Last May and June, I spent two months living in Kyiv on a research fellowship for the U.S. Embassy. My topic was corporate raiding — hostile takeovers involving blackmail, official corruption and outright violence — which is a multibillion dollar problem for Ukrainian businesses and foreign investors that has been growing steadily worse.
My pregnant wife and young daughter joined me, and we lived in a cozy one room apartment in a Soviet-era building just a few hundred meters from Kyiv’s main square, the Maidan (also known as Independence Square). One fine sunny day towards the end of May, our family and several of our friends went out to the Maidan, strollers and toddlers in tow, to observe rival “Day of Europe” marches organized by pro-government and opposition political parties. At the time, both sides strongly supported Ukraine’s signing of an Association Agreement with the European Union, and the demonstrations appeared entirely peaceful — so much so that we pushed our strollers freely in and out of both crowds.
Now that day seems like a hundred years ago. When I read about the shocking violence that has engulfed the Maidan, or watch it live-streaming on the web, I can hardly believe my own eyes. And yet it is happening. Ukrainians are slaughtering one another in a struggle that has once again captured the world’s attention, but which defies simple explanation.
Vital principles — Ukraine’s European future, prosperity and the right to live decently — are indeed at stake in the battle for the Maidan. But no group in Ukraine, nor any single country in the world, can fairly claim a monopoly on those values, and neither Russian-speaking Ukrainians nor Russians themselves are the enemies of Ukrainians’ noble aspirations. On the contrary, the overwhelming majority of people throughout the region, including Russians, share these goals.
The dilemma for Ukraine is not only how to put an end to the current violence, but how to restore a sense of hope to those on both sides of the barricades that the future can be better. Ukrainians themselves seem to have run out of answers, and the outside powers whom some accuse of pulling strings in Ukraine — Russia, Europe and the United States — have little leverage to compel the government and opposition leaders to reach a compromise, much less persuade the combatants on the street to lay down their arms.
The United States and the European Union have already imposed targeted sanctions on individuals thought to be responsible for the current violence, and more may be forthcoming. Though they may send a tough moral and political message and provide some salve for our collective conscience, such sanctions are unlikely to change the situation on the ground, since the officials responsible for the crackdown clearly see the protests and their own survival in zero sum terms.
Sanctions against businesses owned by Ukraine’s most powerful oligarchs might compel them to take stronger measures to end the stalemate, but those sanctions would hurt ordinary Ukrainians too. Provoking more forceful intervention by the oligarchs could also have perilous unintended consequences, including aggravated violence.
Calls for more proactive engagement from the United States and Europe in the form of a new “Marshall Plan” for Ukraine are well intentioned but not realistic. Western governments lack the political will to spend tens or hundreds of billions of dollars on Ukraine, and even Russia is unlikely to offer much beyond the $15 billion in loans already promised. Most experts acknowledge that money invested in Ukraine is far more likely to disappear into corrupt private hands and offshore bank accounts than to be spent on the legal and market reforms the country desperately needs, regardless of which politicians are running the government in Kyiv.
Indeed, this is the crux of the problem for Ukraine, not just in this moment of acute crisis, but in the next crisis down the line, and for the foreseeable future. What Ukraine needs for the short and long term is not more intervention by powerful international actors, more lofty promises and bravado from politicians, or more acts of bravery and self-sacrifice by a few thousand stalwart demonstrators on the Maidan.
Instead, Ukraine desperately needs a bottom-up commitment from the people to reject indifference, cynicism, sloth and other poisonous habits built up over more than half a century of dysfunctional Soviet governance. Ukrainians must commit to fight problems like corporate raiding and corruption, not with clubs and Molotov cocktails on the Maidan, but in small steps, every day, in every community, business and government office where they take place.
Ukrainians must also commit to participate in their own democracy, if they want to keep it. Beyond simply turning out to vote in every election, Ukrainians must draw a line in the sand against vote buying, intimidation and other shady practices by which those with money amass political power.
The violence needs to stop now. Whatever the talks yield, the process of change in Ukraine from the bottom up can be helped along by support from respected civic, intellectual and religious leaders, and by cooperation with foreign governments and non-governmental organizations that can model best practices for complex reforms and institution building. But the commitment to change must come first from the tens of millions of ordinary people who stand to gain a more stable, predictable and prosperous future.