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04.03.2019

Maidan five years later: Ukraine’s 'revolution of dignity' turned out to be a dream

By Henrik Kaufholz

It was a late Saturday afternoon in November 2013. There were a few thousand activists on Maidan in Kiev, Ukraine. I still remember my own remark to a colleague: "If that’s all they can mobilise, this is going to fizzle out." The police action had just broken up a small tent camp established by young protesters that same evening. However, my prediction of the protests fizzling out was wrong, completely wrong.

Maidan_main Photo: Jacob Ehrbahn

The following day, there were around one million angry Ukrainians in central Kiev protesting against how the police violently treated protesters the day before. Some activists broke into the mayor's office, others established makeshift headquarters in a building of the Ukrainian labour unions. It was now clear to everybody that this was going to be a reversal of the Orange Revolution in 2004, which brought the reformer Viktor Yushchenko to power.

Yes to Europe, no to Asia

The protests against the corrupt president Viktor Yanukovych and his refusal to sign a treaty with the EU made the mass protests about fundamental human values.

Maidan – Timeline

21.11.2013 – President Viktor Yanukovych declares to everyone’s astonishment that Ukraine is not going to sign an association agreement with the EU. The same day, journalist Yuri Andreev on his blog calls for protests the same evening at 22:30

01.12.2013  – Around 1 million people gather in central Kyiv to protest against a brutal break up of a small tent camp at Maidan

20.02.2014 – After several days of violent clashes between activists and police, the Ukrainian Parliament decides to stop police operations

21.-22.02.2014 – President Yanukovych boards a plane to Russia

27.02.2014 – Russia invades Crimea

07.04.2014 – Declaration of 'People’s Republic Donetsk'

The motto was "yes to Europe and no to Asia" (meaning Russia), and it was seen by most Ukrainians as a 'revolution of dignity'.

I was there at several occasions during the so-called 'revolution'. There is no doubt in my mind that a majority of the Ukrainians wanted to see their society change. Everyone wanted an end to rampant corruption, misuse of the justice system, and an end to empty promises from politicians who were more concerned with their own bank accounts than with the country’s welfare and development.

Simply put, Maidan brought a dream of a better Ukraine.

Reforms have stalled

Now, five years after the protests that brought the 'revolution of dignity', it is clear that it was actually just a dream. Despite some modest reforms, a few very rich oligarchs and their cronies in parliament still control Ukraine's economy.

Maidan_two Photo: Jacob Ehrbahn

For more than a year, authorities from the president all the way down have mounted pressure on independent journalists and many NGOs working in favour of reforms and fighting corruption.

International press freedom rankings classify Ukraine as only 'partly free', and the trend shows a downward direction. Here are some important background facts:

  • Ex-President Yanukovych was sentenced for treason but not for robbing the state;
  • 227 of the 337 judges who sentenced Maidan-activists in 2013-14 are still on their benches;
  • the murder of journalist Pavel Sheremet in July 2016 remains unsolved.

Moreover, smear campaigns from both radical nationalists and oligarchs against independent journalists continue.

Maidan_three Photo: Jacob Ehrbahn

TV star leading the presidential race

The upcoming presidential election on 31 March 2019 brings little hope. There are important divisions among reformers, and thus they practically have no chance of reaching the second round in April.

The leading candidate is a TV comedian, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, and his backers are two usual suspects of Ukrainian politics: Ruling President Petro Poroshenko and the heroine from the Orange Revolution and former 'gas princess', Yulia Tymoshenko. In addition, Maidan led to a fall in the general standard of living. Average income per month in Ukraine is now 275 Euro.

A recent report from Chatham House, 'The Struggle for Ukraine', concluded that, "institutionally Ukraine needs a new moral compass. This probably requires many of the existing elite to quit politics and public life."

Independent journalism and NGOs are under pressure, while judges who sentenced people demonstrating are still on their benches. The ongoing election campaign carries no hope for reformers. Green MEP Rebecca Harms says: "EU has to do more for the man in the street, who till now has not benefited personally from reforms."

Was the 'revolution of dignity' just a dream?

Rebecca Harms, who is member of the European Parliament for the Greens, recently attended events in Kiev to commemorate the 'revolution of dignity' and met with politicians, representatives of international organizations, as well as activists. I asked her for her impressions of the current situation.

Maidan_four Photo: Jacob Ehrbahn

"Five years after Maidan, it’s obvious that this 'revolution of dignity' generated the basis for change in Ukrainian society, including for democratic reforms. It's obvious, too, that the many and tough reforms couldn't be accomplished in one legislative period. The reformers and supporters in the EU underestimated the difficulties. However, it,s apparent that Ukraine has made real progress when it comes to fighting corruption, to decentralise or reform the police, health sector and education, to pick only few examples," says Rebecca Harms.

"So I and others who support the reforms in Ukraine have to ask for consistent reforms and their implementation, but we also have to ask everybody for a bit of patience. Ukraine is moving in the right direction, even if the oligarchs still have too much to say in politics."

"At the same time, we have to see that reforms also have to improve the situation for the man in the street. Many reforms have not yet improved the daily life of ordinary Ukrainian citizens, and that’s one of the reasons for the present mood of disillusion."

How do you see the situation in the media and NGOs, which are under more and more pressure?

"You will find a lot of good and reliable media in Ukraine – both in print and on the internet. You also have a lot of courageous journalists in both Kiev and on the countryside, who do their best to disclose corruption and other scandals. Some of them are supported by foreign institutions like the EU and countries like Germany and Sweden. My impression is that these journalists will not give in easily, but they need more public support in cases of threats and violence against them. Impunity of people who threaten or beat journalists must end."

"That said, I’ll add that Ukrainians and EU citizens must know that reforms will probably [take] a generation. The EU and others will have to support the reforms both financially and politically for years to come. It's worth doing so because democratic stability in Ukraine will help make all of Europe a lot safer."


Henrik Kaufholz is Chair of the ECPMF Executive Board. A reporter for the Danish daily Politiken, he was covering events in Kiev as the uprising began.

The photos in this article are by Jacob Ehrbahn, photographer for Politiken, who was also in Kiev when the uprising met its bloody end.