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Revolution of dignity

Bernd Johann/ ccNovember 21, 2014

The Ukrainians defeated an autocratic regime. They chose democracy and want a constitutional state. But DW's Bernd Johann warns that this new departure could be blocked by homegrown oligarchs and by Moscow.

People with Ukraine flags in Independence Square, or Maidan. (Photo: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)
Image: Getty Images

1989 was a turning point for Europe. The Berlin Wall fell in Germany, and brave citizens from Tallinn to Warsaw to Bucharest and Sofia liberated themselves from Soviet rule. Now, 25 years on, people in Europe are still fighting for freedom and democracy. It was exactly one year ago that people in Ukraine started protesting on the Euromaidan against their corrupt, authoritarian government. What they wanted was a new Ukraine: democracy and a constitutional state. For many of the demonstrators, the countries of the European Union served as a role model.

Hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians stuck it out for months on Independence Square in Kyiv and in other Ukrainian cities, defying both the bitter winter cold and increasingly brutal state-sponsored violence. Finally the revolution succeeded. The country's rulers capitulated and fled to Russia, which had supported the regime and continues to this day to condemn the protests as a coup d'etat.

Since then the Kremlin has seen its influence diminish in Ukraine, a development it considers to be a threat to its own power. People in Ukraine, however, call it their "Revolution of Dignity," because they were no longer prepared to allow an autocratic system to continue humiliating and robbing them. But it's a battle that's far from won.

Bernd Johann. (Photo: DW/Per Henriksen)
DW's Bernd JohannImage: DW/P. Henriksen

Mass movement against a violent regime

The protests were sparked by former President Viktor Yanukovych. On November 21, 2013, under pressure from Russia, he suddenly suspended talks with the EU over a planned Association Agreement, despite the fact that his government had been negotiating it for a long time. Disappointed Ukrainians took to social media: "We're going to the Maidan, who's coming with us?"

A mass movement quickly arose that spanned all social groups and only grew stronger the more the regime responded with excessive oppression and violence. Nationalist and extremist groups also took part in the protests, but in the presidential and parliamentary elections that followed, the forces of democracy and reform won by an overwhelming majority. Even in the midst of the war of weapons and propaganda that Russia had imposed on them in the interim, Ukrainians rejected radicalism - anti-Russian radicalism included.

Oligarchs are still pulling the strings

The Ukrainians made impressive use of their right to self-determination. But the "Revolution of Dignity" is not over yet The elections gave democratic legitimacy to the change of power, but the people's core demands are nowhere near being met. Real power in Ukraine still lies with the oligarchs, extremely rich businessmen who have controlled the country for years and who once again have representation in the new parliament. Even controversial politicians from the Yanukovych era, who a few months earlier tried to introduce draconian laws to suffocate the democracy movement, are still active.

But there is hope. It is focused particularly on representatives who participated in the demonstrations on the Euromaidan. Many of them succeeded in getting into parliament. They may be able to bring a breath of fresh air into Ukrainian politics. They must now work with established forces to ensure that the hoped-for reforms get underway.

The fight for dignity is not yet won

The issues at stake are the independence of the judiciary, democratic control of the militia, which has until now been all-powerful, and putting an end to corruption. Political elites must also be prevented from shamelessly enriching themselves, as they did in the past. Only then will the central demands of the Euromaidan be fulfilled. Only then will people in Ukraine be genuinely living in dignity and able to call their "Revolution of Dignity" a success.

However, the biggest danger for the country is still the threat from Russia. The Kremlin is doing everything in its power to prevent the establishment of a free Ukraine. The annexation of Crimea and the war in Donbass are destabilizing the country politically, economically and militarily. The Ukrainians are right to regard Russia's behavior towards their country as aggression.

Twenty-five years after the Soviet oppression of Eastern Europe came to an end, a European people is once again fighting for self-determination. It is not just spheres of influence that are an issue here: it is also a question of people's dignity.