The current events in Ukraine are a genuine reminder of what the West takes for granted and the East has worked so hard to achieve. Personal liberty, rule of law, a society organized on voluntary cooperation of free individuals is not a boring given of everyday life, but an ideal, for which people are willing to take to the streets.
The myriad of commentaries of what caused the events range from probing deep historical issues to post Cold-war rivalry between East and West to analyses of business interests. All of these issues most likely have influence. But these sorts of analyses concentrate on key events and personalities but ignore the fundamental force of Ukraine – her people.
People seem to be tired of being stuck in transition for two decades. Even if it were a symbolic and isolated event, smashing of the Lenin statue is powerful. It reminds the world that even though Lenins were toppled, broken, melted, sold for scrap, relegated to the trash bins of history all over the Eastern Europe, they remained in certain places. Unsurprisingly, it is the countries with most Lenins still standing that were held back the most. Take whichever indicator: economic freedom, ease of doing business, transparency or corruption. There is a clear connection between the speed of breaking all the ties with communist past and current level of development in all terms, from economic to social to penetration of broadband internet.
People feel cheated of the realization of their European dreams and aspirations. Clearly, parts of the population identify themselves with Europe more than they do with their eastern neighbors. These lines of division might be geographical (Eastern vs Western part of the country) or demographic. Whether these dreams would have been fulfilled by the Association Agreement is another question. But the decision by authorities to reject a move towards Europe has galvanized the group and given the cause far more tangible than freer trade with EU.
Could the things have gone different? Imagine the popular mood if the question of membership of EU or visa-less travel were in question. Would the government have rejected those proposals in a similar manner? EU has to answer sincerely whether it wishes to bring Ukraine closer and whether full membership will ever be seriously considered. I bet some EU makers think that it can entice Ukraine into positive changes, pull it further away from Russia, and in the same time avoid the membership issue. What the EU calls its “soft power” is ability to force changes in other countries by promises of hope to join the EU at undetermined time. It is tantamount to holding the carrot in front of the proverbial horse; and has its limits. After a while it becomes not a goal, but an annoyance, and it was exploited quite well by the opponents of integration with Europe.
Destruction of the remnants of communism and central planning is long overdue in the whole world. Observe the expression on faces of Eastern Europeans when they see some Western Europeans waving red flags and singing Internationale. Toppling of Lenin is a best indicator of what people think about socialism once they lived under it. For the Eastern Europeans statues of leaders of communism are testimonies not to theoretical debates enjoyed by the Western intellectuals even today about the possible merits of ownership of means of production by the state. The statues of Lenin, present or removed, are eerie reminders to entire generations bulldozed to make way for the madness of communism. Ukrainians today are more serious about liberal democracy than many Europeans have been for a long time. The traditional values of Europe – self-reliance, self-determination – today are much stronger in the Maidan square than in parts of, say, Greece.
Finally, a small detail. The smashed pieces of statue of Lenin were sold. Nothing embodies spirit and ambition of Eastern Europeans better than this spontaneous entrepreneurship. If Europe is serious about the future of Europe, toppling of Lenins and bringing the remaining Eastern Europe into Europe should be its priority.