Ukrainian Protests Through An Arkansas Lens

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The following is a letter from overseas written by a friend of The Arkansas Project/the Advance Arkansas Institute, Brian Mefford:

Let me try to paint an image of what just happened in Ukraine.  Remember the anger when Governor Jim Guy Tucker reversed his decision to resign in 1996?  Recollect the drama of Governor Huckabee’s decision to have a triple execution in 1997? Throw in the outrage over Senator Jerry Jewell’s pardons during Clinton’s 1992 Inauguration. Now transpose those emotions and feelings into the backdrop of the barricades scene in Les Miserables, mixed with the intro to “Gangs of New York”, add in costumes from Mad Max, and top it off with the hopeful atmosphere of a Razorback tailgate party and then you can get a picture of what downtown Kiev, Ukraine has been like since protests started in late November.

On November 21, Ukraine’s President Victor Yanukovych (a man who in comparison makes former Louisiana Governor Edwin Edwards look like a candidate for Pope) pulled a “Jim Guy” and abruptly reversed his decision to sign the EU agreement, thereby sparking protests in downtown Kyiv.  The agreement would have created a free-trade zone and “visa-free” regime with Europe resulting in increased economic opportunities for Ukrainians (the average monthly income is less than $400).  Already unpopular, Yanukovych lived a lavish lifestyle and operated a corrupt business racket that reportedly made him a billionaire.  His home (named “Mezhyhirya”) featured his private golf course, pirate ship, petting zoo, and priceless antiques among other luxuries (a far cry from Governor Huckabee’s “triple wide trailer”).
The protests continued to grow; despite police violence and intimidation, the protestors persevered.  Finally, after three months of tensions, the protestors prevailed and Yanukovych fled Ukraine faster than Darrell Glascock being chased by bounty hunters.  Now a new government has been approved by Parliament, and changes are taking place.  The future looks positive as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) is preparing a financial aid package (tied to reforms) to help Ukraine return to a European path.  As former Ukrainian First Lady Kathy Yushchenko says, “In Ukraine, the IMF is considered right wing.”  Thus, ironically with IMF help, Ukraine has a chance to overcome its legacy of Communism and tyranny.
Some observations:
1. The Ukrainian Orthodox and Catholic churches played key roles in providing moral/spiritual support to the protestors and de-escalating violence on multiple occasions. Priests conducted daily masses while standing between riot police and protesters armed with baseball bats and wearing hockey pads. Priests said prayers regularly on the protest stage while the protestors bowed their heads in reverence.  Protestors found refuge from the violence of riot police inside the gates of Saint Michael’s Cathedral and the grounds also served as a makeshift hospital.  Interestingly, Saint Michael’s was destroyed by Stalin but restored in 2000 with President Clinton speaking at the re-opening ceremony.  For a country that had atheism as the state religion for 70 years, this is an encouraging sign of the re-emergence of faith in people’s daily lives.
2. There is not a tradition of charity in Ukraine due to the Soviet legacy. Contributions to charities are even taxed at 13%! However, none of that prevented Ukrainians from opening their hearts and wallets to help the protestors survive the brutal winter weather.  Ukrainians gave food, blankets, warm clothes, medical supplies, etc. to help the protestors endure the hardships.  In addition, a strict ‘no alcohol’ policy was enforced in the tent city to avoid giving the government anything to criticize.  This was astonishingly effective in a country where “cirrhosis of the liver” is classified as “natural causes.”  In addition, the tent city was far more effective in delivering services to its needy “residents” than a Crittenden County canvasser is at stealing votes.
3. Ukraine doesn’t have a 2nd Amendment guaranteeing citizens the “right to keep and bear arms”; firearms are therefore difficult to obtain. However, the protestors achieved their victory by peaceful, civil resistance and not firepower. Given that the Ukrainian police and military are still quite fearsome and well-armed, this was amazing. A tipping point in the conflict was when police in Western Ukraine began surrendering their weapons arsenals to protestors. Fortunately, the weapons were not needed as the conflict was resolved by the president fleeing the country.
4. Senator John Boozman and Representative Tom Cotton both demonstrated decisive leadership on the Ukrainian issue from the beginning. Representative Cotton immediately organized six co-signees on the House Foreign Affairs Committee to put pressure on the State Department, ensuring that the rights of protestors were protected and that violence was not used by the government. It was the impetus from congressional leaders that forced the White House to get involved and invoke sanctions against Ukrainian government officials — a key turning point in the conflict.
The removal of tyrants is a victory for freedom-loving people everywhere. However, there is tangible benefit for Arkansans in the form of new export opportunities to 45 million Ukrainians.  This week I had dinner at Ukraine’s best steakhouse and ordered the $50 Black Angus rib-eye to celebrate recent events.  The steak was delicious and I asked the waiter about the origin of the beef.  He proudly explained that the meat was imported from “a far-away place called Arkansas”.  If a steak that costs $17 in Arkansas can sell for three times that in Ukraine, what other Arkansas products can be exported here?  Now not only do Ukrainians have a brighter future, but Arkansans have great opportunities in Ukraine as well.
Brian Mefford is a political consultant who has lived and worked in Kyiv, Ukraine, since 1999.  He is formerly a Resident Program Officer for the International Republican Institute (IRI) and an adviser to past President Victor Yushchenko. Prior to living in Ukraine, Mefford was active in Arkansas Republican Party politics.

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