JUST ABOUT any self-respecting modern protest movement will claim to be a revolution. What happened in Ukraine in 2014 is one of the few worthy of the label. It ushered in a transformation of Ukraine’s society and state that is both deeply ambitious and tragically incomplete. It is a national project that continues to this day, and though its imperfections leave many Ukrainians disillusioned, its successes frighten Vladimir Putin. As the Russian president ponders an invasion, he threatens the gains made by Ukraine over the past eight years. What are those, exactly?
The first victory came when protesters at Maidan square in Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital, ousted a thuggish Russian-backed president, Viktor Yanukovych. In four years Mr Yanukovych and his friends looted around $100bn from a country with an economy the size of Nebraska’s. Leaned on by Mr Putin, in 2013 Mr Yanukovych abandoned Ukraine’s Association Agreement with the EU—a framework for closer economic ties—and moved to join its Russian-led rival. Mr Yanukovych ordered police to shoot protesters who opposed him. In the chaos, bonds formed. For the first time at Maidan “a huge number of people learned to trust each other”, according to Kebuladze Vakhtang, a philosopher. When the crowds swelled further, Mr Yanukovych fled to Russia. So began Ukraine’s “Revolution of Dignity”.
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Since it gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 Ukraine had played Russia and the West off against one another, with alternative governments leaning one way, but never fully eschewing the other. When Mr Putin seized Crimea and backed separatists in the Donbas region in 2014, he redrew Ukraine’s political map, too. The most pro-Russian areas of the country could no longer vote in elections. And elsewhere most Ukrainians grew convinced that Russia was Ukraine’s enemy. That paved the way for the country’s first uninterrupted pro-Western tilt.
An ascendant civil society of activists, journalists and thinkers urged on efforts to reform. Parliament changed the constitution to hobble the presidency and empower lawmakers. Western donors such as America, and institutions such as the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, boosted them directly and issued loans to the government contingent on reforms. Regulators abolished more than half of Ukraine’s banks, where a scheme to funnel state money to bank owners had persisted for a decade. The biggest, PrivatBank, was nationalised. Naftogaz, the money-losing state oil giant, was revamped. The main police force was abolished and rebuilt. New gizmos ensured transparency for government tenders. Tax collection, industry regulation and digital government all improved. Together these reforms save Ukraine billions of dollars a year, even if corruption remains rampant in other areas.
These technocratic changes took place alongside a deeper transformation of national identity. In polls the number of Ukrainians professing to be proud of their nationality has climbed from 50% before the revolution to above 70%. Citizens increasingly declare their “primary” identity to be Ukrainian, rather than that of their village, town or region, says Oleksiy Haran, a political scientist at the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy. A campaign to boost the Ukrainian language at the expense of Russian is in full swing. The West is more than just an idea for Ukrainians; it is a partner. Trade with Russia has collapsed since 2014 (see chart). Supply chains have been remade to run through Europe. Visa-free travel to the EU, introduced in 2017, allows millions more Ukrainians each year the chance to make friends and memories in the West. Meanwhile, Ukraine has enthusiastically increased military co-operation with NATO, and spent billions on fixing up its armed forces so that it might one day join.
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None of this means that Ukrainians regard the past eight years as a golden age. Many are frustrated with the slow pace of change. That explains why voters elected Volodymyr Zelensky, a political novice and former comedian, as president in 2019. Corrupt courts with biddable judges are the weakest point in efforts to bolster the rule of law. Oligarchs remain too dominant, and politics dysfunctional. Ukrainians are poorer than they were in 1991. But reforms require patience, and gains can accumulate impressively with time. In Mr Putin’s eyes, Ukraine will soon become a trojan horse for NATO and America to place their missiles closer to Moscow. Ukraine also provides the strongest evidence that progress towards democracy is an option for Russia, too. That is why Mr Putin would like Ukraine’s revolution to fail, one way or another.
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