Protesters who drove the EuroMaidan movement back in early 2014, believed they lay a foundation of a more transparent, democratic and prosperous country going towards the European integration and eventually joining the family of European nations. Four years passing, the outcomes are mixed at best, and many endemic problems are still persisting and haunt Ukraine. We spoke to Ukraine expert Professor David Marples from University of Alberta about some of the toughest ones, both domestic and external. 

  

Four years after the Maidan, what do you think of Ukraine's achievements in terms of sociopolitical development as to now? Has it been worth all the hardships that the Ukrainian people has had to endure? 

No. I don’t think one can come up with any benefits that would offset the loss of about 11,000 people, not to mention some 1.5 million refugees, and a continuing conflict in the regions of Donetsk and Luhansk. That is not to say there have been no achievements: decentralization is in progress and police reform has been notable. Ukraine is a far more democratic society than its neighboring Russia and Belarus. But these achievements have come at too high a price. I have not mentioned Russia’s annexation of Crimea, but I think that was opportunistic and had been anticipated by Russia for some time. It needs to be recognized that EuroMaidan was a deeply divisive event, especially when it degenerated into violence. On the other hand, there were many Maidans, and one should not simplify matters. Protests took place for many reasons, which changed over time. But the Anti-Maidan was not confined to pro-Russian separatists either. People in many parts of Ukraine were unhappy or fearful about the outcome and matters became worse after the deaths in Odessa in May 2014.

 

How stable is the Ukrainian government? Do you think there is a societal consensus strong enough to minimize the possibility of further revolutions or coup d'etats?

It is unstable. I think that is evident from the recent episodes involving Mikheil Saakashvili and Nadezhda Savchenko. Though centralist parties might be successful in elections, the presence of armed battalions in various centers, including Kyiv, renders the government susceptible to an armed takeover, either in the form of a direct coup or after another Maidan-type protest. The leadership lacks support and is reliant on coalitions and Poroshenko is an unpopular president. He is better than Yanukovych but his business interests and oligarchic standing alienate some of the more radical forces in the country. Yet there are no obvious alternatives and no political leader can command mass support in Ukraine today. That creates a situation in which an armed takeover is possible because there is no rallying point other than the need to unite against a common enemy (Russia). Ironically, if the war escalates, then the government may become more stable. But that is hardly a good prospect. 

 

How real are the prospects for further real steps towards European integration of Ukraine? What benevolent forces within the EU are interested in bringing Kyiv closer?

Ukraine’s best friends in Europe have traditionally been its closest neighbors, Poland and the Baltic States. Other countries, such as Germany, Greece, and Italy, have significant economic links with Russia and are looking for ways to relieve the sanctions imposed since 2014. The war has rendered Ukraine less appealing to the EU because some its (former) major industries are either in or close to the war zone. Moreover, economically Ukraine is a poor country today. If one compares Ukraine to those countries that joined the EU Partnership project a decade ago, only Moldova is in a weaker economic position. That situation makes European integration a more distant prospect. Should it happen, as well, the need for modernization of industries like steel means that some of the outdated factories would need to be discarded, worsening unemployment. That was in fact the situation faced by Yanukovych in 2013—and exploited by Vladimir Putin with his offer of a $13 billion loan without conditions. 

 

Despite the traditional tension between Warsaw and Moscow, Polish-Ukrainian relations have recently been quite toxic, too. Some Polish analysts even blame Russian agents of influence in instilling anti-Ukrainian moods among the Warsaw elites. Do you think these allegations are trustworthy, and what steps does Kyiv take to cool down tensions?

For some time Poland has been Ukraine’s main EU ally and partner. But the anti-Ukrainian mood in Poland currently is evident. Unfortunately, both countries, in examining their Soviet/Communist pasts, have made—in my view—some serious errors of judgment by focusing on ‘De-communization’ and in Ukraine’s case, ‘De-Sovietization’. This focus has resulted in conflicting interpretations of historical events dating back in particular to the Second World War, and to some extent the interwar period of Polish rule over most of Western Ukraine.

Both countries today have adopted narratives of the past that elevate ultranationalism and ignore its darker deeds. Poland has disassociated itself from the Holocaust and denied any Polish culpability. In turn, it has made it a criminal offence to deny that the Volhynia massacres of 1943 were an act of Genocide committed by the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (Bandera wing—OUN-B) and its military formation, the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA). Yet in Ukraine, through the Institute for National Remembrance these same formations are hailed as heroes and ‘builders of Ukrainian independence’. These two factors alone render closer relations with Poland difficult, and the both sides are at fault. 

It should be relatively easy to adopt positions that do not refer to past animosities. Russian agents alone are not responsible for this hostility because it is fanned by government-controlled agencies working in their own interests rather than for the common good. But no doubt Russia has exploited this situation because Polish antagonism cuts off Ukraine’s immediate path to the West. Without Polish support, Ukraine’s prospects for joining the EU are minimal. Kyiv could take the first step by acknowledging the past crime (Poroshenko has in fact did this on a personal level visit to Poland in July 2016) and then request that Poland acknowledges its own lamentable role in Ukrainian territories earlier in the 20th century. 

There are no other obvious reasons for the current standoff between the two states, which have enjoyed good relations for the most of Ukraine’s independence period. 

 

Russia has been leading a vehement information campaign aimed at spreading its own version of the Ukrainian conflict and accuse the Kyiv government in violence, national discrimination and unreliability. Does Ukraine have a strategy of withstanding information war and pursuing its own truth? 

It is difficult to say what the impact of the Russian information campaign is. Certainly today Ukrainians do not have as negative a view of Russia as one might expect. A recent opinion poll showed that Russians are far more negative about Ukrainians than Ukrainians are about Russia. Still, the campaign is so blatant that its impact is limited. Ukraine is actually much more tolerant than Russia toward minorities and the violence that occurs is spasmodic. I do think Ukraine needs a better vision of its place in the world other than pro-European or focused solely on the 20th century. It has a long and fascinating history, significant philosophers and thinkers, poets and writers, and well developed culture that is embraced by Ukrainians worldwide. It is not part of or dependent on the Russian sphere or Russkiy Mir. Kyiv, Lviv, and Odesa are among the most beautiful cities of the world. Despite its current problems, its image should be better than it is.