On May 18th, the Day of Europe in Ukraine, tens of thousands marched in Kyiv as the wave of political protests reached its highest point. “Rise, Ukraine!” the rallies organised by the political opposition of Batkivshchyna, UDAR and Svoboda, had splashed across the country since early March. Ukrainian commentators, used to battering the opposition’s inefficiency, by and large discarded the events as a failure. However, the turnout both in both the East and West of the country was impressive.
In the mood for protest
Most cities, such as central Ukrainian Vynnytsia, Poltava or the Russified eastern city of Kharkiv, have never seen protests on such a scale in the visible past. Ten of thousands of people in the streets of traditionally “sleeping” and inert provinces are new indeed for contemporary Ukraine. Importantly, this time those hired for money were outnumbered by real protesters. The events signified a break away from the faked, paid-for rallies that have become usual amidst the public’s disenchantment with its political leaders.
The return of genuine protesters has been caused by the dire social and economic situation in the country. The presidential family’s clan has fully subjugated the country’s decision-making to its own economic interests. The Russian Federation, mired in its own social depression, presses for the Eurasian Customs Union; and the European Union, also troubled by its internal problems, is unsure of seeking balance between principles and geopolitical needs. All this results in the country simply not being able to get out of the post-Soviet bog.
Counteraction and provocations
The rallies were countered by a nervous reaction of the Ukrainian authorities. Pressure, intimidation and violence are invoked to beat the wave of protests down. In the long list of “measures”, the authorities neglect not only their obvious unlawfulness, but also anything close to common sense. On the day of rallies, public transport connections within the region are usually cancelled or delayed, private transport – stopped and searched. Activists are spied on, summoned for interrogations at police stations and even beaten up near their homes.
The search for efficiency leads to increasingly surreal creativity. In Kharkiv, the local authorities have, in the past, paralysed the city centre with dozens of trolley-buses and trams standing still on the roads and rails. Sewage was poured onto the roads along the route of the march.
The rallies are accompanied by provocations. Members of sport clubs, trained in various hand-to-hand combat techniques, are paid to appear at the rallies along with provocateurs. The latter, armed with placards derogating opposition leaders and dressed in rabbit costumes (to symbolise the cowardice of the opposition), are brought to the rallies in order to provoke the protesters into violence.
But all this was topped on May 18th. An armoured military vehicle cruised around the capital for hours. When the protesters blocked the vehicle in the immediate vicinity to the rally, they, and the journalists on the spot, were brutally attacked by the sportsmen.
These dirty tricks have been caused by lack of real facts to discredit the opposition, which makes the provocations awkward and subsequent allegations – ridiculous. The counter-rallies of the virtual “anti-fascism” campaign, staged by the authorities in a typical Soviet manner, are mostly known for the fury of their participants who suffer delays being paid.
Opposition leaders point out to those responsible – Andriy Klyuev, the head of the National Defence and Security Council, and the police. However, the minister of the interior Vitaly Zakharchenko in his report to parliament on the events of May 18th seemed to be the most ignorant of all those who watched the situation: he turned a blind eye to the abundance of facts of police incompetence and stated that the military vehicle came in the column of cars of the opposition leaders.
Divide and rule – no longer works?
The authorities are interested in splitting the opposition. The traditional part of tushki – the defectors from the opposition’s ranks in parliament – have been rather predictably played by the fat cats from Arseniy Yatsenyuk’s Front Zmin. Efforts are being taken to capitalise upon counter-playing Svoboda’s radicalism to Vitali Klitschko’s political ambiguity, and Yatsenyuk’s disputed leadership in Batkivshchyna.
However, these tactics have borne little fruit thus far. A dogmatic belief that if Svoboda’s leader Oleh Tyahnybok makes it to the second round of the presidential elections he will inevitably loose to Viktor Yanukovych has made the pro-presidential camp hopeful for a repeat of the scenario in 1999. Back then, unpopular Leonid Kuchma retained his presidency by beating the even more unpopular communist leader Petro Symonenko.
But this postulate has turned out to be untrue. Sociological research has proved Oleh Tyahnybok’s chances of beating Yanukovych. Thus, a single opposition candidate for the presidential elections in the first round is not crucial. An early agreement to support any candidate who qualifies for the second round will be enough for the opposition to win.
Moreover, the idea that Viktor Yanukovych himself might not be able to make it to the second round is now being discussed. He will find it hard to go outside his stable support base of 20-25 per cent. In terms of political allies, by the time of the elections, his support among the country’s financial heavyweights is likely to be narrowed down to his family circle.
The moment of truth
The mood of protests across the country are higher than in times preceding the Orange Revolution. Demands such as the announcement of mayoral elections in Kyiv, “complex” and secondary in terms of their potential to influence the situation in the country, do not suffice for the public. But once it comes to the simple but most meaningful question of who will lead the country further, a manifest disdain to its will is likely to trigger really massive events.
The regime lacks convinced supporters. Its electorate consists of de-ideologised, region-bounded voters, who are used to the patrimonial rule of the corrupt elite, as well as dismal social and economic conditions, who have never shown determination in pursuing any beliefs. This diminishes the probability of violent confrontation between the parts of the country, but increases the risk of their active instigation.
Viktor Yanukovych’s situation is substantively different from master classes of the post-Soviet semi-authoritarianism previously given by his neighbours Alyaksandr Lukashenka and Vladimir Putin. The two have received enough public support at elections to go on in making it overwhelming. But the sociological analysis shows that Yanukovych is incapable of securing it. He can only stay in office through schemes such as changing the constitution, the system of governance and model of the presidential elections, or bold election fraud.
If the opposition stays united and genuine in their aim to beat Viktor Yanukovych in less than two years left of his presidency, he will sooner or later face a dilemma on whether to cross the line in order to stay in the office. The decision he ends up taking will be at a high price for Ukraine.
Yegor Vasylyev is an analyst specialising in politics and transition of post-Soviet states. He holds an LLM in European Law from the London School of Economics and Political Science, where he was a British Chevening Scholar in 2009-2010, following five years in the Ukrainian civil service.