Ukraine Is Tearing Itself Apart

There is an internal struggle within Ukraine between western-minded young population and an aging population still nostalgic for the country's Soviet past.

Opposition leader Yuri Lutsenko addresses protesters as they march toward government headquarters, on Monday, Dec. 2, 2013, in Kiev, Ukraine. (Ivan Sekretarev/AP)
By + More

KIEV, Ukraine – This country seems to be ripping itself apart again.

In 2004, the Orange Revolution was supposed to be the former Soviet republic's defining moment as mass protesters demonstrated against a rigged presidential poll that saw a Kremlin-backed candidate, Viktor Yanukovych, elected. The protestors won, and new elections were called, resulting in victory for their candidate, Viktor Yuschenko. As a young foreign correspondent watching those events unfold, it seemed to me that Moscow's meddling in Kiev's politics had run its course.

Now, nearly a decade later, protestors are back on the "maidan," as Kiev's central square is known, to voice their anger over the government's backtracking on a trade and political deal with the European Union following pressure from Russia.

While the tug-of-war between Russia and the West is indeed a driving force behind this new round of protests, it's increasingly clear that the internal struggle within Ukraine – between a growing, western-minded young population and an aging population still nostalgic for the country's Soviet past – has also not been resolved since I was here nine years ago.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the European debt crisis.]

This unshakable Soviet attitude is precisely what is wrong with Ukraine and other former Soviet republics – including Russia – where democracy has come only in fits and starts.

It may seem obvious to Europeans or Americans why it would behoove Ukraine to progress toward joining the EU. Protestors on today's maidan will tell you that they see Europe as a beacon their fledgling democracy can follow toward protection of human rights and stronger legislative and judicial standards. But in Ukraine's Russian-speaking and heavily industrialized east and south, partnering with Europe is a much less popular option. In fact, to them it seems like a fatal choice that will sever them forever from Russia and what some still view as Soviet greatness.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the economy.]

"You're dealing with a totally different kind of civilization and mentality with these guys. They can't think like a democracy," says Vlad Golovin, a Ukrainian journalist in Kiev, when asked to explain why the eastern populations are so angered by the protests. "They can't begin to think that you could protest against something your president does. They just think that the tsar or the president has the right to do whatever he wants, simply because he is the president."

This explains why many in the eastern regions see President Vladimir Putin's Russia and Moscow's "managed democracy" as a pillar of stability and even a model for the region.

Like many in Russia, pro-Moscow Ukrainians tolerate semi-autocratic leadership, and turn the other cheek to the deep levels of corruption that have emerged over the past decade, greatly hindering economic growth. Transparency International's annual corruption perception index ranked Ukraine 144 out of 177 countries, on par with Iran and the Central African Republic. Russia ranked 127. In a 2011 report by the organization, it said "Ukrainian society can be characterized as a society with a high tolerance for corrupt practices."

Regardless, the "eastern" point of view holds important sway in this second battle for the heart of Ukraine. In both 2004 and today, the western press (myself included) have given short shrift to reporting the real concerns of those speaking out against the pro-European protesters.

[See a collection of political cartoons on defense spending.]

To be fair, interviewing the "anti-maidan" protesters hasn't been easy. Camped out in Kiev's Mariinsky Park, they refuse to talk to western journalists, saying they don't trust that we won't manipulate what they say. If they do talk to you, most of them don't want to give their names for quotation. They will tell you, somewhat defensively, that they were paid between $20 and $40 to join the protests, plus a train or bus ticket to get there. They will also tell you that the people on "Euromaidan" are rich and there because they don't have to worry about going to work.