Something extraordinary happened in the frigid streets of Kyiv during the last winter. Amid the cracked cobblestones and the snow-packed bags of the barricades, between the lines of police and protesters, a national idea began to crystallize.
That idea was soon articulated in the Maidan slogan “Ukraina – tse Yevropa.” The grammar of this phrase is telling. It does not mean “Ukraine is part of Europe” but “Ukraine IS Europe.” It is the idea that Ukraine not only aspires to the principles that the EU is supposed to espouse – democracy, the rule of law, fairness and equality – but that after a generation of independence, these principles (which indeed have long been understood and to some extent practiced in the past in Ukraine) have now been sufficiently inculcated in Ukrainian society for the country to finally shrug off the legacy of Soviet-style government, and take its rightful place in the ranks of “normal” European countries. It is the idea that Ukraine itself embodies “Europeanness.”
It is a powerful idea, and so, of course, a threatening one to those who do not share it. Within Ukraine, it meets most resistance from the people of the east, many of whom still yearn for the stability of the Soviet era. Further to the east, in Russia, with its “managed democracy,” the idea is an anathema. One of the core elements of this idea, the principle of the Maidan – that any people have it within their power, without help from outside, to overthrow an autocratic regime - is a very menacing one for those who love, and live by, authoritarianism. That is why the Maidan movement is vilified in Moscow, and the Kyiv government is branded fascist – the most frightful mark Moscow can brand a foe with, as the Russian psyche still bears severe scars from the experience of its “Patriotic War” against Nazi Germany.
Even in the West, there are some who also quibble at the idea of Ukraine becoming a fully-fledged European state. Stuck with 19th and 20th century geopolitical memes that insist that Ukraine was, is, and will forever be a buffer state between Europe proper and Russia, they want to embrace Ukraine’s European aspirations but at the same time keep the country at arm’s length, fearing the Kremlin’s anger at interference in Russia’s sphere of influence.
Such fears are overblown. In reality, Ukraine need be no more of a buffer state than is Finland, or the Baltic countries – all of whom share a border with Russia. Of course, Ukraine can never escape its geography, but it can escape its history. It will always be neighbors with Russia, but it need not in future be in its thrall, as it has been in centuries past. Proof of this can be seen in the painful but rapid cleansing process the Ukrainian body politic is currently undergoing. The criminal gang that ran the country from 2010 is on the run – the country’s fourth president will never be able to set foot in Kyiv again, or so it is to be hoped. His Party of Regions has been gutted, and its leaders in exile or in the sights of the prosecutor general. A new, Western-oriented president has been elected with a convincing mandate. Ukraine, in the space of just six months, has greatly changed.
There is only one thing now that can stop Ukraine shedding its old Soviet skin and emerging as a European state – the Moscow-backed insurgency in the east. But all is far from lost on that front. While it is true that the country’s easternmost oblasts are currently wracked with lawlessness and violence, Kyiv has managed to contain the separatists, preventing the spread of instability to other vulnerable regions, and even managing to turn back the secessionist tide in Kharkiv oblast. The anti-terrorist operation, despite some setbacks and a dreadful cost in lives, is gaining momentum and winning back ground. If control of the borders in Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts can be restored, the insurgents will be surrounded, and their rebellion slowly strangled.
But after winning back the land in the east, Kyiv will then have to win back the minds of the people in the east, which have been deliberately and systematically poisoned against it. To do that will require those in the eastern regions to become properly acquainted with the national idea that has formed in the rest of Ukraine.
This need not be as hard as it might sound. Whenever the people of the east are asked whether they want to remain as part of Ukraine, the majority say “yes” (this was even the case in Crimea.) They are as sick of the corruption, the money-politics, the stagnation and the despair that has plagued Ukraine since independence as everyone else in the county is. It’s just that to cure it, they looked to the past, to the Soviet system, rather than to the future, to Europe. It will take time to turn them around, but it can be done.
So long after the last shots are fired in the Donbas insurgency, Ukraine will still be battling away to win back the hearts and minds of its eastern population. It will need its new national idea to bind its wounds and draw out the venom pumped into it by Russia. It will need the European Union to nurture the country’s Europeanness with financial and political support. Brussels must provide this, not just because the fractious EU itself also needs Ukraine’s national idea to maintain its own unity, but simply because now Ukraine IS Europe: it is an idea, and as the Ukrainians have shown, it is an idea that people will fight for.