Is Ukraine Europe? What the 2013-2014 Euromaidan Protest Meant
Editor’s Note: The original article summarized here was completed and published prior to the Russian invasion of Ukraine that began in 2022. This summary offers some context regarding the relationship between Ukraine and Europe, the relationship between Ukraine and Russia, and issues of Ukrainian identity.
In 2013, then-Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych refused to sign an Association Agreement with the European Union (EU). Yanukovych’s refusal led to the Euromaidan protest. The agreement, which involved a trade deal between Ukraine and the EU, was later signed in 2014, after the protest ended in regime change. In a recent article published in NCA’s Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies, Tetyana Lokot examines the 2013-2014 Euromaidan protest in Kyiv, Ukraine, the idea of Europeanness, how Ukrainian protestors saw themselves fitting into Europe, and what “Europe” represented.
Ukraine and Europe
Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union until it collapsed in 1991. In ensuing years, Lokot writes, “the idea of continued Russian friendship promised stability and power, yet was soured by the 70-year abusive relationship.” Europe offered a change from the troubled relations with Russia and the potential of participating in the broader European economic and political sphere. However, according to Lokot, for some Ukrainians, the idea of “Europe” represented more than just an economic or political alliance. “Europe” was an ideal to which to aspire.
For some Ukrainians, marking something as “European” meant that it was high quality. For example, people have used the prefix “Euro” when referring to objects, places, or practices. Lokot describes how “‘Euro-remont’ is a buzzword for a top-class renovation effort in an urban dwelling: cramped Soviet-era apartments are [renovated and] studded with ceiling spotlights, gilded wallpaper, and mirror wardrobes; heated floors and air conditioning…” Likewise, businesses have been called Europharmacy or Eurotires, or ads have included the word “Euro” to mark a product as desirable.
While Ukrainians may have envisioned “European” as a marker of quality and aspirational for their burgeoning democracy, Lokot argues that Ukraine has also been part of Europe and seen as European in some ways: “As you travel across Ukraine, there are unmistakable traces of Europe everywhere.” Historically, Ukrainian intellectuals and artists have been part of the larger European cultural tradition. More recently, Ukraine has competed in the Eurovision Song Contest, a songwriting competition that is open to members of the European Broadcasting Union.
The Euromaidan Protest
Euromaidan is a portmanteau of the word “Europe” and the Ukrainian word maidan meaning “square.” Lokot argues that the Euromaidan protest signified different things to different people. Lokot observed and interviewed protest participants, finding that “for all the Ukrainians who joined the protest in the central city square [of Kyiv] to stand for what Ukraine was, many others saw it as an opportunity to proclaim what it wasn’t.” In addition to the pro-European Union elements, the Euromaidan protest also included a nominal presence of far-right protestors who envisioned an ethnically homogenous Ukraine. Lokot notes that these protestors also embodied an aspect of Europeanness, albeit negative, reflected in the broader shift toward right-wing nationalist politics and a rise in xenophobic sentiment across Europe in the wake of the migration crisis.
Yet, there are many fighting for a vibrant, multicultural Ukraine, a country that is a place of peace and equality. Lokot observes that “The voices resonating in Ukrainian streets in the aftermath of the Euromaidan protest are diverse and, while some are inward-focused, others are optimistic and hopeful for a Ukraine – and a Europe – that is constructive, inclusive, and cosmopolitan, where integration and co-existence are possible without erasure or alienation.”
In the years since the Euromaidan protest, Ukraine has become more connected to Europe because of educational exchanges, low-cost flights, and the interest generated by the protest. Kyiv itself has become a site for Western music videos, car ads, and films. Like many European cities, Kyiv is a site of contradictions. Lokot describes it as “as messy and multifaceted as any other big city anywhere else in and outside the porous European borders. It is its own unique assemblage of the expected global mundanities and the wildly unexpected local treasures: yes, fast food kiosks and racist slurs scribbled on an underpass wall, but also a whimsical Art Nouveau residence studded with fantastic beasts or a cage full of pet ravens in a shadowy courtyard just off a historic street…” Lokot concludes that Ukraine is in a state of “becoming,” of being both Europe and not Europe.
With Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which escalated in February 2022, Ukraine and its European aspirations now occupy the front pages of the world’s newspapers: the “becoming” continues through stories of destruction and stories of resistance and hope. As many in Europe and the wider world support Ukraine in its struggle, and as Ukrainians stream into European cities to escape the horror of war, the issue of Ukrainian identity as unquestionably European again comes to the fore. The recent protests and Ukraine’s ongoing struggle for peace and sovereignty prompt broader questions about what Europe could be, how life for people in urban European cities may evolve, and who will call those places home. Lokot writes, “What is Europe becoming? And how will Ukrainian (or Georgian, or Serbian) urban citizens help shape that?”