Sunday, December 8, 2013

A lesson from the youth of Ukraine: How to be selfless

Since last week there has been a flood of analysis about the protests in Ukraine. What is emerging is an interesting new division in the country that makes the situation here even more complicated. It is not so much of an east-west divide anymore. The division is between the older and younger generations. 

@kashasaltsova wrote an absolutely brilliant message on Twitter this week, and it aptly sums up the generation gap: 
Старше покоління виявилось готове обміняти Незалежність на стабільно бідну,але передбачувану старість.Мафія і бабусі заодне.
If I may translate: "The older generation appears to be ready to exchange independence for stable poverty, but predictable old age. The mafia and grannies are for the same thing." That "same thing" is the old way of thinking, an idea I will get to later in this post.

At the core of the generation gap is how older and younger people get their information. Mustafa Nayem, an active internet journalist during these times, talks about this in an interview with Deutsche Welle:
There are two different realities in Ukraine: in one of them, journalists exercise their right to write about and critically discuss pressing issues. That's the Internet reality - people can write and speak openly there...Many people, especially older people - who play a decisive role in elections, do not use the Internet as a source of information. 
Nayem goes on to say where older people do get their information from--the television:
Those who are loyal to state authorities or who are part of that system control the television media, which have a major impact on people.
What Nayem says is true. Internet news is generally more independent, while television is controlled by stakeholders such as government and big business. What emerges from this is how those media shape our thinking.

Traditional television news in Ukraine has a top-down structure. There is a boss that calls the shots at the company. The news is made the way the boss wants, and that information is disseminated to a mass audience. 

Internet news is more horizontal. On Twitter, for example, Yulia and I follow several big wigs like Victor Yanukovych (the Ukrainian president), Arseniy Yatsenyiuk (a political opposition leader), and Brian Bonner (editor of the Kyiv Post). The first two are prominent politicians, while the latter is one of the bosses of a traditional media outlet--a newspaper. But along with their tweets, we get messages from ordinary people too--our friends and strangers protesting on the Maidan right now. We therefore get a different picture of what is going on, one that is arguably more well rounded. 

In my interactions with people, what I see emerging are two different approaches to problem solving, and they diverge according to age. The younger generation wants to take matters into its own hands. They want ordinary people to take on the problems that civil society faces. Gathering information via the internet is one way they propose to do this. They are not trying to kick out traditional media or the big wigs, but, rather, they want to work with them. What has been most encouraging about these protests is that the protesters do not hope for the European Union to swoop into Ukraine and save the day. Rather, they see the EU as a facilitator that will help create the necessary conditions for ordinary people to get involved in civic life. 

Older people prefer large, formal institutions to get the job done. This goes for the news media as well as agriculture and other aspects of creating a functional society. I've already discussed our opinions about the media, and you could probably guess for yourself our views on farming (We prefer small farms, if you are curious). 

Obviously, this is not a clean divide. There are many older people who use internet media and vice versa. Perhaps a better, more diplomatic way of putting this would be to say the old way of doing things and the new way of doing things. 

This brings me to my thesis. We all need to learn a big lesson from these protests. What makes the protests a true revolution is that they are not about personal comfort or money. That is the old way of doing things. They are about eliminating corruption and government ineffectiveness to create a better future for Ukraine. In order to do this, we need to stop thinking about ourselves and our petty needs and think about the greater good. Everybody--large institutions and ordinary people alike--need to get involved. This is the new way of doing things. Thinking like this is truly revolutionary for Ukraine.

For anyone that does not understand how such a bad government could be elected in the first place, here's how. Firstly, there's flat out election fraud. The vlada (Remember that word from last week? It means the party in power.) pays election commission members to destroy or lose opposition votes. If anyone catches them doing this and demands a revote (which happened is Mykolayiv and other parts of Ukraine last year), the vlada will stall the revote. By having so many undecided elections, they can ensure fewer victories in fewer districts for the opposition. The vlada also bribes the electorate. Last year there were stories of votes being bought with sacks of buckwheat. It's sad, but true. The Party of Regions (currently the vlada) also keeps its base, senior citizens, happy by raising pensions by 100 hryvnias or so. What the seniors don't realize is that the government then simply raises the price of staples like bread accordingly, so that the extra money they are getting in their pensions doesn't even help. When the Party of Regions needs people to protest or agitate protests, they will pay people to go to the streets. 

There is one common thread that the vlada uses to maintain control: greed. It counts on people's greed to get what it wants. What they don't realize about these protesters is that they are revolutionizing how "the system" works. They cannot be bought, and they cannot be intimidated. When Berkut police beat protesters on the morning of November 30th, Yanukovych was hoping that this move would strike fear into his opponents. It had the opposite effect, in fact. People flooded the streets that weekend. People were chanting that they were not afraid anymore. On December 5th, a Kyiv court decided to hold Andriy Dzyndzya, a journalist, in custody for two months. People were furious, and no one was frightened away. The protesters have even been bringing food to police officers who are standing ready to beat them upon order all this week. 

The vlada also threatens Ukraine that unless the masses start behaving, the country's economy will face a downturn. I happen to think this is a complete bluff, but it is an effective scare tactic. Regular people that do have a sincere interest in the well being of Ukraine would not risk such a problem. I think the vlada is speaking in code. What they are really saying is that they will lose lots of their own money if they give in to the protester's demands and start being responsible politicians. Ukraine has been in a recession for quite some time now, so obviously the status quo is not working for ordinary people. Only the vlada has become fabulously wealthy since it was elected. 

The protesters are willing to take short term pain for long term progress. They do not care if they are physically hurt, and they do not care if they have less money. The president and his cronies, because they cannot understand this, do not know how to counter this. They are being egged on by Vladimir Putin. They think the protests have been engineered by "the West." Because all they know is self preservation and their own greed, they do not understand what it is like to believe in something dearly and fight for it.

They have an old way of thinking, and it looks like it is going out the door.

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