Today marks the seventh anniversary ofUkraine's Orange Revolution — a peaceful uprising against a rigged presidential election. Millions of my countrymen and I stood in freezing weather for weeks defending our right to a free and fair election.
We showed that Ukrainians could unite around freedom and democracy and prevail. We proved that we were Europeans. Those were jubilant days filled with hope and inspiration.
Today our European aspirations are again being tested. Two thirds of Ukrainians believe that their country is going in the wrong direction. Most are disaffected with all national politicians and neither the ruling party nor the democratic opposition has their support.
Many see government reforms benefiting only the rich, while pensioners, small businesses and the middle class suffer. Many believe that the Government, sometimes with the collusion of the opposition, changes the rules to stay in power rather than creating fair rules. Many worry that the country is sliding into autocracy.
Despite this uncertain outlook, the issue that unites Ukrainians most is the prospect of European integration. Given Europe's current problems one might ask why? Because we shareEurope's democratic values and desperately want fair rules of the game.
For Ukrainians, the EU is not about alliances. It is the model for our future political and economic development. A comprehensive free trade agreement is being negotiated betweenUkraine and the EU. It is an important first step that will help to modernise our economy, making it attractive for investment. It will also strengthen our democratic institutions and, most importantly, respect for the rule of law and basic human rights.
Signing this agreement next month will be an important milestone. ForEurope, it opens a market of 48 million Ukrainians with growing purchasing power. ForUkraine, it will shed the vestiges of the formerSoviet Union and put us squarely on a path of democratic development.
For our neighbours from the old Soviet territories, it will send a strong signal that democratic values are universal and can be nurtured and developed.
Ukraine remains a work in progress.
Sometimes I feel it is one step forward and two steps back. When the Government imprisons members of the opposition, the police break up peaceful demonstrations and courts forbid gatherings, it's hard to claim that there is respect for human rights. When reporters are told what questions to ask officials and what answers can be published, it's hard to claim that there is free speech. When court decisions can be bought, the rule of law has no meaning.
These relics of autocracy can be found in the present Government. But history shows that today's rulers must change or be swept from power.
As with the other Eastern European countries that have joined the EU in the past decade, we recognise that work needs to be done inUkraine. In 2006 I entered municipal politics inKiev to bring about reform. However, changing a corrupt city bureaucracy when many of those in power were stealing proved an impossible task.
My political colleagues and I took a stand against city hall corruption by documenting every illegal act and decision: land given away without a proper tender, utility price rises decided without a public hearing and the "privatisation" of public property that threw people on to the streets.
We turned all the evidence over to the authorities. Sometimes we won our case in court, but the judgments were not enforced. Many suspect the Government, in collusion with prosecutors, decided not to prosecute corrupt officials for political reasons. Meanwhile,Kiev's eccentric elected mayor remains abroad on indefinite holiday, beyond the reach of the law, while an appointed administrator decides the fate of our capital's 4.5 million residents.
To change these undemocratic practices, I helped to create the Ukrainian Democratic Alliance for Reform, which unites supporters of European democratic values and those who put the interests of their country above their own. We won more than 400 seats in local elections last year.
Our agenda is simple and one I learnt early on as a sportsman — we are committed to playing by the rules. At municipal level, we want transparency and open discussion before decisions are taken; nobody should have to pay a bribe to get local services and power must be decentralised to communities.
For our nation we want to make it quick and easy to start a business; we want lower taxes to stimulate the economy; and we recognise that modernisation depends on foreign investment. In short, we want to limit the interference of government and corrupt politicians, so that people can build stable lives for their families.
WhenUkraine declared its independence in 1991, I had just become an adult. Twenty years later, my generation has shown that, with hard work and playing by the rules, we can live honestly and in comfort.
My mission is to unite my compatriots and show that the commitment to democracy and free markets, which united us during the Orange Revolution, outweighs the cynical and greedy temptation of money and power that has infectedUkraine. I'm confident that we will changeUkraine from within. I want to count onBrussels' support for our mission to make our neighbourhood democratic, free and anchored inEurope.
Vitali Klitschko, PhD, is leader of the Ukrainian Democratic Alliance for Reform and current WBC world heavyweight boxing champion.