KIEV, Ukraine -- The past week has seen massive protests in Ukraine in response to President Viktor Yanukovich’s bungling of an EU trade pact.
It is one of those seemingly obscure international events that are easy to miss, especially in the middle of the holiday season.
Yet the events in Ukraine matter and not just because what they bode for the future of Europe and an increasingly desperate Vladimir Putin, but because this is a story that will continue to resonate in the years to come.
Ukraine, by most standards, should be an economic juggernaut.
It has ample natural resources, a highly educated, diligent workforce and is situated in an advantageous geographical position.
So the story of Ukraine shows just how a country with everything going for it can suffer so much, just as it will hopefully show how a troubled society can finally find its way forward.
A Short History of Ukraine
Even among the sordid histories of Eastern Europe, Ukraine is particularly tragic.
Over the centuries, Ukraine was ruled by the Mongols, the Duchy of Lithuania and the Kingdom of Poland before it was overtaken by the Russian Empire during the 18th century.
It endured the Holodomor—forced starvation under Stalin—in the ‘30s and bore the brunt of Hitler’s armies in World War II.
Somehow, through it all, it maintained a national culture, language and identity.
It declared its formal independence from the Soviet Union in 1990.
However, as its neighbors to the west prospered — particularly Poland, where I lived in the late 90’s — Ukraine found only chaos and kleptocracy, culminating in the Ruble crisis of 1998, which led to the collapse of the Ukrainian economy.
Faced with a country in freefall, President Leonid Kuchma appointed a reformer, Viktor Yushchenko, as Prime Minister in 1999.
The ensuing years unusually prosperous for Ukraine, growing 6% in 2000, 9% in 2001, 5% in 2002, 9% in 2003 and an astounding 12% in 2004.
Unemployment fell; savings and investment grew.
While problems remained, it appeared that Ukraine was finally turning the corner.
Yet the reforms angered the country’s powerful oligarchs and Yushchenko was removed from power in 2001.
He joined the opposition and, with an increasingly ambitious middle class and a presidential election set for 2004, the stage was set for a showdown between the incumbent powers and the reformers.
The Orange Revolution And Its Aftermath
After serving two terms, Kuchma was not eligible to run for President again, but his anointed successor, Viktor Yanukovich, inherited the powerful organs of the state, including control of most media outlets, the Interior Ministry with its massive police force and the backing of the majority of the country’s financial elite.
On the other side was Yushchenko and his new ally Yulia Timoshenko.
Although denied access to the country’s media, the crowds at rallies grew and by November it was clear that Yushchenko was favored to win.
Sensing the election would be stolen, supporters of the opposition began to gather at the Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square), in the center of Kiev and a tent city popped up on Kreshchatyk, Kiev’s main thoroughfare.
Although exit polls showed Yushchenko winning by a clear margin, the election commission declared Yanukovich the winner.
Hundreds of thousands of people poured into the streets in a wave of protests now known as the Orange Revolution.
After weeks of standoff, a new election was called and Yushchenko became Ukraine’s new president, with Yulia Timoshenko as his Prime Minister.
I had moved to Kiev in the winter of 2004 and witnessed all of this first hand.
In the fall, I began working with Korrespondent, the country’s leading news magazine, so found myself at the center of the events.
It was an exciting, almost euphoric, time when it seemed as if Ukraine could finally break away from its troubled past.
But what I remember most was the confusion.
No one seemed to know where the country was headed.
There was a break from the past, but no real path to the future.
The Yanukovich forces, now in the opposition, managed to obstruct any real progress, while the Yushchenko and Tymoshenko factions of the government fell into infighting.
The Road to the Present Crisis
The 2008 global financial crises hit Ukraine harder than most and the disillusioned Ukrainian public elected Yanukovitch legitimately in 2010.
The Orange Revolution came full circle, with the brutal thug we all took to the street against in 2004 now the rightful leader of a country that was once again in dire straits.
His regime has proved to be every bit as bad as expected.
There has been astonishing corruption, symbolized by the president’s mysterious acquisition of a massive estate and his son Oleksandr, a dentist who has suddenly become one of Ukraine’s most successful businessmen.
Lawlessness has also raised new heights, with the jailing of Timoshenko and the truly heinous case of Oksana Makar shocking even the thoroughly jaded Ukrainian populace.
So this was the preamble for the current protests that rejection of the European trade pact kicked off.
After years of disappointment, this last insult was simply too much.
Yanukovich’s decision to turn Ukraine back toward Putin’s Russia has sent thousands out in the streets again.
It is one thing to steal, to make a mockery of the rule of law and to run the country far below any reasonable standard of competence.
But the prospect of EU integration has come to symbolize inclusion into the community of nations and a chance to live a normal life.
Two nights ago, the police brutally cleared the Maidan, next day the protesters were back in even greater numbers.
A Reason For Hope
This time, I am no longer near the center of events, but thousands of miles away.
I mostly stay connected through my Facebook feed which brims with friends posting news updates and plans for upcoming protests.
Much seems like it was back in those heady days in 2004, when we all took to the streets in the freezing cold to protest a fraudulent election.
But I’ve noticed a difference this time.
The Orange Revolution was a break from the past, a bold statement that elections could no longer be stolen.
This time people are taking to the streets to build a bridge to the future, for the country to adopt international standards and become, in the words of the protesters, a “normal country.”
The Maidan of the Orange Revolution has been renamed the “EuroMaidan.”
At this point, I’ve spent the bulk of my adult life doing business in emerging markets and this is what I’ve learned:
Everybody will tell you that they are for reform, that they are modern and that they yearn for the rule of law and for financial discipline.
When questioned about the lack of progress, they will kindly explain that their country is different, that they have their own culture and will do things their own way.
Yet what really matters, more than economic data or assurances from officials, is whether there is a solid, definable commitment to adopt universal standards.
Corruption, after all, is not culture, but its absence.
As digital technology renders economic borders meaningless, local norms are an illusion and a dangerous one at that.
So keep an eye on how the events unfold in Ukraine, because it will be a bellwether in the years to come.
The question being debated really isn’t about “spheres of influence” or geopolitical chessboards, but whether we truly live in a global marketplace of ideas that transcends the selfish presumptions of an earlier age.