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Who Lost Ukraine?

VIENNA – Karl Marx famously remarked that major historical events occur twice – the “first time as tragedy, then as farce.” In Ukraine, sadly, tragedy and farce are inseparable.

That is why it would be a mistake to read the current wave of mass political protest, triggered by the government’s refusal to sign an association agreement with the European Union, as a second Orange Revolution. In 2004, inspired by the hope of joining the EU as soon as possible, Ukrainians poured into the streets to take back a stolen presidential election. Back then, the Union looked like a fantastic machine capable of making authoritarian states democratic and poor societies rich.

What has brought Ukrainians into the streets this time is something different – the fear that their country’s European prospects could be foreclosed forever. They know that their country will not join the EU in the next decade, and they know that the EU itself is in crisis. But they are determined to insist on their right to a European future. Fear of losing that hope, it seems, is at the heart of the EU’s soft power when the prospect of enlargement is fading away.

The real legacy of the Orange Revolution, reflected in the current wave of protest, is that people learned then that political leaders cannot be trusted, but that tens of thousands, gathered on Kyiv’s Independence Square, can exercise effective veto power. The major difference between 2004 and today is that, virtually overnight, Ukraine has lost its privileged status of geopolitical ambiguity.