Visiting Ukraine: Don’t steal their future!


This post is not about the normal topic of this blog (e-Learning) but about Ukraine and the recent protests. The development team of easygenerator is in Zhytomyr (Zhitomir), a city located 140 kilometers west of Kiev in Ukraine. As their manager I visit the team a few times per year and last week I was there as well. During my visit the protest against the current administration escalated. In the first days of my visit it was quiet in Zhytomyr (no riots) although the topic was clearly on top of everybody’s mind. On Thursday people tried to storm the City Hall and after that groups of demonstrators roamed the city. I met a few groups when I was walking to my hotel, some of the groups were just demonstrating; singing and shouting slogans and waving Ukrainian flags, others were trying to enter government buildings. I wasn’t threatened or afraid in any way, but the anger of the demonstrators was impressive. And I believe they have all the reasons to be angry. I talked about it a lot last week with a variety of people and I have done some reading as well. I returned to the Netherlands last Friday, but it is still on top of my mind as well; therefore I decided to write this post.

The question is what the future for Ukraine will hold. Looking at the past doesn’t give much hope. Ukraine was under foreign rule almost the whole time over the last 500 years. Mainly by Russia (including the Soviet Union), but also Poland and Hungary ruled it. As far as I know the current state of independence (since 1991) is by far the longest independence for the past 500 years or so.

I have been to Ukraine eight times in the last three years and I learned a lot about the country and its inhabitants. My main impression was that it is a country inventing itself, moving away from Soviet rule, into a more democratic and free direction. I was sort of hopeful in spite of the problems they have.

The main problem in Ukraine is corruption. It really is a disease. Everything is corrupt. It is cheaper to buy your driver’s license than to get one the legal way. The police is corrupt (as I found out through personal experience), and most of the politicians are corrupt. If you are elected, you get a free ticket to personal enrichment (with your friends and business partners). I’m afraid that the current government is not worse or better than the previous one in this respect.

The difference between those who have and those who have not is really huge. A few very, very rich and a lot of very poor people. Young people are struggling to build an existence as a starting middle class. But it is hard to get a house of your own in Ukraine and it is hard build a future for yourself and your family. As a result a lot of young talented people are leaving Ukraine. On top of this Ukraine is in a demographic crisis. They have low birth rates and the country has a high mortality rate. Due to pollution, poor diet, wide-spread smoking and alcohol (Vodka!). Life expectancy is falling and the population decreases by 150.000 people each year.

But why are things escalating at this moment?

I picked up a few things, here are my insights:

There will be new elections in 2015. The chances of the current administration to be re-elected are very slim. The president doesn’t want to give up power, because he hopes to get an extra term to become even richer. As I stated earlier I’m not sure that it will make a difference in this regard if the opposition would be in charge, but you can at least have hope in that direction.

The country is divided about the direction they need to take. Do they move back in the direction of Russia or will they move in the direction of the European Union. The president decided to break of negotiations with the EU and sign far stretching contracts and treaties with the Russians. This was the reason for the start of the protests. The people are still remembering the oppressive regime during the Soviet period and they don’t want to go back. But for the ruling people it would be hard to continue their self-enriching schemes when European laws would be implemented, so they prefer Russia over the EU. A lot of poor and uneducated people will also have some sympathy for Russia. Despite the lack of freedom during Soviet rule, a lot of things (like having a job and income) were better in the these days for them. And there still is a big dependency from economic perspective with Russia. Not only import of energy but also export of a lot of Ukrainian products and raw materials are going to Russia. Due to the old factories these products would have a hard time competing with Western products, both in quality and in price. Moving towards the EU jeopardizes these important contracts. The people who want to move towards the EU are looking towards the future, demanding freedom and having better opportunities to build their lives and improving the quality of their lives. For now the Russian direction looks to be on top. And there is also a fear that Russia would not allow Ukraine to move closer to the EU and that it might intervene if they would. This has to do with economics, but also with the geographical position of Ukraine between the EU and Russia.

Ukraine is the buffer (with Belarus) between the EU and Russia.

Last year Ukraine passed a horrible law (like they did in Russia) that discriminates gay people in a scandalous way. Now they have adopted laws that limit the freedom of demonstration in a way that conflicts even with the constitutional laws of Ukraine. These laws were the reason the conflict escalated over the last week.

What really changed in the past two months is hope. There was hope that they were moving slowly but gradually in the direction of the EU, including better chances and more personal freedom. That hope is slipping away, for now its place has been taken by uncertainty. But people know what kind of decisive time they are living in, if they allow the current rulers to turn back the clock, it will take a long time to revert that direction again. This explains the anger and persistence of the demonstrators. They are not only demonstrating and fighting for their country, but also for their future and the future of their kids.

Ukraine had already enough problems without the escalation it is going through now. The only positive thing I can see in the current situation is that the country really needs a sort of revolution to make the changes they need. I’m not only referring to a change of those who rule, but also about the wide-spread corruption, lack of good health care and more. I have to say that I’m not positive about the chance of a good outcome at this moment, but I admire those who are standing up and doing all they can to make that change happen. For what it is worth, this blog post is for them.

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  1. […] and in Zhitomir people stormed the city hall and took over the (pro Russian) city council (see my previous post on Ukraine). One of their first decisions was to remove the statue. These posters and flowers are found on […]

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