KIEV, Ukraine — Braving freezing temperatures, the crowd of thousands greeted her as a liberator, chanting her name and pushing past each other just to catch a glimpse. Catherine Ashton, an unelected bureaucrat running the faltering foreign policy of an unaccountable transnational elite, likely did not expect to feel so welcome.
"ASHTON! ASHTON! EUROPE! EUROPE! THANK YOU! THANK YOU!" they shouted.
The spectacle of protesters Tuesday on Independence Square, where thousands have been demonstrating against President Viktor Yanukovych, rapturously welcoming the European Union's foreign policy chief was unusual. Most of Brussels' anonymous bureaucrats get little reception when they visit European capitals; if they do, their calls for austerity and their unaccountability mean they are more likely to meet airborne projectiles and flaming effigies. Nor does a Europe ridden with internal divisions and debt necessarily look all that attractive.
But European dignitaries have a special status on the barricades in Kiev. The backdrop to the stage set up at the heart of the protest site says "For a European Ukraine!" EU officials wooed Yanukovych to sign a deal pledging closer ties — his spurning it abruptly last month is what sparked the protests — so avidly that they became Ukrainian celebrities. Pat Cox, former president of the European parliament, and former Polish president Alexander Kwasniewski visited Kiev 27 times over 18 months in failed attempts to free jailed prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko — a key EU demand to signing the agreement — and each trip led the local news. Even relatively obscure members of the European Parliament (MEPs) from the European People's Party bloc were met with wild applause when they gave tepid speeches from the stage, much like David Hasselhoff tearing down the Berlin Wall: inherently underwhelming figures imbued with mythical significance for the promise of the greater culture they represent.
Ukrainians love Europe as much for what it represents as what it is, if not more. Partly this is due to the brutal authoritarianism they see in the alternative. Protests first erupted in Kiev when Yanukovych backed out of the EU deal and were starting to die out out, when the government brutally cracked down on them, symbolizing a repressive post-Soviet rollback that conjured similarities to neighboring Belarus. For many Ukrainians, "Europe" means the other side, where the grass is greener.
EU leaders appear to have realized the failings of their parochial approach to the agreement, which focused heavily on Tymoshenko at the expense of Ukraine's economic concerns. One could forgive Yanukovych, who was lobbied personally by Russian Vladimir Putin while he was forced to deal mainly with lower-level European officials, for feeling talked down to. At a funereal reception last month in Vilnius where he was supposed to sign the deal, German chancellor Angela Merkel, wine glass in hand, scolded him for giving up on the deal by saying: "We expected more."
Now European officials are desperately scrambling to save Ukraine from falling into the Kremlin's clutches, which would mark the effective failure of its Eastern Partnership initiative aimed at bringing post-Soviet countries into its fold. Some are working with international financial institutions to find the 20 billion euros Ukraine's prime minister says the country needs to offset the costs of signing (which would likely include lost trade with Russia). Others have abandoned the pretense of neutrality and cheered the protests on from the sidelines. MEPs passed a resolution Thursday calling on the EU to end the Ukrainian political crisis and strongly implying Yanukovych should give in to protesters and hold snap elections. Some tried to bring the spirit of the Maidan to Strasbourg by waving Ukrainian flags during the session. The U.S., a ghostly absent presence from the region since the the Georgian-Russian war in August 2008, has also been unusually strident in recent days. Secretary of State John Kerry expressed "disgust" at an attempted rout of the Maidan. Congress threatened to sanction Yanukovych. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel warned his Ukrainian counterpart against another crackdown. Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland, already in town for talks with Yanukovych, said she told him that what happened was "absolutely impermissible in democratic states."
Russia, by contrast, is trying to put on its best poker face, but the Kremlin's fears are seeping through. State television, embodied by frothing anchor Dmitry Kiselyov, has reacted to the protests with paranoid theories and outright falsehoods. Putin's recent decision to "liquidate" the RIA-Novosti news agency months before the Sochi Olympics, where it is the main media partner, and appoint Kiselyov to run a new one, has been widely interpreted as a direct freak-out over the protests in Kiev.
By throwing their weight so firmly behind the protests, Western officials are not only legitimizing the protesters' demands — up to and including Yanukovych's resignation — but also longstanding Kremlin fears that the west is plotting to destabilize Russia on what it sees as its home turf.
Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt tweets as if he wished he were facing Ukrainian riot police himself.
This seemingly prompted Kiselyov's rant that Bildt was an ex-CIA agent out for revenge over the Battle of Poltava in 1709, when Russia defeated Sweden in the Great Northern War. In handing out biscuits on the Maidan Wednesday morning, Victoria Nuland gave life to one of Russian TV's most famous paranoid smears: that the State Department had done the same thing to lure protesters out against Putin.
Backing the Maidan so heavily may help tip the balance in its favor. But it will also bring responsibilities the West seemed uninterested in shouldering only weeks ago. Thursday's parliamentary resolution calls for working towards a visa-free regime. This would mark a drastic volte-face (just ask a Ukrainian single woman how easy getting an EU tourist visa is) and presumably attract huge slews of economic migrants: Ukraine has a young, well-educated population of 46 million and the world's third-highest risk of default.
Snatching Ukraine away from Putin would doubtless antagonize him for years — just as he seems intent on asserting Russia's influence in the world and as the West has begun to rely on him as a security partner. Russia's Duma passed a resolution on Thursday condemning the West's "unabashed meddling [...] in sovereign Ukraine's internal affairs." On Friday, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov told the official government newspaper, Rossiskaya Gazeta, that Russia had warned Nuland that Washington's active stance "could come back to haunt it [...] but it looks like they didn't listen to us in Washington again."
Alignment with Europe would not necessarily clear up the country's murky political system either. Oligarchs rein supreme through their black cash and are widely believed to be leaning towards the opposition in the belief this will best safeguard their assets. Yanukovych, for his part, still commands strong support from over a third of Ukrainians in the Russian-speaking east and south.
Swooning over the revolutionary romanticism of the Maidan may invigorate faith in the rightness of the European project. But backing it so strongly will have just as many consequences for the West as for Yanukovych. After all, associations come and go, but partnerships — Eastern or otherwise — are for life.
Max Seddon is a correspondent for BuzzFeed World based in Berlin. He has reported from Russia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan and across the ex-Soviet Union and Europe. His secure PGP fingerprint is 6642 80FB 4059 E3F7 BEBE 94A5 242A E424 92E0 7B71
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