I grew up in Ukraine, to be precise: in the eastern part of it, in the very city of Slovyansk, where the Russian war against Ukraine started in 2014, less than a month after Moscow completed its annexation of Crimea. So I know what it is to follow the grim news from the occupied city and to listen to the sound of artillery salvos over the phone while talking to friends and relatives on the ground. In the end, I had to help those friends and relatives to evacuate from Slovyansk as life there became too dangerous for them. We are all relieved that Slovyansk was liberated by Ukrainian army 3 months later, but I still have some acquaintances living in Donetsk under de-facto occupation and their life is not fun…
Why that war started? I’m convinced that the main reason is that the gang around Mr. Putin feared that after the Maidan Revolution of Dignity in winter 2013/2014 Ukraine is going to become more like typical European state with the rule of law and open competitive economy. And by doing so Ukraine will serve as a powerful showcase for Russians, encouraging them to end Mr. Putin’s kleptocratic rule.
Back in 2013, as protests in Kiev on Maidan square started, almost nobody in Ukraine has seen Russia or even Mr. Putin as a threat. Candles were lit on Maidan in December 2013 by Ukrainian protesters to commemorate victims of terror attacks in Russian city of Volgograd.
Now the mood in the county is very different. While most Ukrainians still cannot hate ordinary Russians for all the wrongs the Moscow rulers inflicted on Ukraine in the past two years, they still want to distance themselves from Russia as far as possible.
One good example is my own family. My mother was born in Russia and Russian is the language we speak together. However, my mother offered to cook food for Ukrainian soldiers and my sister brought that food (and much else) together with other volunteers to the frontline in Donbas. My brother-in-law used to be an officer in the Soviet army and he obtained his PhD in a military discipline in Moscow (there his doctoral thesis still counts as classified). But now he bought firearms and together with his son he practiced shooting, to be able, in his words “to meet with dignity the Russian occupiers” if they appear near Kiev there the family of my sister now lives.
Russian aggression has revealed that there are little differences between Ukrainian- and Russian-speaking Ukrainians. The only remaining difference is: between people who want the county to be modernised and those, who have found their comfortable place within some corruption schemes, and therefore they oppose the change.
My family and I belong to the camp, which wants modernisation. We expect that the association agreement with the EU will not only bring the strengthening trade ties between Ukraine and the EU, which is crucial for the Ukrainian economy after Ukraine has de-facto lost its hitherto most important Russian export market. Besides that, the association agreement contains provisions which will help us – the Ukrainian civil society – to apply pressure on our political class to carry out anti-corruption reforms. We also hope, that the association agreement will facilitate the know-how transfer from the EU to Ukraine on how to build sustained public institutions.
It might all seem like the only beneficiary of the association agreement is Ukraine. But that only if viewed from a very short-term perspective. The Economist newspaper in its recent article has wonderfully summarised what is at stake in the long-term:
“For Ukraine, the economic promise of the deal is immense. For the Dutch, the reason to ratify it is to deny Mr Putin the fulfilment of his wish for a corrupt and anti-European Ukraine. Ever since Maidan, Russia has been trying to reassert control by spreading chaos on Ukraine’s border. The Dutch learned better than any other country what such chaos can mean, when scores of their countrymen were killed in 2014, in the downing of flight MH-17. When Ukrainians turned towards Europe, their dream was for their country to escape the pit of corruption and chaos. They are still struggling to climb out. Dutch voters should not step on their fingers.”
From my side I only want to add, that for Ukrainian volunteers helping the army and refugees from the East, for the members of civil society, who work day and night on countless projects aimed at reforming the country, a NO vote would amount to much more than if someone just stepped on your fingers. Many will perceive such a vote as a stab in the back.
If the Dutch voters for some reason want to punish their own political class or the Brussels eurocrats, but in effect end up punishing the people representing the best Ukrainian (and perhaps even European) future, that would be a genuine European tragedy indeed.