As more people have poured into the streets of Ukraine to protest, they are often depicted as angry over a long list of complaints: corruption, the abuse of power, a government that refuses to join the European Union, Russian meddling, police brutality, and lately a new law that even tries to ban the style of protests – no tent encampments and no wearing bicycle helmets, for example.
This picture, however, misses a constructive intent in the massive crowds in the capital, Kiev, and other cities. Their main motive is to expand the liberties steadily won by Ukrainians since their independence in 1991. Eventually joining the EU was to be a next step for a people who refuse to allow freedoms to be rolled back and who seek more of the social, political, and economic liberties enjoyed in the West.
What’s really up for grabs in the current tense standoff is a belief that progress in individual rights is irreversible. Many a democracy has been overthrown by military force. But can a free people choose to allow their freedoms to be eroded?
“If I don’t fight today,” said one young demonstrator in Kiev, “the government could close the door on my rights.”
President Viktor Yanukovych ignited the protests in November after he reneged on a promise to begin the process for Ukraine to join the EU. He did so after Russia, which has long regarded Ukraine as a key part of its hinterland, made threats of trade retaliation while also offering $15 billion in loans to the government. For Mr. Yanukovych, the money may be useful in his troubled bid to be reelected in 2015.
Yet since November, his brutal and authoritarian response to the protests has further exposed the need for rights and liberties to be expanded in Ukraine. He has passed antidemocratic laws that imitate those in Russia and relied on rough police tactics against demonstrators, resulting in at least four killings. And his main political opponent, former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, remains in jail.
To restore democracy, the demonstrators demand that new presidential elections be held this year. And to prevent a further loss of rights, they are asking the EU and the United States to impose penalties, such as blocking bank transfers, on top Ukrainian officials involved in the violent crackdown on protesters.
With many in the crowds waving the star-studded blue flag of Europe, they are making a plea to the West not only to rescue Ukraine from tyranny but to preserve the idea of democratic progress as humanity’s unchangeable future.
More than simply a piece of geography in an East-West power play, Ukraine is now a contest for a noble idea, one that cannot be ignored.