Euromaidan: Ukraine’s Self-Organizing Revolution

08.02.2014, 12:46

January 22nd, the date usually celebrated in Ukraine as the Day of Unity between east and west, will now go down in history as the day the two-months-long Euromaidan movement saw its first fatalities as violence escalated in Kyiv’s city center, with internal troops and special forces pitted against the formerly peaceful protesters in a vicious, at times almost medieval battle. One civic activist was found beaten to death in the woods outside Kyiv, and others were shot as they took part in the standoff.

January 22nd, the date usually celebrated in Ukraine as the Day of Unity between east and west, will now go down in history as the day the two-months-long Euromaidan movement saw its first fatalities as violence escalated in Kyiv’s city center, with internal troops and special forces pitted against the formerly peaceful protesters in a vicious, at times almost medieval battle. One civic activist was found beaten to death in the woods outside Kyiv, and others were shot as they took part in the standoff.

The demonstrations that shook Ukraine throughout November and December 2013 reached a critical turning point on December 17th, when the country’s embattled president, Viktor Yanukovych, struck a surprise deal with Vladimir Putin in which Russia bought $15 billion in Ukrainian bonds and slashed the price on natural gas by a third. This news flash came as blunt confirmation that Yanukovych had no intention of giving in to the innovative protest movement that had put his government in crisis by demanding that the country look west toward Europe instead of becoming a Russian ally once more. As the protesters digested what seemed to be a significant coup by Putin, the question of what would come next hung in the air. But by New Year’s Eve, hundreds of thousands of demonstrators were in the streets again, stronger than ever. A few days earlier, a journalist, Tetyana Chornovol, who had accused Yanukovych of corruption, was run off the road by a black SUV, dragged out of her car, and beaten by men presumed to be government agents. As photos of her swollen and bloodied face shocked the world, the demonstrators rallied around Chornovol as a symbol of what they were fighting for, and it became clear that the drama in Ukraine, far from heading toward an anticlimax, was just beginning.

At first, the political crisis and social upheaval in Ukraine that led to several weeks of protest on the Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square) in central Kyiv—or Euromaidan, as it came to be referred to because of the sympathies of the demonstrators—looked to many observers like yet another manifestation of the ongoing struggle for ideological and geopolitical hegemony between Russia and the West. While it certainly was that, it also, and more critically, marked a new stage in the evolution of Ukraine as an independent and sovereign state, and produced a new form of protest—not another color revolution but a self-organized, self-regulated zone physically located in the center of the capital city.

The protest started as a gathering of a few thousand students demanding that Ukraine sign an Association Agreement with the European Union, after the government had announced that work had been suspended on this agreement just before the Vilnius Summit of November 28–29, 2013. For Ukraine, signing the Association Agreement would have marked a decisive step away from the centuries-long orientation toward Russia and the east, first consummated in the seventeenth century when the Ukrainian Cossack leaders signed a treaty with the czar of Muscovy. The eastern part of Ukraine was ruled by Russia for most of that time until independence, while the western part spent many years governed variously from Vienna or Warsaw as part of the Austrian Empire or Poland. The disparate lands where Ukrainians lived were finally united under Soviet rule after 1945, but the tensions between west and east remained.

These tensions were reflected in the policies of the past two presidents. Hailing from the industrial Donbas region located in Ukraine’s east, President Yanukovych rapidly turned to authoritarian rule and reversed the pro-Western policies and attitudes of his predecessor, Viktor Yushchenko, who had come to power after the Orange Revolution of late 2004. But when Vladimir Putin was reelected as president of Russia, in March 2012, Ukraine came into his crosshairs as a central part of his grandiose plan to create a great Eurasian Union.

Putin sought to block the West by reeling in a country that had been negotiating a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement with the European Union for more than two years as part of the EU’s Eastern Partnership not only with Ukraine, but also with Moldova, Belarus, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia. Ukraine was ahead of the others in having already initialed an agreement. For months, the officials of the EU, believing that the Ukrainian government was sincere in its claims that it wanted to move toward Europe, had been trying to establish the protocol that would lead to a signing ceremony. The sticking point appeared to be the list of European demands for Ukraine to clean up its electoral laws and above all—the point that came to dominate all the news headlines—to put an end to “selective justice,” a coded phrase describing the continuing imprisonment of former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko and other opposition figures on politically motivated charges. With the European leaders looking as if they were willing to work around the last point, by all accounts, it seemed that Ukraine was all set to sign at the Vilnius Summit in November.

Then came the astounding news that Yanukovych had made an unexpected U-turn and, in fact, would not sign the Association Agreement, claiming severe financial difficulties that could only be resolved through further negotiations with Russia. An assembly of students on the Euromaidan, started a few days earlier to support the idea of Ukraine as a part of Europe, suddenly bloomed into a full-fledged movement not only of protest but of opposition.

This was not the first time a mass protest had gathered on Independence Square. And it was also not the first time that students had taken the lead. In 1990, when the same location was still called Lenin Square, a students’ hunger strike, with scores of tents erected under the shadow of the statue of Lenin that stood there then, brought thousands of people into the streets in an unprecedented show of support for Ukrainian sovereignty that led to a mass vote for independence from the Soviet Union in a referendum a year later. Students and youth groups also led the way in 2004, when protests against a fraudulent presidential election turned into the Orange Revolution.

But the Euromaidan of 2013 distinguished itself in the first few days as something new. The student organizers’ rejection of political party symbols was the first sign that this was not a second coming of the Orange Revolution. This generation of young Ukrainians is more hardheaded and clear-sighted about the future than their predecessors. Even though the opposition political leaders put themselves at the head of the movement, there was a distinct sense that they had not planned for such an uprising and were catching up with the people already on the streets.

A dramatic turning point in the protests came on November 30th, when the authorities sent in the Berkut special forces at 4 a.m. to “clear” the several hundred students and others occupying the square. The brutal attack, caught on several live cameras, showed the masked and helmeted special forces laying into the students with rubber batons, beating them bloody.

The country awoke that morning in a state of shock. In all the demonstrations that had taken place in Ukraine over the years, the authorities had never before used such force. Outrage over the violence, combined with anger at Yanukovych for summarily depriving the nation of a European future, brought an unprecedented number of people into the streets for the first mass rally on December 1st (estimates for Kyiv alone were put at seven hundred thousand).

Despite the number of people voting with their feet, another attempt to clear the square came at 1 a.m. on the morning of December 11th. But this time the Berkut was repulsed in a remarkable standoff that lasted three to four hours, with the crowds using their bodies as weapons to push the police back. All of this was live-streamed via the Internet, and showed the opposition leaders, notably the Eurovision Song Contest winner Ruslana, urging the crowds to stay calm and peaceful. The crowds on the square swelled during the day, averaging around fifteen thousand, but there were still some several thousand there during that night and continuing to stand vigil on following nights. Special forces and police managed to dismantle some of the barricades the demonstrators erected, but they were quickly rebuilt the next day when ordinary citizens of Kyiv came out in the early hours to help.

Following the beating of Tetyana Chornovol, an event that reversed the momentum that seemed to have swung to the Yanukovych government after the surprise announcement of the deal with Russia, the various groups of protesters joined in a Manifesto of the Maidan that was presented at one of the large weekly Sunday rallies on December 29th. The first order of business was demands for freedom for the young people who had been arrested during the initial attack by the Berkut, dismissal of charges that they had been “disturbing the peace,” and bringing to justice the officials and functionaries who had ordered the attack. There were calls for the dismissal of the minister of the interior, who controls the special forces, and for the release of all political prisoners.

Another focus was the corruption of the Yanukovych family and their “oligarch” associates who have been perceived as looting the nation. The manifesto called for the international community to freeze their bank accounts abroad and prevent them from traveling to Europe or the United States and to apply these measures to their wives, children, mistresses, and other relatives and associates as well.

The political opposition leaders, who had come to the Euromaidan belatedly, were in the difficult position of managing the rising expectations of the people and their increasing fury against the regime, while also trying to find a political formula that would lead the country out of the crisis. The main figures in the political opposition formed a triumvirate—Arseniy Yatseniuk for the Fatherland party, standing in for jailed leader Yulia Tymoshenko; world-champion boxer Vitaly Klitschko for UDAR (Ukrainian Democratic Alliance for Reform); and Oleh Tyahnybok of the Svoboda party. Others who became prominent as the protests built included businessman Petro Poroshenko, owner of Channel 5, and Yuri Lutsenko, minister of the interior under the previous government, who had spent two years in prison under Yanukovych.

At first, the opposition put forward conditions it insisted must be met before it would sit down with the government, especially the resignation of the minister of interior and the dissolution of the special forces—demands that had been heard loud and clear on the square. Longer term, the opposition called for Yanukovych’s resignation and dissolution of the Parliament with pre-term elections to be set for the near future and a return to the Constitution of 2004, which devolved some presidential powers to the prime minister and the legislature. A central demand was that the Association Agreement with the EU be signed immediately, with a visa-free regime with Europe to be implemented as soon as possible.

As both sides hardened their positions, the ultimate outcome of the standoff in Ukraine became hard to predict. But one thing was clear: the opposition, which before was primarily electoral and procedural, had changed into something not seen before in Ukraine or its political neighborhood.

The Euromaidan was an encampment and daily gathering site for thousands of people in downtown Kyiv that swelled to hundreds of thousands of bodies on weekends, through weeks of frozen days and nights, from November into the new year.

There were tents and field kitchens, and facilities for the people who were not merely episodically protesting but living there full-time. The crowds came in during the day and stayed until late into the night, even though the main roads were blocked by barricades. There was “face control” by the demonstrators at each access point, at which volunteers with homemade security badges asked anyone wearing a scarf to remove it so that their identity would be visible and challenged possible provocateurs who might cause violence that would provide the justification for a massive crackdown.

The day usually started with prayers led by clergymen of different denominations who had been on the square from the start. A program of speeches from activists, scholars, cultural figures, students, and civic leaders was interspersed with performances by popular rock bands and ensembles. The Ukrainian national anthem was sung throughout the day. The Euromaidan came to have a life of its own: newspapers were published twice a day so that those living in tents with no easy access to the Internet could learn the latest news; a Free University of the Maidan was established, and an ambitious program of cultural activities took place at all hours.

There were different sectors of the square—the political party sector, the students, the non-political and civic sectors; the tents that sprung up bore the names of the towns, cities, and regions where the people came from. Everywhere there was a vague pall of smoke from the many wood fires that burned to keep people warm. Food and hot tea were prepared by volunteers—many of them middle-class citizens who couldn’t be there full-time but wanted to contribute to the effort. Doctors were on hand to provide treatment for those who became ill.

The Council of National Resistance, made up of the political opposition, civic leaders, and others, met frequently in the Trade Union building on the corner of the square. Coordinated activities to blockade government buildings, prevent the Berkut from launching operations against the protests, and picket various oligarch offices were organized in a disciplined fashion. Each “commander” was in charge of ten to twenty people, who then fell in with a formation divided into groups of a hundred so as to facilitate coordination. Protesters took over the building of the Kyiv City Council to provide kitchen and sleeping facilities.

The coordination between the political party elements and the civic groups led to the realization that the achievements of the Euromaidan should be consolidated and advanced in the form of a new nationwide movement that would expand the liberated zone, as they put it, to all of Ukraine. While pushing for specific political goals, the people behind this movement were also trying to build a structure that would be the first to bridge the interests of the various civic and political groups since independence and provide a basis for nurturing the next generation of national leaders.

Even those not intimately involved in the daily architecture of the protest agreed that the intensity of events around the Euromaidan was forging the beginnings of a new civic and political nation. The creation of similar assemblies in the generally pro-government eastern cities was a particularly significant breakthrough in unifying this often divided nation. Using the national flag as the banner of the movement and the national anthem as the clarion call of the “revolution” also lent the process a gravity that previous uprisings in Ukraine lacked.

The main difference from previous protests, such as the Orange Revolution of nine years earlier, was the sense that no one political leader could provide a quick solution to Ukraine’s troubles, and that people themselves must be responsible for working and organizing for a better future. The average age of those on the square was thirty-six—the younger generation, concerned about the lives their children and grandchildren will lead. Those who had been the idealistic students of the Orange Revolution were now more hardheaded about how to achieve something real and lasting in a society based on European values of dignity, trust, tolerance, honesty, and hard work.

Whether all of these aspirations will be fulfilled remains to be seen. But it seems clear that the civic and political actors in this process have had an experience that can only be called mind-altering. The Euromaidan has brought the opposition leaders closer to average citizens than they have ever been. The vision of a Ukraine in Europe has not only become something to fight for, but also something to live for, in a daily struggle against illegitimate authority that is likely to build even when it is not in the headlines of the international press.

Nadia Diuk is a vice president of the National Endowment for Democracy.

Nadia Diuk

World Affair, march-april 2014