By Mattison Brady and Matthew Rojansky, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Matthew Rojansky is the director of the Kennan Institute at the Woodrow Wilson Center. Mattison Brady is the program assistant for the Kennan Institute at the Woodrow Wilson Center. The views expressed are their own.
The bloodiest winter in Ukraine for more than half a century may at last be giving way to an early spring thaw of peace, reconciliation and rebuilding. True, major challenges remain, but the emerging signs of cooperation between the victorious opposition forces and the vanquished president’s erstwhile allies offer some hope that Ukrainians can begin to recover from the violence that shook the Maidan for weeks.
While many remain shocked by the speed and intensity with which the situation deteriorated, the fact that the standoff turned violent in the first place is no surprise, which should force Ukrainians to pause a moment as they contemplate how to heal the country’s wounds. One vital lesson from all of this suffering must be that if Ukrainians seek a brighter future, if they want to live decently with or without the EU, then they must recognize, isolate and reject the inclinations to use violence that are now deeply rooted in the country’s political culture.
The former state authorities bear overwhelming responsibility for deploying armed force against the Maidan, which was in most respects a thoroughly legitimate, modern and democratic protest movement. Yet the legitimacy of the protest was also marred by the participation of radical nationalist groups, some of which came to the streets apparently prepared to use deadly violence against the police or anyone perceived to be supportive of the government. It would be a mistake to dismiss the acts of violence by either side as merely an aberration in an otherwise peaceful Ukrainian body politic. Long before Kiev’s picturesque downtown boulevards were barricaded and set ablaze, examples of excessive violence were widespread and well known through every stratum of Ukrainian society.
Ukraine’s endemic corruption and weak rule of law have opened the door to solving problems by the use or threat of force. One can encounter this sort of violence on the roadways of Ukraine practically every day. Many YouTube viewers will be familiar with wild traffic incidents captured by Ukrainian dash-cams, while drivers know they can too often expect outrageous, threatening behavior from fellow motorists in the event of an accident, to say nothing of abuses by the notoriously predatory traffic police. Ukrainians are especially outraged by the impunity with which officials and their relatives act. But at the same time, a sort of gangster chic glorifies these law-breakers in the minds of many young Ukrainian men.
Clearly, Ukrainian society suffers from the prevalence of the tough guy image. But why does it hold such appeal? The answer is complex, but lies at least partially in the examples young Ukrainians choose to follow. That a young man with no real financial or social means might resort to physical violence is perhaps no surprise; what is surprising is the frequency with which Ukrainian MPs, the wealthiest and most powerful men in the country, publicly brawl on the floor of the Verkhovna Rada.
At the same time, business owners are at the mercy of corporate raiders who deploy armed thugs to extort money or steal entire enterprises – and they are likely to succeed unless the victim hires his own muscle to fight back. Even at the very top of the system, among those empowered to make and enforce the rules, violence is not just commonplace, it is a way of life.
Peaceful Maidan protestors have deplored the government’s use of titushki (nicknamed for Vadim Titushko, who attacked journalists during a protest last year) as agents provocateurs to undermine the protests’ legitimacy. Yet these thugs were not conjured by the government from thin air – they were recruited from a large population of aggressive, directionless young men already well steeped in a culture of violence.
At home and in the community, domestic violence remains widespread, and the police response has typically been inadequate; among young people, fighting over turf, sex, or for sheer bravado is common; in sport, as in Western Europe, football hooliganism seems to glorify and justify shockingly antisocial behavior, and transforms aspiring thugs into veteran brawlers; in the popular media, much of it from America, violence is glorified; and at the national level, one of the main unifying symbols of Ukrainian culture and history is the Cossacks, an elite warrior caste known for their fierce independence, but also their militancy. In short, in nearly every influence on a young man’s daily life, violence is common, and frequently acceptable or even positive.
These examples should demonstrate that a mere changing of the guard at the top of Ukrainian politics, even with a commitment to EU integration, will not preclude any future political crisis from turning violent. In fact, “compromise” is not an accepted part of the tough guy’s lexicon, so even the current transition may be held hostage by those who will accept nothing less than 100 percent of their demands. To safeguard the positive developments now underway, and to ensure that this moment is not just a prelude to future violent political transitions, the Ukrainian state and its leading social institutions must resolve to take a long hard look in the mirror, and begin to set down pillars of a new national identity that does not conflate power with violence, especially for young men.