For a third month now, tens of thousands of Ukrainians are continuing to demonstrate on the frozen streets of Kyiv, hoping that their voices will be heard by their own government and by governments and political leaders around the world. Many of them are living in tents on the city’s main square, popularly known as the Maidan. On weekends they are joined by hundreds of thousands of citizens of Ukraine’s capital. Although riot police have repeatedly been used against the protesters, and temperatures have fallen below zero (not only Celsius, but also Fahrenheit), they refuse to leave the city center. Three of them have been killed by as yet unidentified gunmen, more have been kidnapped, dozens are missing, and hundreds have been arrested. And yet they refuse to leave.
What do they want? The first of them went into the streets of Kyiv on November 26, 2013, when their government, after months of false promises to its own people and to the member nations of the European Union, refused to sign an association agreement with the EU and moved toward closer cooperation with Russia, which wants to see Ukraine in the Moscow-led Customs Union. Many citizens of the tent city, called the “territory of freedom,” say that they are staying to uphold values—that is, European values—and to protest their government’s repeated attempts to suppress their demonstration by the use of force.
But what do European values mean to Ukrainians at a time when many in the EU itself have become disillusioned with the Union? And are those values shared by the majority of citizens of Ukraine? According to a poll conducted by the Center for Social and Marketing Research (Sotsis), if a referendum were held today, 55 percent of Ukrainians would vote in favor of their country’s joining the EU. A poll conducted in April 2013 by the Razumkov Center, an independent Ukrainian think tank, tells us what Ukrainians find most attractive about the European option.
Not surprisingly, as the rhetoric and demands of the protesters show, it is not the economic benefits of joining the financially troubled European Union but something that should indeed be regarded as a commitment to values. Fifty-two percent of Ukrainians believe that an association agreement with the EU would strengthen their country’s democracy, with less than 20 percent believing that Ukraine’s democratic system would benefit from joining the Customs Union. Thirty-eight percent of Ukrainians have high hopes that association with the EU will help combat the country’s rampant corruption. Only 15 percent believe that association with Russia could do the same.
Ukrainians want to establish European standards of transparency and fair play in their country. Many of them are prepared to stay and, if necessary, to die on the cold streets of Kyiv to achieve that goal. In their quest for Western values, they deserve the support of the West. After all, what is happening in Kyiv is a test not only of the readiness of Ukrainian society to change itself, but also of the commitment of the West to its own values.
Professor of History
Director, Ukrainian Research Institute