yanukovich and the opposition? The audience was sceptic: will Yanukovich really resign? And if so, will it change the political culture that seems to perpetuate the problems Ukraine is facing? Romaniuc and Stienen pointed out that there was indeed more to it than the resignation of Yanukovich: he surely needs to go, but the remaining politicians really have to set up a dialogue with all Ukrainians. Some attention is then devoted to the apparent East-West divide. The panel points out that this is more complicated than it seems. The demonstrations are also spreading to the eastern parts, and, as Romaniuc stresses, they now have to push through in order to ignite change. Indeed, protesters outside Kiev face graver dangers because of the lack of international journalists covering those demonstrations. Demonstrations continue however, despite the higher risks.

ukraine debateCycle of political disillusionment
The similarities between the Orange Revolution in 2004 and the demonstrations that are happening now are mentioned multiple times. A woman from the audience wondered why the history of Ukraine seems to be cyclical in this respect: people are protesting and demanding the fulfilment of their democratic rights, expectations rise high, some reforms are subsequently taken, and then everything quietly fizzles out. The Orange Revolution did, in the end, not result in sustainable changes of the political culture that were needed in Ukraine. After Yuschenko failed to meet those high expectations, Yanukovich did not even seem to have tried to improve the political and economic situation in the country. Romaniuc puts it more strongly even: according to him, democracy in Ukraine was hijacked by a ‘nexus of criminals’, and it was about time people started to fight back. What is then needed to get out of this cycle of political disillusionment?

Romaniuc is very clear in this: massive reforms are needed in both the political and economic sphere to come to real change and improvement. The civilians themselves need to take the responsibility ‘to shape the new Ukraine’. A national dialogue – as there should never be any talk of ‘two Ukraines’ – is needed, as well as a U-turn in the process of democratisation: not the politicians, but the people should take the lead. Nothing will change if Yanukovich is thrown out and some other politician would take his place. If the people all engage in this national dialogue, however, actual reforms can be made. The wide-spread corruption could only then be battled. Romaniuc also urged that it was necessary to form truth and reconciliation committees, inspired by those in South Africa, in order to come to the bottom of things and figure out where and how it all went wrong.

Role of the EU
The audience pointed out, however, that the EU also has a role to play. Many were not sure whether the EU is doing enough. The U.S. already issued sanctions; why is the EU still waiting? Romaniuc argued that targeted sanctions are needed. Berman stressed, however, that it is currently very difficult to make a harsh stance. If Catherine Ashton, the EU Foreign Policy and Relations Chief, would encourage the demonstrators too much, it could backfire on the protesters, since it is already suggested that the demonstrations are incited and supported by foreign interests, not by the Ukrainians themselves. Anti-Russian statements could provoke an unpredictable but ruthless reaction from Putin, whom Berman described as a ‘wounded bear’. Berman, though very much in favour of a solution to this crisis that will benefit the Ukrainians the most, underlined the importance of treating Russia and the current Ukrainian leaders as serious partners that need to be incorporated when discussing solutions. The EU could be more creative with their sanctions, however, as Ohanjanyan indicated. Specific trade treaties could help immensely, just as it did in Moldavia for example. Stienen added that positive measures could and should be taken to stimulate trade and other exchanges with Ukraine. And, as Romaniuc pointed out, a political signal does not cost any money. If the EU would indicate that EU-membership is possible for Ukraine, without even having to give a timeframe, the Ukrainians could already draw hope from that.  When this would happen in combination with a process of democratisation that is incited by the people, not the politicians, things would turn for the better in Ukraine.

These different suggestions and opinions fuelled the debate. It became clear that much is still to be said, and that much can still be done. FMS will therefore carefully monitor the developments, and if the developments ask for another debate, you are again cordially invited to join us and discuss the possible solutions to the problems that Ukraine is facing.

By Merel Berkelmans

Foundation Max van der Stoel - 29 January 2014


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