If Vladimir Putin is looking for something to do next weekend, I can highly recommend a trip to Ukraine. For me at least, post-revolutionary Kiev has turned out to be the perfect holiday destination, with a contagious festivity that fills the streets. Day and night, Kievans pack the city center to celebrate one of Europe’s largest demonstrations of “people power” since the fall of the Berlin Wall.
The giddiness here reminds me of the summer of 1990, when I spent three months backpacking through the former Eastern Bloc. Most of the people I met back then were enthusiastic about the prospects for a democratic society and a higher standard of living. They were ready and open to learn from the West. Now it looks like a majority of Ukrainians harbor the same ambitions as the Poles, Czechs and Hungarians who embarked on the tortuous trek to Europe 15 years ago.
Viktor Yushchenko was chosen to be Ukraine’s new president by citizens who wanted their country to forge closer ties with the West. In large part, Yushchenko owes his election to the European Union — especially Poland — which intervened diplomatically to make a rerun of the botched second round possible. Inevitably, Ukraine’s foreign policy will refocus on the EU, away from Moscow.
Just as Prague’s Velvet Revolution symbolized an abandonment of Russian-style communism, Ukraine’s Orange Revolution has been a rejection of Russian-style crony capitalism. Everyone I’ve talked to here resents Putin’s two visits to Ukraine late last year to campaign for Viktor Yanukovych. But those same people go to great lengths to explain — in Russian — just how warm their feelings for Russia are. But unfortunately, bilateral relations don’t depend on Ukrainian goodwill alone. To an already prickly Kremlin, Ukraine is the latest Western domino to fall on Russia’s borders. But such a view skews the true picture. For one, Moscow clearly has more dangerous threats on its southern flank than the establishment of liberal democracy in Ukraine. What’s more, it will take years before the EU begins to consider a Ukrainian application for membership.
The new Ukrainian president hasn’t even been sworn in yet. That means Putin has the perfect excuse to drop into town again — for Yushchenko’s inauguration. A lot has changed since his last visit. For a start, Putin’s presence would actually be welcome this time.
Lucian Kim is deputy business editor of The Moscow Times.