Saturday

24th Aug 2019

Interview

Ukraine and the penguin: An alternative view on the protests and EU diplomacy

As EU envoys go back and forth to Kiev, Ukrainian novelist Andrey Kurkov says few people know who they are and that the protest is no longer about Europe.

The writer, best known for his satire Death and the Penguin, spoke to EUobserver by phone on Wednesday (5 February) amid a visit by EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton and ahead of another trip by EU commissioner Stefan Fuele.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Support quality EU news

Get instant access to all articles — and 18 year's of archives. 30 days free trial.

... or join as a group

  • Kurkov's Death and the Penguin satirised links between the mafia, the media, and authorities in 1990s Ukraine (Photo: Antarctica Bound)

“There is not much information about their visits and most people don’t know who they are. Among those who do know, quite a lot of them think they do not take Ukraine seriously, that they come here to show their own public that they care about what’s going on,” he said.

He noted the EU diplomats get coverage almost exclusively on internet media.

But TV and radio is dominated by government messages, for instance, that protests are preventing authorities from paying people’s pensions, or that Nato is sending tanks into western Ukraine.

Kurkov, the vice-president of a Ukrainian writers’ group, PEN, became politically involved when PEN in an open letter in January called for EU sanctions.

He lives in Kiev and walks through the “Maidan” protest camp in the city centre each morning on the way to his office.

He said the protests began as a reaction to President Viktor Yanukovych’s rejection of an EU treaty last November, but have a different agenda two months down the line.

“The question of Europe was long forgotten in December and now it's all about a general dissatisfaction with the state of affairs in Ukraine,” he noted.

He said that when he wrote Death and the Penguin, a story about an obituary writer who gets entangled with the mafia, in 1996 Ukraine was ruled by street criminals, but now the criminals have moved from the street to parliament.

“Corruption is the main problem: financial corruption, but also moral corruption, the fact that, in 90 percent of cases, you have to pay bribes to get basic government services - this is what irritates people,” he noted.

“Clever people think the country is being run by idiots,” he added.

“Yanukovych is mostly silent, but when he speaks, he sounds like a joke. He was recently asked who his favourite Ukrainian poet is and he said ‘Anton Chekhov’ [a Russian short story writer and dramatist],” Kurkov said.

He noted the Maidan is becoming more introverted.

“The people in the camp are not as open as they used to be. They are not sociable anymore. They have their own daily routine, which begins every morning with the singing of the Ukrainian national anthem, then a church service, then cleaning up the streets around Independence Square. It’s like a state within a state,” he said.

With Ashton and Fuele concentrating on talks between Yanukovych and opposition MPs Vitali Klitschko, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, and Petro Poroshenko, Kurkov indicated that all three men lack popular support.

He said the opposition movement has yet to produce its own leader, such as Lech Walesa in Poland in the 1980s, a shipyard worker who captured people’s imagination.

He noted that Yulia Tymoshenko, the jailed former PM, could play the role if she got out, but that she is dangerous.

“She is a very powerful speaker and she might well lead the revolution into a bloody phase. She has the image of a martyr and she would be taken much more seriously. People believe that once she is back in power, she would put Yanukovych and his team in prison, and this is what they want,” he said.

He warned that a political deal between the government and the current opposition elite is unlikely to see protests end.

“They won’t go home until they see some kind of real change,” he said.

He believes the west of Ukraine, which is dominated by Roman Catholic native Ukrainian speakers, has become ungovernable.

“People in western Ukraine are not going to accept a ruling party [in Kiev] and its local bosses telling them what to do. You could even see [armed] partisans, as you did after 1945 … there will be permanent defiance,” he said, referring to the anti-Soviet resistance in Ukraine after World War II.

Kurkov, a 43-year-old ethnic Russian who was born in St. Petersburg, said eastern Ukraine is more complex.

He noted that many Russophone Ukrainians support the Maidan: “Kiev-based Russian speakers are bringing firewood and food to the camp even if few of them are joining in the protests.”

“But there is no stereotype which fits Russian speakers. People in Crimea have announced that it should become an autonomous republic and join Russia. Then you have Russian speakers in the Donbas, who love Yanukovych, but who feel betrayed by Russia. People in Kharkiv, where lots of the intelligentsia live, are definitely against Yanukovych, but they are also against chaos. They have a post-Soviet mentality which puts stability above everything else,” he explained.

He reiterated PEN's call for the EU to impose financial sanctions on Yanukovych’s inner circle and said it should also drop visa requirements for ordinary Ukrainians if it wants to help.

The US already imposed visa bans on some top officials, gaining recognition on the Maidan.

The European Parliament will, in a resolution to be voted on Thursday, call for similar measures.

But for his part, Fuele, speaking to MEPs in Strasbourg on Wednesday, said neither of Kurkov’s ideas are likely to be implemented. “Our plan is based on engagement not sanctions,” Fuele noted. “We do not see any progress [on visa-free talks], not because of us, but because of the Ukrainian authorities,” he added.

The protests have calmed down after violent clashes in late January.

Kurkov noted that there is a subterranean mall under the Maidan camp, where banks, shops, and restaurants are open for business as if nothing had happened.

“People in Kiev are just living their daily life, with the expectation that the central part of Kiev has become a permanent settlement, with designated battlegrounds, barricades, where there is a front line between radical protesters and police,” he said.

He predicts the most likely scenario is that the stalemate will cause the government to go bankrupt, creating the opportunity for a Russian takeover.

“Lots of Ukrainian businesses have already gone bust because the state is not paying them for goods and services,” he noted.

“When the sovereign default is announced and the country is in ruins, neither Europe or Russia will want to acquire Ukraine because it will be too expensive to restart its economy,” he said.

“Russia will change its policy: Our main assets will be bought by Russian oligarchs who take instructions from the Kremlin and we will become a colony with no political voice.”

Ashton off to Kiev with new financial offer

EU foreign affairs chief Ashton is going to Kiev to offer money in exchange for a political solution to the crisis, as the number of pro-sanctions EU countries grows.

US makes light of 'curse words' on EU

The US is trying to laugh off a leak in which it denigrates EU diplomacy on Ukraine, while blaming Russia for a "new low" in spy craft.

News in Brief

  1. Ocean Viking to disembark in Malta after ordeal
  2. Germany joins France in world outcry on Brazil fires
  3. British people lose faith in Brexit deal
  4. Brexit hardliners want further changes to EU deal
  5. German manufacturers confirm fear of recession
  6. Belgian socialists and liberals scrap over EU post
  7. Fall in EU migration leading to UK skills shortages
  8. Switzerland makes post-Brexit flight preparations

Opinion

Time to pay attention to Belarus

Belarus may be hosting the European Games, but Vladimir Putin is not playing games when it comes to Belarus' independence. The West needs to get serious as well.

Analysis

EU should stop an insane US-Iran war

"If Iran wants to fight, that will be the official end of Iran. Never threaten the United States again!", US president Donald Trump tweeted on Monday (20 May).

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. UNESDAUNESDA reduces added sugars 11.9% between 2015-2017
  2. International Partnership for Human RightsEU-Uzbekistan Human Rights Dialogue: EU to raise key fundamental rights issues
  3. Nordic Council of MinistersNo evidence that social media are harmful to young people
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersCanada to host the joint Nordic cultural initiative 2021
  5. Vote for the EU Sutainable Energy AwardsCast your vote for your favourite EUSEW Award finalist. You choose the winner of 2019 Citizen’s Award.
  6. Nordic Council of MinistersEducation gets refugees into work
  7. Counter BalanceSign the petition to help reform the EU’s Bank
  8. UNICEFChild rights organisations encourage candidates for EU elections to become Child Rights Champions
  9. UNESDAUNESDA Outlines 2019-2024 Aspirations: Sustainability, Responsibility, Competitiveness
  10. Counter BalanceRecord citizens’ input to EU bank’s consultation calls on EIB to abandon fossil fuels
  11. International Partnership for Human RightsAnnual EU-Turkmenistan Human Rights Dialogue takes place in Ashgabat
  12. Nordic Council of MinistersNew campaign: spot, capture and share Traces of North

Latest News

  1. Spain heading for yet another general election
  2. EU to discuss Brazil beef ban over Amazon fires
  3. 'Our house is burning,' Macron says on Amazon fires
  4. What happens when trafficking survivors get home
  5. EU states and Russia clash on truth of WW2 pact
  6. EU considers new rules on facial recognition
  7. EU to pledge Africa security funds at G7 summit
  8. Letter from the EESC on per diem article

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of MinistersLeading Nordic candidates go head-to-head in EU election debate
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersNew Secretary General: Nordic co-operation must benefit everybody
  3. Platform for Peace and JusticeMEP Kati Piri: “Our red line on Turkey has been crossed”
  4. UNICEF2018 deadliest year yet for children in Syria as war enters 9th year
  5. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic commitment to driving global gender equality
  6. International Partnership for Human RightsMeet your defender: Rasul Jafarov leading human rights defender from Azerbaijan
  7. UNICEFUNICEF Hosts MEPs in Jordan Ahead of Brussels Conference on the Future of Syria
  8. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic talks on parental leave at the UN
  9. International Partnership for Human RightsTrial of Chechen prisoner of conscience and human rights activist Oyub Titiev continues.
  10. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic food policy inspires India to be a sustainable superpower
  11. Nordic Council of MinistersMilestone for Nordic-Baltic e-ID
  12. Counter BalanceEU bank urged to free itself from fossil fuels and take climate leadership

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Intercultural Dialogue PlatformRoundtable: Muslim Heresy and the Politics of Human Rights, Dr. Matthew J. Nelson
  2. Platform for Peace and JusticeTurkey suffering from the lack of the rule of law
  3. UNESDASoft Drinks Europe welcomes Tim Brett as its new president
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic ministers take the lead in combatting climate change
  5. Counter BalanceEuropean Parliament takes incoherent steps on climate in future EU investments
  6. International Partnership For Human RightsKyrgyz authorities have to immediately release human rights defender Azimjon Askarov
  7. Nordic Council of MinistersSeminar on disability and user involvement
  8. Nordic Council of MinistersInternational appetite for Nordic food policies
  9. Nordic Council of MinistersNew Nordic Innovation House in Hong Kong
  10. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic Region has chance to become world leader when it comes to start-ups
  11. Nordic Council of MinistersTheresa May: “We will not be turning our backs on the Nordic region”
  12. International Partnership for Human RightsOpen letter to Emmanuel Macron ahead of Uzbek president's visit

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us