When hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Ukrainians were draping themselves in the flag of the European Union and protesting against their government last winter, most of them never quite grasped the general apathy of Europeans toward their movement on Kyiv’s Maidan Square. Here were the biggest protests in support of European integration in world history, and Kyiv’s protests barely registered as newsworthy in most European countries.
When I was in Krakow just after the New Year, few locals I spoke with had much inkling of political turmoil occurring next door. And this was in Poland, the EU-member state probably most supportive of Ukraine’s European aspirations and most sensitive to Kyiv’s struggles with a powerful, bullying neighbor. France, Germany, Great Britain? Forget it. Many Western Europeans would have had problems finding Ukraine on a map ten months ago, much less care about nascent protests in a distant country. On a continent in which the European Union is increasingly perceived as a failing project, a conglomeration of elitist and indifferent bureaucrats in Brussels pushing unpopular policies on more than 500 million, it was difficult to sympathize with Ukrainian aspirations.
Luckily, this indifference is changing. The contemporary crisis in Ukraine, which has embroiled Europe in the most dire East-West confrontation in a generation, has turned a page in the history of Europeanization. One of the great ironies of Putin’s aggression is that it reinvigorated NATO and the EU just when the future of these institutions was most doubted. With Russia attacking Europe head on, the continent has been made to demonstrate its worth and the humanity of its values. For those who live in post-communist states, some have had to grapple with uncomfortable realities about the prevailing ties between their leaders and the Kremlin. Leading statesmen from several states—including Slovakia and Hungary—have often played devil’s advocate for a Kremlin strategy bent on punishing Ukraine and dividing Europe.
In the Hungarian and Czech capitals, anti-government protesters have staged significant demonstrations against their leaders. Are the protests that have so recently ensnared Prague and Budapest indicative of a re-affirmation of European values and integration? While the protests in Budapest and Prague revolve around different issues and grievances, these actions in the heart of central Europe have important commonalities.
In Hungary, protesters flooded the streets of Budapest in opposition to proposed tax on internet usage. They claimed that the tax was just the latest step to rein in independent sources of information in a state that the political opposition says is becoming increasingly authoritarian and pro-Kremlin. Hungary’s right-wing prime minister, Viktor Orban, has openly decried “liberal democracy” in favor of an ill-defined and apparently illiberal alternative, a worrying imitation of Russia’s concept of “sovereign democracy.” Fellow EU member-states and other countries in the international community have spoken out against his government’s crack-down on media and NGOs receiving foreign funding. Protestors, catching on to Orban’s ties with Putin, waved banners denigrating the Hungarian and Russian leader.
In the Czech Republic, where democracy is not so frayed, opponents of left-leaning Czech President Milos Zeman turned a celebration of the 25th anniversary of the fall of Communism in Czechoslovakia into a scathing indictment of his administration. Thousands of Czechs commemorating the pro-democratic victory in 1989 marched through Prague’s central square, holding up red cards as a symbolic call for Zeman’s resignation. Many protestors pointed to his close relations with Russia and sharp criticism of the EU sanctions policy as among their chief grievances. At a time when Czechs should be celebrating a landmark date in their country’s freedom from Soviet oppression, many feel that their country is losing its European identity by backsliding into state-promoted communist nostalgia.
While Czechs and Hungarians were not explicitly invoking the memory of Maidan in their protests, instead articulating very specific political demands in their own national contexts, the tremors of Maidan are being felt in the European Union nonetheless. One of the unexpected side effects of the Ukrainian movement is that it has forced Europeans to re-affirm their values and purpose. The confrontation between Europe and Russia forces Europeans to pick sides. While sitting idly and watching will they allow the non-liberal forces attack the European values of democracy and tolerance? Or will Europe rightly perceive Russia’s aggression as affront to the continent as a whole, not only the European integration project, but also the more intangible European spirit? On the 25th anniversary of the collapse of communism, Ukraine has made Europe confront its place in the world to come. Europe needs to decide whether it will stand up for the values that it once fought to defend.
Chris Dunnett for Ukraine Crisis Media Center