This month’s events in Ukraine must be baffling to all the people who had a good laugh when the Nobel Committee gave the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize to the European Union. What a joke! Europe, we were told, is nothing but a bureaucratic swampland, a never-ending economic crisis. And yet here are thousands of people gathering every night in Kyiv’s central square, and across Ukraine, to protest the Ukrainian government’s refusal to bind the country’s future to the European Union.
On some days, the crowds have been as large as the gatherings during Ukraine’s Orange Revolution in 2004. That one ended in grief, of course: it looked like a confrontation between a Moscow-backed thug, Viktor Yanukovych, and a Western-style democratic reformer, Viktor Yushchenko. But Yushchenko’s presidency was a disappointment. Yanukovych, the antagonist in 2004, replaced Yushchenko as president in 2010. He seemed to be seeking closer relations with both Russia and Europe. The association agreement, which would have sealed the deal with Europe, proposed a “deep and comprehensive free trade area,” enhanced labour mobility and closer cooperation on energy, transport and a host of other areas.
That was too much for Vladimir Putin. Russia’s ruler made it clear to the Yanukovych government that Ukraine cannot have two strategic partnerships, and that the cost of a deal with Europe would be economic pain imposed by Moscow. Yanukovych backed out of the EU deal. The protests followed. They haven’t stopped.
Why? If you get all your Europe news from London newspapers, it must be baffling. If you spend any time in Central or Eastern Europe, you get it. For 45 years, those countries’ trade and diplomatic choices were made for them by Moscow, in Moscow’s interest. After the Cold War ended in 1989-90, every single Eastern European country that had the freedom to make decisions for itself chose the West: they joined NATO first, then the European Union. In 2011, Estonia—a former Soviet republic whose democratic revolution Mikhail Gorbachev once tried to put down with tanks—began using the euro. Most of the region’s other countries will follow suit sooner or later, if the eurozone lasts that long.
Europeans in the former Soviet bloc make fun of European bureaucracy and high taxes. They joke that it reminds them of the bad old days. But they know it’s a joke: in the bad old days, one wrong step could land you in a KGB prison. They understand that Europe offers far more freedom than restrictions. Poles can live, work and, sometimes, vote in Ireland. Estonians can do so in Poland, as can everyone in London. Borders that used to be defended with armies now slow daily life far less than does Canada’s border with the United States.
Ukrainians, for the most part, get this. It’s true that the country is divided linguistically, with most in the East speaking Russian and feeling a historical affinity for Russia. Yanukovych’s electoral base is there. But even there, a lot of people have done the math. They know that even though Russia still dominates the region, it is in long-term decline. They would strengthen ties with Europe if it could be done without hurting ties with Russia.
A poll conducted in October by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology shows that support for the European option increases dramatically among younger Ukrainians. Those over 70 prefer a customs union with Russia by nearly 20 points over the EU association agreement. Among those under 30, the proportions are reversed. Europe is Ukraine’s future. That’s why John Baird, Canada’s foreign minister, was right to visit Kyiv this month for a long-scheduled multilateral meeting, and at the risk of upsetting his hosts, right to go to Maidan Square to talk with the protesters.
For a bunch of reasons, the Harper government decided early to make friends among the governments of Central and Eastern Europe. Jason Kenney idolized a Polish Pope, so when he became Canada’s immigration minister, he moved decisively to remove visa requirements for visitors from most formerly communist European countries. The Eastern European diasporas in Canada are large and often socially conservative. Stephen Harper’s attempts to forge working alliances with an assortment of Western European governments have gotten nearly nowhere. His electoral interests and Canada’s permanent interest in close ties with Europe align nicely in Eastern Europe. That goes doubly so in Ukraine, whose Canadian diaspora is profoundly anti-Soviet and, therefore, deeply suspicious of Putin’s barely post-Soviet Russia.
Yanukovych may yet buckle under pressure and sign the agreement with the EU. In the meantime, Canada should keep encouraging him, or frankly encourage Ukraine’s chronically splintered opposition to find new candidates for leadership posts. And Canada should continue to discourage Putin’s meddling in Ukraine and elsewhere.
A handy lever presents itself. Of course the Sochi Olympics should be free of politics, as much as any Olympics ever are. Canadian athletes should not pay a penalty for political conflict, as earlier generations of athletes did during the boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics. All of our athletes should go to Sochi. But no member of Canada’s government should go with them. Putin’s economic bullying, his contempt for political dissent and gay rights and for a free press, have surely earned him that much rebuke. Perhaps to underscore the point, John Baird could return to Kyiv while the Olympics are underway.