As a Ukrainian living in Belgium, it seems like nowadays everyone is an expert on Ukrainian politics. At least many people are eager to say so. Yet when I ask people who have been there from the beginning and have witnessed the situation first-hand, they are hesitant to come to any quick or easy conclusions. I recently asked a friend of mine who is a journalist in Ukraine to recommend a good source of information; he said that “since the Russians shut down www.kommersant.ua –a previous source of high quality information- I have almost given up on reading internet sources covering Ukraine. The materials now are too focused on persuasion rather than information.”
While foreign media has been covering the most dramatic events, it seems to be business as usual for Ukrainian politics. The events of winter 2014 have caused some changes, but the core identifying features of Ukrainian politics remain. Politicians appear to be taking the opportunity to benefit where they can from the situation. As the country approaches parliamentary elections, there are a large number of young activists and media figures appearing on party lists in order to attract voters. At the same time, the names of politicians’ family members and business partners are also present. Politics in Ukraine unfortunately continues to represent business interests and family connections, rather than the public will.
As far as the mood of Ukrainian society is concerned, it is one of a country which is at war. It is not the war of ideas which it appeared to be as people stood at Maidan during the winter. It is now a war for territory, against an enemy whose origins and identity are not easily defined. When I speak to outsiders who didn’t witness the situation from the inside, I begin to have doubts about who the separatists are and whether they are people from inside or outside Ukraine. This is a harder question to answer than others that come up. From reading Ukrainian sources and speaking with people who are living inside the country, it seems the situation is less ambiguous. From Ukrainians, the sentiment I hear is that “We have to protect our territory from Russian powers”.
A friend who studied law with me in Kharkiv- her hometown- says that there are many more Ukrainian casualties than is being reported in the media. The Kharkiv regional authorities are unable to accept more internally displaced Ukrainians simply because they have run out of space. Residents have taken it open themselves to go to the railway station to receive the injured and take them to their own homes.
My opinion continues to change as the conflict develops. This might be because I am far from Ukraine and am influenced by the alternative sources of information that are presented to me here. I have never been supportive of war. It is something that I have never personally witnessed, nor would hope to. Yet now there is a war in my country and it is my friends and relatives who have to live with it. It is a reality for them, and they are reacting in their own unique way. That is not to say that any of them support the Russian powers. They don’t, but all of them have a different reaction to the situation. Some go as volunteers to the areas where there is military conflict to fight; some prefer to escape. I could not personally imagine fighting for my country or any other state. I know of war only from reading about it in history books and seeing it on the news. I never thought it would be so close to me.
As long as there are people in Ukraine who don’t want to fight, this needs to be respected. The EU has a responsibility to respect, promote and protect the rights of these people. Why? Since 2004, people in Ukraine have been campaigning for EU membership, and it is for this idea that many young people died in winter 2014. When a conflict of ideas leads to warfare, it always seems to become the responsibility of the young to take up arms in support of the state. In this sense, I completely understand those who decide to escape or avoid the conflict rather than following an order to go and fight. The purpose of Maidan was- for me- to promote democratic values, to promote a European way of thinking and living.
It is true that the younger generation of Ukrainians, especially from western Ukraine, have already been living and thinking as Europeans do for a long time. EU membership would serve to recognise this fact and strengthen the connection. It’s also true that for many, the main factor in support for EU membership is about the freedom to travel. The value of this freedom is incomparable when you consider the opportunity it gives to expand your horizons and see the freedom of possibilities in life. As a young person, I can see how vital this kind of freedom is. I am therefore deeply sad that my friends in Ukraine are deprived of it. The ongoing war has added to existing obstacles to obtaining a visa for travel. When the EU postponed the implementation of the Ukraine-EU Association Agreement, people in Ukraine were disappointed, as they felt increasingly isolated in protecting themselves against this invasion. In their eyes it is abundantly clear that Russia is an invader.
Olha Hruba is an intern at Human Rights Without Frontiers International
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