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The real triumph of Ukraine's protests

The values-based protests in Kiev's Maidan square helped bring down a regime built on corruption and violence. Now those values can help build a democracy modeled on those in Europe.

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    Priests pray in front of riot police Feb. 13 at the site of recent clashes in Kiev, Ukraine.
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As the people of Ukraine now fix their democracy, they must remember how they forced a corrupt and violent regime to simply collapse Saturday, causing President Viktor Yanukovych to flee.

Lessons from the three months of protests on Kiev’s Independence Square, or Maidan, can help restore the unity needed in a nation still torn about its identity.

The protests were sparked Nov. 21 by the president’s refusal to sign a pact with the European Union. But they were not really about material things such as trade or wages. They were not about putting a particular opposition figure in power. They were not about revenge or hatred toward Mr. Yanukovych or his Russian backers.

Rather, the tens of thousands of Ukrainians who peacefully occupied Maidan – and the more than 75 killed last week by security forces – were united around common values such as honesty, integrity, and equal regard for all. These values helped maintain discipline and restraint among the protesters even as snipers fired on them from rooftops. The moral force of the values eventually led police to ignore orders from Mr. Yanukovych, who discovered too late that power does not come from the barrel of a gun.

In addition, these values can now help political leaders in Ukraine put the government back on track toward adopting European-style democracy rather than the “managed democracy” of Vladimir Putin in Russia.

One remarkable aspect of the protests was the prayer and spiritual support given by the clergy of Ukraine’s many religions, especially Greek Catholics and Ukraine’s Orthodox denominations. A tent chapel was set up in Maidan where people of different faiths could worship together. The bells of St. Michael’s Golden-Domed Monastery rang out with warning when security forces began to attack at night. Monks ran a field hospital in a sanctuary to tend to the wounded. Protesters were able to hide in the Roman Catholic St. Alexander’s Cathedral.

In one memorable scene, a group of clergy stood between police and protesters with a Bible and a cross, calling for nonviolence and calm. Clergy also mediated between officials and protesters.

On Sunday, as the coffins of protesters killed last week were carried through Maidan, the crowd offered prayers.

During the protests, the Greek Catholic archbishop, Sviatoslav Shevchuk, said in a message that “fear, aggression and anger” would not determine Ukraine’s future.

“We realize that the dignity of a person and personal liberties don’t come from a constitution, a state law, a ruler, but from God,” the patriarch said. “God created us in his own image and likeness as free men and free women.”

The value-driven protests at Maidan were a reminder to Ukraine churches to keep close to the people rather than side with any particular government, as the Russian Orthodox Church now does with the Putin regime.

The Ukraine churches were not immediately on the scene at Maidan, as Cyril Hovorun, a priest of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate) and lecturer at Yale University, pointed out in a blog. The churches had to move beyond admonitions to avoid violence. They began to realize how closely the values of the protests are to “the values of Christianity, including altruism, readiness for self-sacrifice, solidarity, and so on.”

“The Maidan in a very Christian way chose to be weak, even though it is strong in numbers and in the determination of its participants,” he wrote. “The Maidan has adopted almost eschatological expectations that the dignity of human nature, created in the image and likeness of God, can one day be restored.”

Not all Ukrainians are religious and they remain divided about the type of democracy they want and on whether to have ties to the EU or Russia. But if anything, the basic qualities that drove the protests are universal. They will serve Ukraine well as it defines a different future.

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