Ukraine's Struggle Is Far From Over

Even ousting the president won't immediately transform the country.

Activists pay respects to protesters killed in clashes with police at Independence Square Thursday, Feb. 20, 2014, in Kiev, Ukraine. The flag held by one activist, center right, reads "For Ukraine." The death toll in three days has been estimated to be 60 to 100, according to officials.

Activists pay respects to protesters killed in clashes with police at Independence Square Thursday in Kiev, Ukraine. The flag held by one activist, center right, reads "For Ukraine."

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There’s an unfortunate tendency, in the midst of international turmoil, to issue a “game over” declaration when a bad actor is ousted from power or when a once powerful empire loses its reach. Saddam Hussein is overthrown, and much of the world rejoices. Moammar Gadhafi is deposed as dictator of Libya and then killed, and there is a sense of relief. The former Soviet Union collapses, and the West crows over its winning of the Cold War and awaits what seems to be an inevitable move towards a more liberalized and free society.

But as events in Ukraine over the past few weeks have indicated, it’s never that easy. Both Iraq and Libya have suffered violence and upheaval despite the ousting of their hated leaders. And a quarter century after the fall of the Berlin Wall and ensuing dissolution of the Soviet Union, Ukrainians are again faced with the decision of who they side with: Russia or the West. In the current-day conflict, Russia, under the autocratic rule of Vladimir Putin, holds a powerful economic tool. Russia supplies most of Ukraine’s natural gas, and Putin has suspended a $15 billion loan to Ukraine that the impoverished former Soviet republic desperately needs. But aligning with Putin means moving backwards in history, at least in the eyes of those who have demonstrated in the streets of Kiev, successfully pushing President Viktor Yanukovych out of town (and, despite Yanukovych’s protestations, out of power).

[See a collection of editorial cartoons on Vladimir Putin and Russia.]

It would be easy – just as it was after Kiev broke from the Soviet Union in 1991 – to see Yanukovych’s ousting and the preparation for new elections as a “game over” moment, a declaration that Ukraine has chosen the more European path. But there is still tremendous potential for more upheaval. Putin is not likely to let go easily, and a successful popular uprising sets a bad precedent in terms of his own power. Russian-speaking people in the eastern part of the country are already feeling besieged and alienated from the Ukrainian-speaking people in the western part of the nation. Military intervention would be disastrous in a region that has struggled with economic crises and political upheaval since the fall of the wall.

And it’s not just Ukraine. Hungary, a country which was almost the most westward-looking of the former Soviet satellites, has taken a disturbing turn back to the regime dynamics its citizens fought so hard to quash. The current government has expanded its own authority, taking power away from the constitutional court and imposing dangerous restrictions on the media. My friends in Hungary, where I lived from 1994 to 1999, are stunned and horrified to see that the democratic state their countrymen risked their lives to bring about is now going back to the autocracy that once galvanized the country in revolt. The fall of the wall (and the ensuing influx of McDonald’s restaurants and foreign investors) didn’t mean that Hungary, in the early 90s, was suddenly transformed into a nation with an open market, a free press and transparent democracy. And decades later, it’s sadly clear that things can move backwards.

The uprising in Kiev is reassuring proof that people will fight back against repression, risking their lives for change. But it’s never game over.