Between East and West: Myroslav Marynovych on the struggle for democracy in Ukraine

Myroslav Marynovych is a noted writer, public intellectual and human rights activist in Ukraine. In 1977, Marynovych was arrested because of his human rights advocacy and charged with anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda. He was sentenced to 7 years of hard labor and 5 years in exile. After his release, Marynovych went on to found Amnesty International Ukraine as well as the Institute of Religion and Society in L’viv, Ukraine. He is an author and the recipient of international awards, degrees and fellowships from Columbia University (USA) and the World Council of Churches (Switzerland) among others. He currently serves as vice rector of the Ukrainian Catholic University in L’viv, Ukraine.

Marynovych discusses below the social, cultural and historical roots of the Ukrainian “Maidan” (pronounced ‘My-don’) movement and what is at stake regarding its success or failure—especially regarding recent developments in Crimea. Marynovych insists that the Maidan movement must be considered in light of Ukraine’s role as a potential mediator between eastern and western European civilizations. In the end, Marynovich considers this democratic struggle as having organic roots within a uniquely Ukrainian historical identity—a fact that both baffles Brussels and terrifies Moscow.

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With regard to the Kremlin’s reaction to the Ukrainian “Maidan” movement, what do you think were the broader motivations and goals behind the invasion and incorporation of Crimea?

This is part of the plan that was developed much earlier in the Kremlin. Nevertheless, at first, there was a different tactic: instead of subduing Ukraine militarily, as was the case with Georgia in 2008, the plan was to subdue Ukrainians by the hands of Ukrainian government itself. Since Viktor Yanukovych became president of Ukraine in 2010, there has been an uninterrupted, systematic dismantling of democracy and signs of independence. As of last autumn of 2013, we essentially had an authoritarian regime with a puppet parliament and judiciary as well as a paralyzed media that was bribed into supporting the regime. Then, the watershed moment occurred earlier last fall. The West was deceivedwith Yanukovych’s promises to sign the association agreement with the European Union in what became an overture to a sort of political blitzkrieg.

By rejecting the European Union as “insufficiently profitable” for Ukraine, it set the stage for the lightening-fast agreement to begin Ukraine’s incorporation into Russia’s Eurasian Custom’s Union. Thus, it was the restoration of the old Soviet Union. The “Maidan movement,” on account of its resistance and sacrifice, diverted these plans. So, instead of Putin's long awaited (Eurasian Customs) Union, he suddenly became fixated on the'Maidan' of pro-European Ukraine, which stands at the point, once again, of signing an agreement of association with the European Union. So, the plans had to be re-drawn. As Putin considers it, Europe does not want to incorporate a severely broken state and society. So Putin's goal is to stop the entry of Ukraine into the European orbit by removing its opportunities for it to become a successful, European state.

What did the Maidan movement reveal about the current situation of civil society in post-Soviet Ukraine? Has there been a genuine maturation over the past 22 years of Ukrainian independence?

On one aspect, civil society in Ukraine was always underdeveloped—stronger than in Russia and Belarus, but it was not strong enough as to allow for the type of transformation that took place in Poland and the Czech Republic. So we found ourselves in between the two extremes. The Maidan is a very important school and test for civil society. Let’s compare now with the Orange Revolution in 2004. Then, the most popular slogan to shout was “YU-SHEN-KO! YU-SHEN-KO!” A person. A leader. A political messiah. A person who would transform everything. Our task is to elect a popular president—then it is his task to establish a better life for us. This not the case now. No leader. No name to be shouted out. Only Ukraine, the Ukrainian Anthem, the general idea, and, most importantly, values.

We didn't speak about values in 2004. Now it is commonplace. It is very obvious that we need to stand for values. This is a huge step in the development of civil society because now there is no political messiah, but only the proper model for the country. The main symbol of that maturation can be found in the main slogan of the Maidan—“It’s not enough to change the people in the power, we have to change the system of power.”

On different occasions, you have referred to the reality of the two, different civilizations within Ukraine. What are the specific aspects of Ukrainian society that have allowed the Maidan movement to emerge?

Before Ukraine entered the Czarist Empire, it had the phenomenon of the “Maidan.” Actually, all Hetmans, all leaders of the country, were chosen at Maidans—this was a phenomenon that was present since the period of Kyivan Rus’ of the 10 and 11th centuries. For example, all Hetmans and all leaders had to kneel before the people. So it is very clearly a feature of the culture that was not represented during the Soviet Empire because it was suppressed by the Russian model of organizing the country. And now, 20 years into the independence of Ukraine, this feature of Ukrainian culture is re-established. You had such gatherings of people in Ukrainian history—not in Russia. In Russia, autocrats destroy, kill, et cetera

Yes, like Ivan the Terrible.

Yes [laughing]. And it is very interesting to see Russia's reaction to that, as history is present as well. Because Ivan the Terrible suppressed the Kyivan model within Russia—Novgorod was part of Kyivan Rus’ and it was of the “Kyivan” culture—a culture of dialogue, a culture of the “Maidan.” Then, Moscow suppressed Novgorod and established a very effective dictatorship. Today, Putin represents this Muscovite culture. And Putin is desperately, desperately afraid of this Ukrainian or “Kyivan” model emerging once again because this is a challenge for him. The challenge for many Russians who would say, "Oh, wait a minute, the system which we have is not the only one that is possible in this part of the world. Of course, we understand that we cannot live according to the American, French, or German standards. But, well, this is in our part of the world. So, if Ukraine is successful in managing itself, then it is an example for us." That is why Putin is so afraid of Ukraine. Because this is a new model in his “territory,” so to speak, his “civilization.”

And what about the western European perspective?

I remember a few years ago, I appealed to my European colleagues saying that the typical European attitude toward Ukraine was, “Oh, it is a troublemaker for Europe—Ukraine doesn't allow us to deal with Russia according to our style.” But the fact is that it is Ukraine that tries to find solutions for the typical European task. What is the typical European task? If you have different opinions, to find a solution for that—collaboration, dialogue, and so on. So, Ukraine has two different parts—its two major parts of the society oriented to different directions—different civilizations. We have to find a solution for that. And what we hear from the typical democratic countries—we hear the phrase, which was expressed by Romano Prodi: first, that Ukraine will never join the European Union, then it is Ukraine who has to decide with whom it will be. But, Ukraine cannot give this immediate answer. Because we would be able to give that answer only if we suppress one part of Ukraine for the sake of the other. For example, if we suppress the western part, the answer is to Russia. Or if we suppress the eastern part, then the answer is to the West. But is that the democratic solution? The point is that we cannot play a zero-sum game—it is forbidden for us. Yet, both Russia and to some extent, Europe are expecting this from us.

What does the world need to know about someone like former president Viktor Yanukovych and the system that he represented in Ukraine?

Viktor Yanukovych, himself, is not so interesting and is not worthwhile to be thought of, so to say. But what is important is to understand is that there is a network, or “brotherhood,” with Putin and Belarus’s Lukashenko and that it is dangerous for the world. Because the Soviet Union in its last stages was a rather controlled system—it was predictable to some extent. This system of bandits, this system of people without any limits, moral limits, is very dangerous. And I would say that this is the consequence of the fact that Soviet Communism was not classified as a misanthropic system after the fall. And now, for us, Putin is Hitler of 1933-1935. It's the same feeling of revenge, the same feeling of “we will show them…” And it will be his pleasure that he showed the whole world that he was successful in getting Ukraine back and one year more and he will re-establish a great empire with the same wounded emotions as it was with Hitler’s Germany. So it’s not just an occasional situation, “well we will look, we will see and maybe Medvedev will come and things will be better.” No, No, No.

Yes, the West soon found out that the Medvedev-liberal moment was a short-lived farce.

Right. This situation is very clearly dangerous for the whole world. There is a moment that security means the ability to struggle for values. Because if you think only about security seconded by values, you will lose sooner or later just as Europe lost its initial opportunity to stop Hitler. After that, values do become important and people struggle for them. Then, it is successful. And so, this is the wrong system of security. It has to be reconsidered. You know, it was funny for me when they said about that “reset” for Russian-U.S. relations. It was extremely, maybe, idealistic… Or maybe it was just wrong….

In the last few weeks, we have witnessed a people's movement in Ukraine that has managed, on its own, to drive a corrupt regime out of power. Given Russian maneuvering at the moment, what is at stake for the Ukrainian Maidan movement, Europe, and the world as a result of Russian aggression?

On one hand, Putin's aggression has triggered an incredible rise in Ukrainian patriotism and solidarity. However, we can never underestimate the dangers present here. The peaceful resistance of Ukrainian troops in the Crimea became a sign of temporary success of those who were not overcome by such provocations. However, the psychological pressure on these soldiers is immense and we should not simply expect that it would continue so peacefully. While the guns are silent now, it is necessary to speak loudly of the propaganda games. Otherwise, such peaceful resistance is likely to fail. In the eastern regions of Ukraine, we know that numerous armed “volunteers” have crossed the border from Russia in order to sow fear and provocation in local communities. The work of these “volunteers” shows the same handwriting of Yanukovych's government-hired thugs (“Titushki”), who committed so many atrocities against the people of the Maidan in Kyiv over the previous weeks. Moreover, I do not rule out that through a well-financed information war against Ukraine, it may be possible for the Kremlin to change the mood in the West. Fortunately, it seems that only in the last few days that the West has begun to realize the Kremlin’s threat and is planning to consolidate its ranks as well as re-think its policy toward Russia. In this sense, Putin not only united Ukraine, but the entire West. Putin can still inflict great amounts of damage and human tragedy and we should always be aware of that. But in the long-term, I think he has already sealed his own fate.

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