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22nd Oct 2020

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.

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  • 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.”

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