Photo: Vadim Kulikov.

Okategoriserade Parallel worlds in Ukraine

BECAUSE OF THE direct Russian intervention, the territorial integrity and independence of the Ukrainian state is at stake. But as long as business and politics are as intimately intertwined as they are today, any serious reform in Ukraine in line with the ideological foundation of the protest movement will be a an exceptionally challenging task.

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds 1:2014, pp 49-51.
Published on on April 28, 2014

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

They are living in an illusion!” This, I overheard from a neighboring table at the Internet café on top of the post office on Maidan Nezalezhnosti.1 The following week was filled with demonstrations, and hope was in the air that Yanukovych, with his increased presidential power, would be able to — and would be smart enough to — act in contrary to the announcement of the government and actually sign the agreement, return to Kyiv, and triumphantly regain legitimacy for his presidential post. None of my closest friends was particularly convinced that these demonstrations would be able to change the president’s mind, but the minor chance that they would, together with the festive and energetic atmosphere, drew them constantly to the Maidan.

When by the eve of November 28, Yanukovych had not signed the agreement, the president’s apparently schizophrenic be havior drew even more people. In the early morning hours, Berkut forces stormed the Maidan, and protesters (mainly students) and journalists were beaten. The protests intensified, and December 1 brought over half a million people downtown and ended in clashes on Bankova Street between some of the protesters and the police. After the beating of the journalist Tanya Chornovil on December 23, protests accelerated once again. The laws that were passed on January 16, which entailed extraordinary constraints on basic freedoms — prohibiting, among other things, participation in large demonstrations, driving more than five cars in a row, wearing helmets or masks in the streets — evoked new protests, which now turned violent. Four protesters died during or shortly after the clashes on Hrushevskoho Street, and over 100 were injured, around January 22. Among those killed was a 20-year-old farmer of Armenian descent from Dnipropetrovsk, and a young Belarusian man. Protesters threw stones and Molotov cocktails and several policemen were injured. A 50-year-old geophysicist from Lviv was found dead in the forest after he had been abducted from a hospital and tortured.

What started as Euromaidan had turned into a protest movement against the country’s corrupt leadership, which was now seen as responsible for deadly violence against its own citizens.

As we go to press, Russia has launched a military intervention in Crimea, and eastern Ukrainian cities such as Kharkiv, Zaporizhzhia, and Donetsk are being subjected to Russian “tourists” and other provocateurs trying to take control of the city administration offices. Ukraine, indeed the whole world, is in shock; most analysts never thought this would unfold as it has, only a week after Yanukovych was removed. But the Olympic Games were over and it was time for Putin to show his dislike of the new Ukrainian government. Following a successful revolution against the corrupt regime, the new Ukraine is now faced with an even more dangerous post-Soviet tyrant. The external threat from Putin’s expansionist Russia has become the next fight for the Maidan movement. This creates an extremely serious obstacle for the new Ukrainian regime to take on the reforms and changes that the Maidan movement so desperately wanted to see. Banners are being changed from “Ukraine is Europe” to “Stop regime violence” to “Ukraine united”.

When I visited Kyiv again in late January, Yanukovych was on sick leave, and on the Maidan, the surface was calm, but the atmosphere tense. I climbed up the barricades of sand bags on Hrushevskoho Street to see the burned-out vehicles I had watched in flames a week earlier via video streamed online; I saw a Maidan self-defense group, and 50 meters in the distance, the line of policemen with their shields. A group of mothers with banners saying “Regime, don’t kill our children” were heading through the barricade to try to get the police to switch sides.

I meet Oleksandr Zheka, 24 years of age, from Kyiv, just graduated from law school at Kyiv Mohyla Academy, on the Maidan in late November. When I met Oleksandr in January, two of his friends who were involved in AutoMaidan, a movement organizing anti-government car processions, had gotten their cars burned the night before.

“I was there at the beginning of these protests, and honestly, I thought that the level of the rule of law and protection of human rights was much higher than what has now been shown over and over again. There are no means whatsoever for holding those in power accountable; they can thus use any methods they want to suppress the protests; it doesn’t have to be legal. This is what I found the most frightening during these protests. It is now clear that you are not safe, not in the slightest.”

Oleksandr supports the protests fully. When asked why he says:

“Because people understand that this current situation is completely unacceptable. Constitution and laws exist as if in a parallel world. Many have been accused of participation in mass demonstrations, which can be penalized with up to fifteen years in prison. Some of those accused are simply journalists or camerapersons, so this is really ridiculous.”

He continues:

“People are fed up with the complete inequality in Ukrainian society. Those in power are two levels higher than average people. That is what keeps people outside in -20° C weather. For the protesters, integration with the European Union is not on the agenda at all right now. What is motivating the movement right now is the desire to change the fundaments of our society.”

Later I meet Oleg, a retired engineer, 63 years old, in the occupied Ukrainian House. He is listening to a saxophonist and a pianist play for a gathered group. He also has supported Euromaidan since the beginning, his reasons for doing so being mainly to protest the increasing corruption in the country.

“Corruption has grown like a cancer and spread all over Ukraine. Corruption has always existed, but never on this scale. It is impossible to solve any problem without it,” he argues.

After two months of standing out in the cold without reaction from the regime, protesters were clearly disappointed with the opposition leaders. The head figure of AutoMaidan, Dmytro Bulatov, took the stage and proclaimed that they now would go to the residency of the president in Mezhyirya outside Kyiv, and invited people to join them. Right Sector (Pravyi Sektor in Ukrainian), a far right group consisting of several organizations, was keen to take command. They announced that they were not against taking the lead in using violence on Hrushevskoho Street. Opposition leaders tried to stop this but failed.

Sasha commented “these were not provocateurs, but people desperate and angry about the situation”.

“Personally, I did not participate in those street fights. I was close to the European square, not more than 200 meters from where the epicenter of the fights was. It was really scary, there were explosions, shots could be heard, and there was tear gas everywhere.”

Right Sector presents itself as a right-wing Christian revolutionary patriotic movement, striving for an independent, united Ukraine, and assures the public that they are not racists, fascists, or Nazis. During the protests, they claimed that their only interest was for the revolution to succeed, but that they had no particular intention to claim any posts in whatever comes after Maidan. Right Sector was formed, they themselves claim, during the months of revolution. Thus, it was not easy for Maidaners to know precisely what they wanted, but what all protesters agree on is that they have to let all opposition forces unite on the Maidan. Fights between opposition groups would only play into the hands of the regime. Now that the new power order is about to be established, however, Right Sector has decided to register as a party and run for all elections announced, apart from the Kyiv city Mayor. Dmytro Yarosh, its leader, is running for president. In the last opinion poll, he had 2.3 percent support, which obviously doesn’t get him very  far. But that any wider support for the Right Sector exists at all may be connected with the triumph of the revolution as well as the external threat from Russia.

The Russian propaganda machine has been successful in getting its message out, especially among its own citizens. Large swaths of the Russian population support Putin’s invasion in Crimea. A Ukrainian friend of mine came back from a short trip to Moscow surprised by his Moscow friends’ “totally empty grasp of the situation in Ukraine”. In Crimea, Ukrainian TV channels were taken off the air on March 9. Ukraine responded by issuing a law taking all major Russian channels off the air. This has, however, had no effect, since the biggest provider has not complied. Many Crimeans really believe their economy would be better off under a Russian flag; further, absent closer union with Russia, they fear they soon will be forbidden from expressing themselves in Russian, their mother tongue — some even believe that simply “thinking in Russian” will be prohibited. The belief that the Russian language is banned as a second official language is widespread especially in the Russian mass media. The Ukrainian parliament did indeed pass a language bill hastily, but it was not actually signed into law by acting president Turchynov. This was intended to revoke a law passed during the Yanukovych presidency, which gave regional and local authorities the right to assign a second official language, wherever a national minority exceeded 10 percent of the total population.

The pro-Putin protest marches in the eastern cities and Odessa are more dependent on paid attendance, since these areas are reachable by Ukrainian TV, and are less easy for Putin to grab. Paid Russian “visitors” tour the cities. One woman crying about the loss of the Russian language was caught on camera in three separate cities: Odesa, Kharkiv, and Donetsk. Pictures of small Russian flags in street bins after protests are shared on social media. Media disinformation and wage slaves are two strategies for conquering a country.

Money was also offered during the anti-Maidan counterdemonstrations in support of Yanukovych. This is shown in several video clips shared on social media. I was myself offered money to participate in an anti-Maidan meeting one evening, at the very beginning of the protests. An old lady came up to my friends and me and showed us a paper slip of some sort in her glove, and I got the impression she was slightly ashamed. She smiled a bit insecurely when we rejected her recruitment offer of 20 US dollars for the anti-Maidan event. Those offers are said to be based on “network marketing” with chain responsibilities among the participants, who are paid at the end of the event. To reduce all who were not supporting Maidan to recipients of bribes or misinformed citizens is of course a bit too harsh. Obviously, during the Maidan protests, many, especially in the eastern and southern parts of the country, were expressing sincere support for Yanukovych and the Party of Regions, and were against the protests: Yanukovych was a good leader who provided stability and the Maidan people were “dangerous criminals”. Many families have relatives in Russia and the fear of losing contact with them was a factor as well. According to a poll by the Razumkov Center published on March 13, 2014, 55.2 percent of Ukrainians were critical of the government in December. With the new government, the figure is 34.7 percent.

The new Ukrainian government tries to keep Ukraine united, and one strategy has been to appoint wealthy Russian-speaking oligarchs in some of the unstable cities in the East and South. The oligarchs are respected, especially in these areas, and their support for the regime shows an example for the people. That they are wealthy enough to contribute out of their own private funds to the defense of Ukraine is also a factor. All Ukrainian national TV channels (which are mainly oligarch controlled) have banners in the corner saying, “Ukraine united”.

It was the strategy of most of the oligarchs to keep good relations with whoever they thought might be in power after these demonstrations were over. “The Chocolate King” Petro Poroshenko, a shipping, confectionery, and agriculture magnate, was the only one who took a clear stand in favor of Maidan, participated in meetings at Maidan and showed his support for the protesters openly. His Channel 5 portrayed the Maidan protests in a balanced manner, as did Ihor Kolomoysky’s TV channel 1+1, while Rinat Akhmetov’s Channel Ukraina as well as Dmytro Firtash’s channel Inter reported in a way that favored Yanukovych. Firtash’s channel quickly switched sides when it was clear that Yanukovych was finished, sometime around February 18–20.

Even though most of the oligarchs kept in the shadow during the protests, they made some announcements occasionally. They expressed support of the “civic voices being heard”, as well as made statements like “We do not want Ukraine to be split between east and west”, and tacit agreement with the actions of the regime. The rhetoric used by the wealthiest oligarch, Rinat Akhmetov, as well as people who are officially friendly to the regime, that Ukraine has to stay undivided, does not run counter to the views of the Maidaners. It has never been in the interest of the people of Ukraine to split the country. According to a survey presented in the Ukrainian weekly magazine Kommentary by Ivan Malyshko on January 31, 2014, in the geographic extremities of the country, only a few percentages wish a separation. In the Donbass region eight percent expresses such a view, and in Western Galicia only one percent wishes to separate from Ukraine. According to the same survey, only seven percent support a federal solution to the crisis in Ukraine. The Maidaners and the supporters of anti-Maidan lived in parallel worlds, to a large degree because of the media. Now a united Ukraine lives in parallel worlds with its long-enduring fraternal country, Russia.

Were the “EuromaidanErs” living in an illusion? This has yet to be determined. What the protesters have achieved so far is the first successful popular revolution and change of government in the post-Soviet space that wasn’t immediately brought about by a falsified election. This happened in the face of a government that did not shy away from the use of lethal force, and is testament to the movement’s remarkable level of organization and determination. The Maidan protests served as an eye-opener for young people, giving them a sense that change is possible. The idea of living in a just society has, at least temporarily, triumphed over corruption and short-term infusions of money.

However, the conflict has now moved to a new level because of the Russian intervention. Although there may have been little love lost between Putin and Yanukovych, the latter was supported by the Kremlin precisely because he and his corrupt cronies would never comply with the westward-looking protesters and their demands for transparency, and because he took a hard line on dissent. What will become of the democratic reform priorities of the new government when faced with a concrete external threat is yet to be seen.

Some measures against the culture of corruption have already been taken, for example, the parliament voted for lowering travel expenses and an end of the use of luxury cars by MPs. Lesia Orobets, a young politician who was very active during the protests, is running for mayor of Kyiv, and has declared that her electoral campaign will be based on transparent crowd sourcing. All the victims that these events have cost, and all the struggles through these months, have made reforms a very serious matter. The protesters will not make the same mistake they made after the Orange Revolution — just believe everything will be OK. Maidan activists are still there controlling the actions of the parliament, and they will remain until the presidential and parliamentary elections. This means that a kind of direct democracy is, in effect, what rules the new Ukraine at the moment.

Great expectations will be placed upon any leader, expectations that may be hard to live up to — what is desired is “a strong guy like Klychko with a brain like Yatsenyuk”. “A president needs money and reputation,” I hear repeatedly. We are thus still in a culture where money and political power are inseparable. According to World Values Survey 2011–2012, Ukrainians approve of a “strong leader” to a much higher degree (71 percent) than for example Poles (22 percent), and slightly lower than Russians (76 percent). The survey also shows that the differences between eastern and western Ukraine are negligible. Why is there still a demand for a strong and rich leader? The crisis situation probably evokes faith in those assumed to be experienced, competent, and resourceful. What is being fought appears again as a requirement in the very selection of a new leader. The oligarch Petro Poroshenko is often mentioned as someone who could “handle the transition”, “understands both politics and economics”, and “is diplomatic”. At the same time, the fact that he has promised to rebuild the cobblestone street Hrushevskoho and the Dynamo Stadium, where the battles have taken place, underlines his patriarchal style. Who will become Ukraine’s new president? According to the latest polls (released at the beginning of March), Poroshenko has the most support, at just above 30 percent.

The Russian invasion has brought together the Maidan movement with those who previously opposed changes. All Ukrainians must be involved in order not to surrender to Russia.

The parallel worlds that exist between the people, and power, to some extent meet in the fight against the external threat. The Party of Regions and the oligarchs would appear to agree in the need to fight against Russia. However, Akhmetov publicly promised to support the newly appointed governor in Donetsk, Serhiy Taruta, but obviously failed to prevent the clashes in Donbass. Many believe that those Russian “tourists” could not have come to Ukraine and local thugs would not have organized themselves without his (at least) tacit approval. Kolomoyskiy, on the other hand, who is now governor in Dnipropetrovsk, has not failed in maintaining stability in his region. Akhmetov controls everything in the Donbass region and perhaps a federalization of Ukraine is not far from his true interests. Other interpretations are possible. If Ukraine were to fall too heavily under the rule of the Kremlin, it could spell the end of the oligarch’s business empires.

Because of the direct Russian intervention, the territorial integrity and independence of the Ukrainian state is at stake. But as long as business and politics are as intimately intertwined as they are today, any serious reform in Ukraine in line with the ideological foundation of the protest movement will be a an exceptionally challenging task.≈

Note: The content in commentaries expresses the views of the authors and does not necessarily reflect the views of Baltic Worlds.


1 Maidan Nezalezhnosti is also known, in English, as Independence Square (the direct translation of Maidan Nezalezhnosti).