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How To Read Ukraine
Symbols and Side Notes in Kiev

As the world holds its breath, wondering if, when, and how Vladimir Putin will intervene in Eastern Ukraine, a different kind of drama is unfolding in Kiev. Kiev’s new mayor and former darling of the Maidan uprising, Vitaly Klitschko, today ordered the Maidan Nezalezhnosti (“Independence Square”), the site of the protests that brought down President Viktor Yanukovych earlier this year, to be cleared of the remaining encamped protesters, demonstrators, and shrines to the fallen. Nothing, it seems, went according to plan.

The Kyiv Post reports:

The Kyiv Post saw volunteer Kyiv-1 and Kyiv-2 military battalions, whom the protesters called “Klitschko’s people,” [emphasis ours–TAI] accompanying the city workers. They are subordinated to the Interior Ministry and are comprised mostly from former EuroMaidan self-defense units. Kyiv-2 battalion later retreated to Prorizna Street and is currently awaiting orders. They do not give official comments, but unofficially they say their job is to peacefully clear Khreshchatyk Street for traffic.

After the attempt to clear the place began on Aug. 7, protesters started throwing cobblestones at the volunteer battalions and municipal workers and setting tires on fire, using the same defense tactics that were used during the revolution. Maidan Nezalezhnosti metro station was forced to close for exit because of fires and fights, a company spokesman said. Several tents that once stood near the intersection of Prorizna and Khreshchatyk Streets were set on fire as well.

Klitschko is clearly trying to do the unglamorous work of governing a city. He is being responsive to the apparently large part of the electorate that thinks the current Maidan residents are illegitimate opportunists with little to no connection to the revolution. And indeed, the encampments appear to be a legitimate public nuisance and a traffic problem.

But at the same time, these are some unfortunate optics. Though on a much smaller scale, Klitschko has suffered the same setback as the previous government. And the details of how the authorities are going about all this should be at least somewhat troubling. The “military batallions” tasked with the clearing are perceived to be subordinated to a single politician rather than to the state, and are themselves comprised of former revolutionaries.

And beyond all this is an even grimmer economic reality. The Wall Street Journal:

After the exuberance of last winter’s protests that brought down a pro-Russia president, Ukrainians are being confronted with the increasingly stark human and economic costs of making themselves more independent from the giant neighbor to the east.

“People survived a serious emotional high,” said Oleksandr Danyliuk, a senior official in the administration of the new president, Petro Poroshenko. “Now the withdrawal is setting in.”

Ukraine’s economy shrank 4.7% in the second quarter compared with a year before, the government said last week. The government has announced a “war tax” of 1.5% to fund the military effort, which Ukrainian media have criticized for leaving soldiers woefully underequipped. And Kiev has drafted tens of thousands of Ukrainians to join the fight, making the war hit home in a new way for families across the country.

The question that too few in the West seem to be thinking about is this: Even if the military operations in the east go as best as possible, and even if Putin somehow plays ball, does Ukraine have the social and political and institutional structures necessary to build a real state? Or is this simply another historical chapter in which corrupt oligarchs hold the power that has always been theirs? Lots of commentators said Ukraine’s Orange Revolution was a sure sign of liberal hope too. And the Maidan protests are not so different from those in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, where Western observers blithely assumed the new order would blossom into an open society if given sufficient room to grow.

It is easy to root for a revolution against someone like Yanukovych. But revolution is much easier than real governance and state-building, the day-to-day drudgery of maintaining a tax system and holding free elections and a operating a transparent court system and doing all of the other things it takes to imbue citizens with a sense of confidence that things will work, by and large, as they are supposed to. As worthy of coverage and attention as the 21st century’s first land war in Europe is, the media and its consumers need to pay more attention to the real political and economic circumstances of the Ukrainian people if they want to understand what’s happening there.

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  • Andrew Allison

    The fallout from the West’s ill-conceived effort to bring Ukraine into the orbit of the EU continues apace. This may go down in history as the most monumental mistake since Yalta.

  • lukelea

    Those “military batallions” mentioned in the article, are they the same right-wing nationalist militants who helped bring down the elected government?

  • Duperray

    2004 orange revolution against pro-soviet oligarchs made no dead. Remeber this. Then the new president west minded, with his oligarchs friends, was ousted 5 years later. Then a pro-russian president was elected and himself and oligarchs friend were ousted las february, with about a hundred dead inclusive those killed by foreign mercenaries shooting from buidings’ top.
    Now a half elected president, under full west control (his office should better located in White House) sustains a heavy war against his population for 4 months, with 1200 dead at minimum and no end.
    In case Kiev succeeds to smash east milicia, be sure that Donbass population will pay a further heavy toll for “having assisted milicians”, which means gas and electricity shortages, heavy tax and so on. Revolt will never cease.
    It seems that this unfortunate Ukraine population flip flop from pro-russian oligarchs to pro-west oligarchs, the latter including soon Biden’s son!
    What is the difference between a western billionnaire and a ukrainian/russian oligarch? I dont see any, excepts that only Kiev-sided oligarchs own their private Army….. This is a Middle-Age concept, never occuring in Americas that Washington present (unsupported policy) approves!
    It is time for US population to wake up and defend US Constitutional Rights.

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