A year ago, you could take a weekend stroll through Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine, admiring the city’s baroque architecture and watching teenagers skating near the fountains. Back then, Kyiv seemed nothing but a vibrant European city with art events and universities, and a hub for international business companies. But even at that time you could tell something was amiss in Kyiv and in Ukraine. It was challenging to get a university degree without paying bribes. Winning a court case with no high-level contacts was complicated. And it was virtually impossible to start a business without getting a list of permits that demanded off the record cooperation with a long and tangled chain of decision makers.
Now, after protests that have escalated to violent confrontation with dozens of people being killed and missing, the city has visibly changed. Its Independence square, or the “Maidan” as it is called in Ukrainian, has become a last stand for protesters. Buildings have been consumed by fire. Roofs are occupied by snipers shooting freely at people below. City transport and communications are paralyzed.
At least we can see the situation clearly now. The protesters are voicing problems that have been plaguing Ukraine for the past years. They ask why the President quietly changed the Constitution to get control over the cabinet of ministers and law enforcement. They oppose arrests of innocent people and the lavish lifestyle of top government officials with shady income in a country where an average annual salary is less than $5,000 U.S. dollars.
The government has shown its true colors. President Viktor Yanukovych’s reluctance to sign the agreement with the EU revealed his untrustworthiness and desire to use the country as a source for his own profits instead of implementing economic reforms. His orders for the police to shoot protesters demonstrate total disregard of human life and citizens’ rights. And the police’s enthusiasm to hire thugs to attack activists and journalists removes all pretense of civility.
But also now the best in people can be seen, too. Protesters who stay on the streets knowing that the police snipers shoot randomly, elderly ladies who bring warm home-made soups to squares and hospitals, volunteers who help care about the injured, search for the missing and utilize social media to inform the public about current needs and events – all make me feel proud.
These people – women and men, students and entrepreneurs, artists and software developers – are labeled terrorists, if you listen to the official statements of Ukrainian state security. If you read a twisted version of the events in some media, you can see every protester portrayed as an aggressive radical. For me, they are just the people of Ukraine, the people I respect. And I believe that they can win over cruelty, corruption, and injustice.
Iryna Fedets, at Visiting Senior Policy Analyst for Economic Freedom in Europe and Central Asia in the Center for International Trade and Enterprise at The Heritage Foundation, has lived in Ukraine most of her life. She remains in touch with family and friends during the current crisis.