What is happening right now in Ukraine? This is a question that I find asking myself now almost every other minute, frantically checking twitter, facebook and the Ukrainian press, usually in that order. This has been going on ever since I decided to check on one of the live feeds on January 22nd, and stumbled upon a wave of police running at the protesters, beating and shooting them.
I will not go into detail about the multitude of actors and recent events in this article, instead I would like to argue for the overall purpose of these protests, and correct some misconceptions that have been assumed as truths by media and politicians. If you are completely unaware of Euromaidan, here is a good article that looks at Ukrainian society, and Wikipedia has an extensive timeline of events. This blog post that shows the everyday life on Euromaidan in photos is a must-read as well. If you want to donate, see the end of this post for details.
An Unstoppable Popular Movement
The protests that started as a reaction to a last-ditch move by President Yanukovich to distance himself from the EU and instead align the country closer to Russia, have grown into an unstoppable popular movement.
Unstoppable, because the current regime does not have a choice – it can only prolong the inevitable. As the protesters dig in and build more and more barricades, the only way the government can clear out the area is by using an exceptional amount of brutal force. Such an eventuality will not go down well with the rest of the country, and indeed the world. This is not Moscow circa 2011-2012, the Ukrainian people were able to reach a point where they will not even contemplate the failure of their main objective – there will be a lot of bloodshed simply due to this fact if the regime will decide to “clean out” Euromaidan. If this happens, the whole of Ukraine will revolt, and the fate of Yanukovich may be determined not by himself, but by a raging crowd outside his residence.
Popular, because of the composition of protesters: well-paid businessmen, peasants from the countryside, university students and teachers, pensioners, and yes, even far-right and far-left activists. Football ultras have supported the protesters and defended them against “titushki” (government-hired thugs) in every region of the country, except for Sevastopol.
Movement, because Euromaidan is not confined to Kiev. It once was, but as soon as the police forces became violent and protesters started dying, the revolution spread throughout Western Ukraine, as regional municipal administrations were taken over by the people. At this moment, nine regions are fully under peoples’ control, while in three others Regional Councils are controlled by the opposition. Protests, whether mass or local, have taken place in every region of the country.
Euromaidan is also on the move, as Automaidan emerged as an important actor within the protests. Automaidan is an organization of motorists that help bring supplies and people to Kiev and other protest sites, and that protects injured activists from being detained by police in hospitals.
Protest as a form of nation-building
What I believe we have to understand is that Ukrainian people are right now engaged in nation-building. The protesters are creating an image of the Ukrainian nation that they believe reflects its society better, than the one created by the current government. Already, brigades of the Right Sector, Cossacks and other more militant groups have sworn an oath to the “Ukrainian nation” inside the Ukrainian house.
Imagine what will happen if and when the opposition wins out and a new government will be elected. Whether or not the country will continue to be stable, Euromaidan will be used by politicians from different ends of the political spectrum to reinforce their agendas. A renaming of streets and squares that protesters are occupying at the moment can happen, monuments and statues will be erected to forever etch the events in public memory. As the protesters dismantle the old Lenin statues, their places will surely be occupied by works celebrating the protest movement.
The people, however, must ensure that the memory of Euromaidan is not tainted by the usual political machinations. The beauty of these protests lies in the unity of the incredibly diverse groups that came together to accomplish the same task. This is nation-building, an act that binds together completely different people. Throughout history there are plenty of examples of a single over-riding aim that unites various people and forms “a nation”, but in almost all cases this process is either constructed or hijacked by elites.
There is potential for a reinvigoration of the Ukrainian nation via the popular protests, because despite all the media smear campaigns in Ukraine and Russia, there does not seem to be any evidence that there is a puppet master behind this protest, financing life on Euromaidan. A national reinvigoration from below is an interesting eventuality to observe, but also a crucial one for the country to achieve, because otherwise politicians will inevitably drag it back into a state of corruption, political clientelism and rancor.
This is partly why I am so reluctant to use the phrase Civil War. On the one hand it would be ignorant to dismiss the divide between the East and the West in Ukraine; the map of the protests illustrates the division clearly. However, there are no anti-Maidan protests that are led by the people. Rather, any anti-Maidan event is either heavily sponsored and promoted by local authorities, to a point where they hire people to participate, or is encouraged by a mountain of misinformation aiming to discredit and smear the movement. Euromaidan is a movement directed against the regime, not the people.
So, what do the “people” actually want?
The task of the people is not to “Europeanize” Ukraine, or bring “freedom and democracy” to the population of Ukraine. The task is simply to pressure the current government, along with the President, to resign, paving the way for a fairer, more transparent state.
Claiming that the Ukrainian people want “more democracy and freedom” reduces the complexity of the situation. It is easy for politicians to make these grandstanding statements, but they are misguided. First and foremost, Euromaidan is a protest of a people tired of a corrupt government that rewards only its friends and lackeys, holds the judiciary in a tight grip and imprisons those who oppose it.
Beyond this, generalizations become impossible, since every group has its own gripes with the current government. Some are tired of their tiny pensions, others want a more European society, still others want a stronger Ukrainian nation, independent of both Russia and the West. Political opposition and Euromaidan are two different things that should not be conflated.
This is the reason why politicizing the protests is a fruitless exercise. One article suggested that Klitschko is one of the “clear and prominent” leaders of the movement, which even at the time of writing was clearly untrue. Klitschko does not lead the movement, he answers to it. Every time a deal was struck with Yanukovich, the government, or the police, Klitschko would come down to Maidan and ask those present whether they would accept or reject the proposition. Every time he accepted their decision.
To be fair, I am not belittling his contribution; the reason why the storm of the Ukrainian House, for instance, was as bloodless and quick was because Klitschko negotiated the surrender of the interior armed forces holding the building. He was also quick to stop protesters attacking Berkut forces head-on by personally getting between them.
The overall point is that, however, that no amount of direct negotiations between political opposition and the current regime will be enough: Maidan will only disperse once it has become clear that the President has resigned and that plans for elections are underway.
This is why I do not discuss the specific negotiations between opposition and the government, or specific recent events; they do not matter all that much in the larger picture. There is no point in negotiating with anyone; Euromaidan will overthrow the current regime by virtue of its existence alone.
There is similarly no point in international sanctions or generic statements by Western politicians. This is not their fight, and they must not meddle during, and more importantly after the regime will collapse. There are many calls from within Ukraine for Western politicians to use sanctions against the current regime. I believe though that this may do more harm then good in the long-term, Euromaidan must fully own its success, and not share it with outside forces. However, the role of the Western people in disseminating information and directly donating to Euromaidan, I believe, is crucial.
How can you help?
During the last two weeks, I am watching a live-feed of a revolution. Not only have I seen violent clashes, but also a communal spirit of Euromaidan that ensures people live with each other in harmony and share what they have. I was contemplating buying a ticket to Kiev, leaving my comfortable life, spent in boarding schools and university dormitories of England and Switzerland for a tent city in minus 20 degree weather. Why?
I don’t know. Perhaps because my father used to barricade streets in Saint Petersburg in 1993 against incoming tanks, or perhaps because I was not there for the Bolotnaya protests in Moscow, or maybe I was simply being restless. In the end, I did not buy any tickets and went back to work.
We cannot influence the political outcome of what is happening in Ukraine, and I doubt that we should even try – so what can we do? I was probably never going to go to Kiev, but I have a friend who runs a popular blog – so why don’t I write what I think and feel, and maybe I can get people to pay attention or even participate.
Spread the news about the people who are still missing. Dmitri Bulatov, who was missing for more than a week, was found alive on the 30th January. He was badly beaten, crucified and his ear was cut off, but he is alive.
The fate of Yuri Verbitskii was different: he was kidnapped and tortured, but when he was let go in the forest outside Kiev he could not find help and died in the freezing cold. These kidnappings cannot continue to happen, and if publicising them offers even the smallest chance that the kidnapped could be let go, then we have to do so.
Follow Euromaidan’s official PR agency. Look at this blog that shows you the various ways you can donate or participate in Euromaidan from your home. Look out for any pro-Maidan protests in your city, come and support them. All these small things may in the end help those who are putting their lives in danger everyday in Ukraine. Protecting them and ensuring that no one else dies must remain the priority of everyone who is not in Ukraine, but is willing to help.