Ukraine’s Protesters Are Inspired by European Ideals, However Illusory

To many Ukrainians, integration with Europe isn't just about E.U. money but a commitment to E.U. standards of governance and social justice

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Sergii Polezhaka / Reuters

Protesters wave flags and shout slogans on Independence Square in Kiev on Dec. 3, 2013

In the 1990s, as millions of migrants escaped to the West from behind the tattered Iron Curtain, many of those who stayed behind in Eastern Europe consoled themselves by remodeling their apartments. A new word appeared in Russian to describe this — evroremont, meaning, literally, European repairs — which became a household obsession across the former Soviet Union. Part of it, of course, was driven by consumerism, a desire for washing machines and stereo equipment that had not been around under communism. But it meant more than that. It was also a palliative attempt to wall off a space where a family could live “like they do in Europe,” regardless how shabby the outside world remained.

Europe, or rather the concept of Europe, thus became a byword for correcting all that was wrong with life in the ruins of the USSR, even when life in the West turned out to be no less grim. (Few Soviet citizens realized, for instance, that New York City has more rats and trash heaps than could ever be found in Moscow.) But that didn’t matter much to the strivers. For them the West represented an ideal, a world where one could live dostoyno, with dignity, not hassled by the many small humiliations of corruption and poor governance. That ideal still means a lot in Eastern Europe, as the current crisis in Ukraine has shown.

Over the past week, hundreds of thousands of people have rallied in Ukraine’s capital, Kiev, against their government’s refusal last month to sign an integration deal with the E.U. The agreement would not have promised them E.U. citizenship. But it would have eased their ability to travel to the E.U., opened up trade and, perhaps most important, codified Ukraine’s commitment to European standards of governance and social justice.

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Seen from Moscow, the deal was a disaster. Russia’s dream of building a new “Eurasian Union,” which President Vladimir Putin has been trying to cobble together with former Soviet states like Kazakhstan and Belarus, critically depends on Ukraine agreeing to join. So, in August, Moscow cut off much of its trade with Kiev, threatening more sanctions if the E.U. deal went ahead. After months of diplomatic pressure, the Ukrainian government bowed to Moscow on Nov. 22, scrapping its deal with Europe in favor of closer ties with Russia.

The revolt began that night. Livid demonstrators filled the central squares of Kiev, waving E.U. flags and demanding that their government turn back toward the West. The state stood firm, and the demonstrations swelled. Over the weekend, protesters seized Kiev’s City Hall, at one point commandeering a bulldozer to face down riot police outside the office of President Viktor Yanukovych. One of the protesters, a middle-aged businessman named Vasily Romanyuk, explained their logic this way: “We don’t need the E.U.’s money. We need the E.U.’s values,” he told TIME near Independence Square.

And that is what officials in Ukraine, and particularly in Russia, don’t seem to fully grasp. The idea of Europe is not just about economic benefits and visa-free travel. “It is a symbol, a utopia in the classic sense,” says Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of the journal Russia in Global Affairs. “The problem with Russia is that it cannot offer its own utopia. From the point of view of most Ukrainians, Russia is the same thing, only richer. It is the same corrupt, inefficient, oligarch-driven regime, but because it has oil, gas and natural resources, it can provide economic benefits. And that’s all very nice. But partnering with Russia would only solidify what many Ukrainians are trying to shed.”

It would bring them no closer to their vision of Europe, and for many of the protesters filling Kiev’s streets, it hardly seems to matter that this vision is naive. After the global financial crisis, Europe has too many economic troubles of its own to help much with Ukraine’s burden of debt. Indeed, the E.U.’s integration deal would have piled even more strain on the Ukrainian economy. Prime Minister Mykola Azarov said it would cost at least €150 billion ($204 billion) over the next seven years to bring Ukraine’s industries into line with E.U. standards of quality and competition, as the deal would have demanded. In compensation, Azarov said, the E.U. was only offering €1 billion ($1.4 billion). “Some people say that if we sign this deal a river of money will flow into Ukraine,” he said. “To my great regret, that isn’t so.”

But neither will the turn toward Russia save Ukraine from economic disaster. Strapped with its own budget deficit, Russia can ill afford to subsidize its neighbor’s economy, no matter how important that neighbor is for Putin’s geopolitical vision. “Ukraine is a black hole with its own gigantic problems,” says Lukyanov. “No one will take on such a burden.” In search of a compromise, Putin has offered three-party talks to figure out a way out of Ukraine’s financial woes with help from the E.U. “That is not sneakiness on his part. He is not setting a trap for Europe. It is a real desire to find some middle ground, where everyone stops fighting over Ukraine and tries to find a joint solution,” says Lukyanov, who also serves as chairman of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, a state-connected think tank in Moscow.

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But so far the E.U. has refused the offer of trilateral talks, and Russia has offered Ukraine no economic lifeline. “We have not put any huge new loans on the table or anything like that,” says Russian diplomat Andrei Klimov, who co-chairs Russia’s parliamentary cooperation committee with the E.U. And what about the intangibles? How can Russia counter the ideal that Europe represents? Klimov counters with a question. “What, if they sign this deal with the E.U., will they change to a society based on rule of law? Will all their courts become clean? It doesn’t work that way.” The U.S., he points out, went through its own dark times before catching up with the ideals of Western Europe. “They had the Ku Klux Klan, the Chicago Mafia, all kinds of awful things before they became the country we know today. So there are no miracles,” he says. “It’s like a child — it can’t grow up overnight.”

Back in Kiev, the protest leaders have their own American analogies in mind. Red-eyed and sleep-deprived, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, the leader of the pro-Western Fatherland party, has been leading rallies for a week. He stands in the House of Trade Unions, a landmark building off Independence Square that the protesters have turned into their makeshift headquarters. “Remember President Roosevelt’s inaugural speech,” he tells TIME. “He spoke about fear.” To be precise, FDR said there is nothing to fear but fear itself. And for the ruling party in Ukraine, “fear is the key component,” says Yatsenyuk. They are afraid of losing power, of Russian sanctions, of E.U. demands for reform.

All around, the protesters don’t look much afraid of anything. Soon police will likely try to take the building back, with the tools they used against the demonstrators this weekend — tear gas, flash grenades and truncheons. President Yanukovych, whose government survived a no-confidence vote on Tuesday, is meanwhile preparing for a state visit to China. From there, he heads to Moscow to sign an “economic road map” with Putin. “I have a nasty feeling that while Yanukovych is away, force will be used against the protesters, and there will be bloodshed,” says Mustafa Nayem, a local television journalist. But the protesters are digging in, improvising a canteen in the House of Trade Unions, a press center and a sleeping area on the floor where the diehards can catch some rest. Outside, others are bringing hot tea and stacking firewood to fight off the cold in the freezing city squares. It looks a bit like a crude construction site, laying the ground for some European repairs.