Opposition rally at Shevchenko Park.

Okategoriserade Maidan 2.0

Maidan 2.0. Letter from Kyiv the 10th of December 2013.

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds Vol VI: 3-4, p 72
Published on on januari 23, 2014

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* The article contains statements that reflect the views of the author, not necessary the view of Baltic Worlds’.

Letter from Kyiv, December 10, 2013

Appearances are often deceptive, and the Kyiv Maidan 2.0 might be an example of this. Once again we can observe the tents where protesters stay overnight in the frosty weather, and the stage in the middle of the Maidan where political leaders and public figures deliver speeches, and where musicians perform for the cheerful crowd. Only the colors of the flags are different. Today’s Maidan is not as peaceful and festive as it was nine years ago. The escalation of tensions began on Friday night, November 29, when two thousand riot police troops violently beat a few hundred students who stood overnight in the square with a modest demand to the government that they sign the Association Agreement with the EU. The video recordings of that “special operation” eventually emerged on the Web and shocked many. The clear goal of the police was not to disperse, or remove, or even arrest the protesters but primarily to “teach them a lesson” — to encircle and beat all of them with the entirety of their wrath, including even those who fell down or tried to escape.

This evoked widespread indignation. Thousands of people flooded the streets on Sunday, December 1, with more radical demands that the government step down, that the police officers and their superiors involved in the beating be prosecuted, and that early presidential elections be held. The government responded with equivocal apologies and unequivocal threats, but also — with something that many believe was a staged provocation. A few dozen masked thugs joined protesters at the presidential administration and brutally attacked the police with stones, chains, and gas sprays. Surprisingly (or perhaps not at all) it was regular police, with no special equipment, who were exposed to the provocateurs. Only after the violence was properly filmed and the thugs disappeared did the riot police that hid in the building interfere, crushing everybody in the narrow street, including journalists and bystanders.

Today, on December 10, as I write this article, the situation is unpredictable. Whereas the Western diplomatic efforts seek to broker a peace and mediate negotiations between the government and opposition, the president, Viktor Yanukovych, is apparently turning to Moscow for help, which as always comes at a high price. And the Ukrainian opposition, even though ready to negotiate, has raised three preliminary conditions that might be unacceptable to the pro-Yanukovych and especially the pro-Moscow hawks: to free all the political prisoners, to remove all the riot police from the streets, and to fire and prosecute the minister of the interior and the subordinates who were involved in the beating of peaceful protesters. Whatever the outcome, three conclusions can be already drawn.

First of all, Ukrainian society proved once again its resilience, its ability to self-organize and act mostly peacefully, despite various provocations — both from the government and from within, from the radical and presumably anti-government groups who are broadly suspected of being in cooperation with the government. Most importantly, both the 2004 and the 2013 protests were clearly value-driven. People went in the streets not for bread, higher salaries, or a populist leader but for their own dignity, justice, and hope to live like they were “in Europe”. They still try (and will try in the future, whatever happens today) to complete the unfinished revolution that swept away the corrupt authoritarian regimes in Eastern Europe in 1989—1991 but stopped reluctantly at Ukraine’s western border. If the West fails, once again, to properly understand this message and to respond adequately, we will probably witness another cycle of authoritarian Gleichschaltung, stagnation and, inevitably, popular resistance and upheaval. Even though a substantial part of Ukrainian society looks in the opposite direction and is largely entrenched in their Soviet values, the very nature of those values makes their civic mobilization low and unsuitable for the government. Moreover, all the opinion surveys reveal a strong correlation between the respondents’ young age and their commitment to European values.

Secondly, the unprecedented monopolization of power and concentration of resources carried out by Yanukovych and his inner circle (the “Family”) within the past four years did not make their position stronger than that of Leonid Kuchma who had pursued more flexible “divide and conquer” tactics. Today Yanukovych faces resistance not only from civil society and entire regions, which encompass virtually half of the country; he also seems to get very lukewarm support from fellow oligarchs. So far, all the major TV channels they control provide very balanced, non-partisan coverage of events — a striking difference from 2004 when all the main channels, until the revolution erupted, aired extremely dirty propagandistic materials against the opposition. The tough control of Yanukovych’s close associates over the law-enforcement agencies may tempt him to use even more radical measures against the protesters, especially of his Moscow advisers and provocateurs push him in this direction. The victory will be, however, pyrrhic. It is easy to win with bayonets but very difficult to sit on them. Russia may help, of course. But even if Yanukovych cedes all sovereignty to Mr. Putin, the Kremlin would encounter the same problem with Ukraine as it had with Hungary, Poland, the Baltic states and some other indigestible regions of the empire. They may delay Ukraine’s westward drift, but it will hardly stop it.

And, thirdly, the Ukrainian opposition is in a weaker position today than it was nine years ago when the “Orange” mobilization was merely a continuation of an electoral campaign, when the electoral fraud was largely expected and protest actions were well prepared, when Viktor Yushchenko as the common leader had an undisputable authority over all factions, and the incumbent Leonid Kuchma was a lame duck with a vested interest in a safe retirement. Now, the protests erupted from below and apparently surprised even the leaders of opposition who seem not yet to have a common leader, a unified position, nor clear tactics. The presence of the radical nationalistic party Svoboda in their ranks also makes their position more vulnerable, even though Oleh Tiahnybok, Svoboda’s leader, has declared support for nonviolent struggle. This means that their negotiations with Yanukovych’s regime will not be easy and that the international mediation is even more needed today than ever.

The West would certainly not be able to solve the multiple problems that would remain. But the West may help to facilitate the conditions for problem solving itself, especially when the Kremlin spares no efforts to do the opposite.

  • by Mykola Riabchuk

    Political and cultural analyst in Kyiv, his last book “Glechschaltung. Authoritarian Consolidation in Ukraine, 2010-2012” was published in both Ukrainian and English.

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