Ukraine must reject roots of violence
February 26th, 2014
12:55 PM ET

Ukraine must reject roots of violence

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.


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Topics: Protests • Ukraine

soundoff (14 Responses)
  1. sand

    what russia should do is to nuke usa britain france norway oslo ireland dublin the most agressive organism will survive it has been like that and it will be like this in the future also so boil the entire west away in a ocean of nuclear flames.

    February 26, 2014 at 1:06 pm |
  2. chrissy

    Intelligent aint you? Everyone breaths the same air ya know.

    February 26, 2014 at 1:48 pm |
  3. matslats

    Who is "Ukraine" to reject the roots of violence?
    And which violent US proxy do you have lined up to fill the void once Ukraine decides to be peaceful?

    February 26, 2014 at 3:15 pm |
  4. JAL

    Promote the Bullish Peacekeepers.

    February 26, 2014 at 3:46 pm |
  5. Joseph McCarthy

    Unfortunately, that is not going to happen. Now that an ignorant, Russian hating mob has taken over, the Ukrainians can only expect more bloodshed in the near future. This is playing quite nicely into the hands of the right-wing thugs in both Washington and London!

    February 26, 2014 at 4:13 pm |
    • Pavlo V.

      About the Russian hating mob taking over: Did you know that the "Russian hating mob" has appointed Russian speaking Head of European Jewish Council (read again please, European, not only Ukrainian) as a Regional Governor. The same happened with two other Russian-speaking governors.
      Also, did you know that the Mayor of Lviv (clearly a Ukrainian-speaking Western part of Ukraine) has initiated days when Western Ukraine in support of the Eastern Ukraine started speaking Russian? The Eastern Ukraine has replied in switching to Ukrainian. This happened about 4 days ago. Did you also know the language (Russian or Ukrainian) issue has been highly politicised in all sorts of elections, but in reality it has never been the issue in real life? Did you also know, that the language issue has been used by Kremlin to make a lot of anti-Ukrainian propaganda? Do you also know that Kyiv has significantly supported the newly elected 'mob' is 80% a Russian speaking city?
      Most probably you did not know all of that, if you started writing in a very much Kremlin-way. Buy the way, do you get your pay check from them? that explains a lot...

      March 3, 2014 at 1:01 am |
  6. Only The Shadow Knows

    We've got shadow organizations, shadow banking, shadow government, and by the looks of things we're gonna have shadow countries.

    February 27, 2014 at 7:33 am |
  7. j. von hettlingen

    There is hope that Ukraine's "culture of violence" that the two authors describe, would disappear, if the country can strengthen its rule of law and build a strong civil society. Poverty and unemployment do contribute to violence. In the past Yanukovich's much-despised anti-riot police and other security and law enforcement agencies, which had long been accused of human rights abuses, were responsible of much violence.

    February 27, 2014 at 8:10 am |
    • Patrick

      Do you honestly think that the riff raft who seized control of Ukraine will restore any semblance of order in that country, j. von hettlingen? Not in the near future! It might be better if Ukraine was to go the same way Yugoslavia did in the 1990's and Iraq sorely need to go today.

      February 27, 2014 at 1:47 pm |
  8. Ferhat Balkan

    What the Ukrainians need to reject is both EU and Russia. Ukraine belongs to the Ukrainians and it's up to them to decide what they want. As far as I'm concerned, both EU and Russia can bud out and let them make their own decisions. It's time to end corruption funded by Russia and misinformation spread by EU.

    February 27, 2014 at 6:41 pm |
    • Patrick

      Well said, Ferhat. This time you actually said something right and I want to thank you.

      February 28, 2014 at 11:47 am |
  9. Matt

    Irrelevant look at gun violence in the US, violence is a human condition and has little to do with ethnicity.

    March 1, 2014 at 6:09 am |
  10. Pavlo V.

    One-sided view and no real analysis. Unfortunately, the authors apparently write about Ukrainians using Youtube video rather than really understanding the Ukrainian people in general and causes of the today's events in particular.

    March 3, 2014 at 12:44 am |
  11. set board game

    We're a bunch of volunteers and starting a brand new scheme in our community. Your web site offered us with helpful info to paintings on. You've done an impressive job and our whole community will likely be thankful to you.

    April 13, 2018 at 1:27 pm |

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