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A great age approaches (statement of the First of December Initiative Group)

01.12.2021

Exactly ten years ago, eleven members of the newly-formed ‘First of December Initiative Group gave the following assessment of the state of Ukrainian society in their Declaration.

Poorly understood materialist thinking has prevailed over the priority of ethical and spiritual values. Mutual struggle and the lust for accumulation have become mass norms of social behaviour. All of this has caused serious social distortion: moral virtues are associated with being a loser, the justice system is increasingly equated with corruption and the law of force, criminalization of society has increased, the gap between rich and poor has widened. This has led to the atomization of society and has distorted human relations, as well as alienating the pollical authorities from the people, and engendering in the state altogether.

The subsequent years have brought Ukraine a series of gruelling trials and startling victories, but it seems that the Group’s main conclusions about the state of society at the time are still relevant. This, in particular, shows that the social contract we live by remains almost the same.

Nonetheless, Ukraine is not standing still. Today, it has many enthusiastic activists who, despite unfavourable circumstances, work miracles and make civil society in the country resilient and effective. Advanced business is setting new standards. In virtually every field of public life there are centres that operate in accordance with ethical principles, and in which elements of a new social contract are forming.

So, if Ukraine lived apart from the world, we could reassure ourselves that these positive transformations will accumulate and eventually bring about a new quality.  It is obvious, however, that today we do not have this luxury and that the world is changing so rapidly that Ivan Franko’s warning may become relevant: “For a great age is coming, and woe to us, woe to our nation, when the great age finds us small and unprepared!”.

In this anniversary address, we will try to clarify what important questions we need to find answers to, so that the current cataclysms do not find us unprepared. After all, a new age can be great both in its accomplishments and in the degree of pain and blood.

Let us start with ourselves

For us as Ukrainians, the great age began in 1991 with the achievement of independence, established itself through with amazing Maidans and called us to sacrifice in 2014 on the battlefield. We know how to lift our spirits and already have the strength to stop unwanted scenarios involving turning around towards the “Russian world”. But we still lack a national consensus, and therefore remain “small and unprepared: for possible global challenges.

This consensus can only be reached in an evolutionary way, although we could accelerate it if we unite our efforts, rely on the mind and strength of the state, and show solidarity with our sincere allies in the world. Unfortunately, the Ukrainian political realm is divided today, with confrontation in which the current leadership of the state is an active participant. We realize that the political process has been and will be one of competition, but at the same, we would invite all political groups to think: will your electoral calculations be important if the Kremlin starts a new phase of the war?

Challenge from Russia

For the past seven years, Russia has been successfully destroying the international order. The annexation of Crimea, the war of attrition in eastern Ukraine, gas blackmail, cyber-attacks, the transformation of refugees into living weapons – all these are just some examples of the hybrid “Third World War” that Russia is waging for a new redistribution of the world, but which European politicians do not want to recognize in order to preserve the illusion of peace.

The instigator of a war always appears the winner at first, so there are plenty of people to be found who have doubted the strength of democracy and swung towards an autocratic system. There are those, of course, who do not believe in Ukraine as well. Ukraine’s return to Russia’s orbit appears to hold the solution to all problems: an end to a gruelling war, reliable access to cheap gas, and a geopolitical refuge in a revived Union. But all these “mountains of gold” are not much different from the Greeks bearing gifts  – accepting them, you lose yourself.

Russia is therefore dangerous in its certainty that a return to a new empire, based on the former Slavic republics, is possible and desirable. But this will never happen again. We proclaimed our independence in Ukraine in a completely legal way, even from the standpoint of the Constitution of the former USSR and the former Ukrainian SSR – and became a sovereign state within our own territorial borders. Justice is, therefore, totally on our side.

Putin’s Russia will fight for Ukraine to the last, because, without it, the revival of the empire, which for the current Russian leadership is the essence of “Russia’s greatness and strength”, is impossible. Defending ourselves from Russia is thus vital, and believing Russia would spell disaster. Centuries of history have shown that the mainstay of that country is crime without punishment.  It demonstrates greatness through violence; lies; hatred; shows its greatness in violence, lies, hatred, perfidy; contempt and blackmail. It cannot become a leader, unless in falling into the abyss of history.

Foreign policy circumstances

The above-mentioned “great age” has not only found us unprepared. Until recently, we observed with pain the helplessness of European politicians in the face of current challenges from Russia. Most of them could not reject the infamous policy of flattering and pacifying the aggressor, and even trading with it. And if European policy changed, it was only in the direction of strengthening national selfishness and illusions regarding their own national greatness. All this shook the international legal order and obviously benefited the Kremlin.

It seems, however, that Western democracies have begun waking up in recent months: Russian arrogance and cynicism are causing not only fear, but increasingly the will to self-defence. Until now, perhaps the sole guarantor of Ukraine’s independence was the above-mentioned international order, based on Euro-Atlantic solidarity. Its decline intensifies the clouds over Ukraine; its strengthening – gives us strength. And Ukrainians are indescribably grateful to all the governments and ordinary citizens of European countries who have supported us.

Ukraine does not need Europe to fight instead of us. It is important for us that we are not alone in this struggle. We therefore support the efforts of Ukrainian diplomacy and Ukrainians worldwide in finding Ukraine’s allies in this struggle.

Ukraine is the key to completing the decolonization process on the European continent. Europe can only become truly united when there are no empires, that is, when Ukraine becomes a full member of the European community. And this continent can only be peaceful when Ukraine becomes one of the pillars of Europe’s new security structure.

Choosing the road for Ukraine

Ukrainian society should realize that there is more reliable way of stopping Russia’s aggression, namely, to stop feeding it with hopes for revanche. The Kremlin feeds on our misunderstandings, it is mobilized by our destruction, it is intoxicated by our weakness. For Russia, we are a disorganized “biomass” that needs a Russian bridle. And at different levels of Russian society there would be those who would gladly undertake to put it on.

Our task is, therefore, to stop being this “disorganized biomass”, and here Ukrainians have two roads. One seems very attractive, because it leads to a ‘firm hand’:, which seems to bring order and win the duel with Russia. Many anxious Ukrainians who consider themselves realists and believe in the “iron fist” of force, are urged to follow this path. Well, there is no denying that Ukraine needs a strong army like oxygen, however a ‘firm hand’ also presupposes an order established within the country, while historical experience shows that not everyone will accept such an enforced “order”. A fairly large percentage will call for the help of the northern neighbour. That is why an authoritarian leader will not unite Ukraine – we will inevitably have several such leaders who will tear it apart.

The other road seems utopian, although is, in fact, successful. It was laid by the Ukrainian Maidans: self-organization on the basis of clearly understood and assimilated values. This is a Ukrainian democratic tradition based on communities. It is “unity in diversity” when we agree to be different according to our preferences, but remain united and in solidarity with our values.

What are these values? They are the opposite of the anti-values promoted by the Kremlin, that is, they are based on human dignity, loyalty to the truth, mutual respect, and a willingness to be prudent and fair. It is through them that they must learn that we are not Russia. Let us recall that these ethical principles brought us success on the three Ukrainian Maidans, because they were the ones that thwarted the then Kremlin scenarios. Why not rely on these principles to override the current scenario?

The State

To win this competition, we need an efficient and energetic state. Not a monster and a Leviathan, but a friendly and modern management team. Unfortunately, in the minds and instincts of the Ukrainian political elite there is still an Eastern, Eurasian understanding of the institution of power: the state does not serve, but rules and reigns. In recent years, there has been an alarming trend towards slipping into the old authoritarian “ski path”. Formal state institutions are mostly a cover that legitimizes decisions that are often made by individuals who are out of control and not accountable to society. For such a government, political opponents are not participants in the decision-making process with whom a compromise agreement must be reached, but rivals whose influence must be neutralized.

It is typical that the current administration, which had no experience in public administration and which, having obtained an absolute majority (the dream of many democratic leaders), could have radically changed the style of governing the state, slipped into the old ‘ski path’, and changes did not come about. It would seem that this is because it did not so much want to change the style itself, as to privatize it in their own interest.

We see, of course, the positive changes that are taking place, such as the creation of administrative service centres, the significant simplification of many administrative operations (in particular through the Action program) and the opening of access to many of the registries of the Ministry of Justice which provide the opportunity to learn a lot about the wealth of citizens and understand when it was obtained illegally. This is of great importance for the modernization of the state “machine”, but has little effect on the very nature of the exercising of power. After all, these effectively created tools are not allowed to work properly, because they are used according to the old selective principle: punishment for “others” and leniency for “their own”.

Therefore, the problem remains: to be effective for our politicians means to effectively break the opposition’s resistance, when in fact successful managerial work is needed to join efforts and unite around the highest national interests.

The justice system

We have already addressed a separate appeal regarding the situation with the justice system, so we will limit ourselves to brief conclusions. It will not be possible to overcome the current crisis with episodic attacks or selective punishments. Abuse in the justice system is beneficial to too many influential groups, and therefore their resistance can only be neutralized by consolidated efforts and with the conscious support of the whole society. Such a task is beyond the power of individual political parties and their factions in the Verkhovna Rada. This requires a coalition agreement drawn up with the participation of interested groups within civil society.

However, in the justice system (as in other areas), purely legislative and institutional changes will not solve the problem if there are no people fighting for values and not for money or positions. Fortunately, there are many specialists in the legal environment of Ukraine who are traumatized by the current state of the justice system and the generalized labels provided to it. It is precisely these glaring abuses that paint the whole situation in sinister colours that do not allow us to see these lawyers. However, they will not be able to break the system of abuse alone: they need public support.

Systemic dysfunction and the value crisis in the judiciary also lead to large disparities and value losses in the field of property. Commercial interest is one thing, but abusing the crisis of justice to preserve the channels of illicit enrichment is quite another. Blocking these channels is a primary precondition for social justice.

However, the path of "fighting the oligarchy", chosen by the current leadership of the state, does not so much solve these problems as multiply new ones. It is about giving the National Security and Defence Council of Ukraine unusual judicial functions, reviving old stereotypes about big business and big money as clearly criminal, creating opportunities for selective application of anti-oligarchic sanctions against its rivals and forcing big business to negotiate with the authorities. Instead of a real fight against illegal channels of enrichment, society is offered the introduction of a Russian model of subjugation of the oligarchs.

Again about society

Franko’s mention of the “great age” evokes an association with the famous phrase of Patriarch Josyf Slipyi: “I will be such cardinal as you will be a nation. If you are a great nation, then I will be great, and if you are small, even if I were great, I will do nothing”.

So the fate of the people who are drowning in petty quarrels and dirty interests will not be great and worthy. It makes no sense to list our social weaknesses over and over again: they are before our eyes. They are also before God’s eyes. That is why it is time for us as a society to wake up and understand that international support is only the external preconditions for our victory. The main prerequisite is the internal transformation of the country.

So we repeat again and again what was said ten years ago: “The future of Ukraine requires the elevation of humanitarian and spiritual values above short-sighted economic gain and political expediency”. And in order to establish this, it is necessary to “form a critical mass of citizens who are able to live in freedom and truth, take responsibility for their actions and affirm moral policy and the common good”.

This path has nothing to do with utopia or archaism, as some Ukrainians believe. On the contrary, the development of creativity, creative freedom, the assertion of modernity, the desire to learn – all these processes will begin to flourish if they are placed in the right ethical framework. Because true freedom is a responsible freedom in which everyone is aware of the value of their words and actions.

It is such free and responsible people, who have obviously already appeared in Ukraine, who must join hands and become the backbone of a new social organism.

The First of December Initiative Group, created on the twentieth anniversary of Ukraine’s referendum, aims to establish new rules. At present it is made up of leading Ukrainian intellectuals: Oleksandra Hnatiuk, Ihor Kozlovsky, Myroslav Marynovych, Yevhen Zakharov, Yosip Zisels, Yaroslav Yatskiv, Volodymyr Yermolenko, Igor Yukhnovsky

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