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The Evolution of the Maidan

For more than 80 days, the Ukrainians have been occupying the streets and so far nothing seems to suggest that the situation will stabilise. An unending extension of the sessions of the Verkhovna Rada and a lack of real compromises on the part of the authorities can at any moment lead to new social unrest. Now they fear not only a mass mobilisation but also the use of force.

February 11, 2014 - Paweł Pieniążek - Articles and Commentary

11.02.2014 kozmic

Photo: Wojciech Koźmic

The Ukrainian authorities are making a pleasant face at a bad game and trying to show themselves as ready for compromises, yet in the majority of cases it turns out that nothing of this is true. This is playing with fire.

Phases of the Maidan

Since November 21st, when at the behest of Mustafa Nayem one of the journalists of Ukrayinska Pravda people went out on the streets, the protest went through several phases. From that day dates the so-called first phase of the protests: the EuroMaidan. From November 30th on, the protestors occupied Independence Square, or the central point of Kyiv. Meanwhile, the most radical activity that the protestors could permit themselves to do was anti-government chants accompanied by the rhythms of music flowing from speakers. This protest, however, very quickly lost its impetus and if not for the use of violence by the militia on November 30th against the peaceful demonstrators – and thus the beginning of the second phase of the Maidan – then it is highly probable that at the beginning of December the situation on the streets would have calmed. However, instead of allowing the protest to burn itself out the authorities with the help of night sticks broke up the small group finding itself at the Maidan by daybreak.

As a result, the Ukrainian demonstrations changed their nature from an at least officially pro-European one to a strictly anti-government character. This change allowed for the mobilisation of much larger social groups than the potential signing of the Accession Agreement with the European Union. The social demonstrations on December 1st and 8th were until now the largest: tens of thousands of people marched across the centre of Kyiv. Despite sporadic acts of violence, the protest still had a peaceful form and in any case the protestors did not allow for brutality. The elementary form of protest was still that of standing at the Maidan and potential attempts to broaden the area of the protest, which nonetheless did not succeed.

Along with the passage of time, the increasing repressions and the unsuccessful activities of the opposition the social moods radicalised. On January 19th, the leaders of three parliamentary parties that were engaged in the protest – Arseniy Yatsenyuk of Fatherland, Vitaliy Klitschko of Udar and Oleh Tyahnybok of Svoboda – could not take responsibility for themselves and choose one of the “faces” of the protest. They had no explanation for how to influence the authorities. At the same time, the Ukrainians felt that they do not have much to lose, as three days earlier laws seriously restricting civil liberties, including those of the journalists and of NGOs, were introduced. Because of this the first idea which would allow for the breaking of the impasse had to be accepted with approval. One of those present at the stage at the Maidan proposed to go to the Verkhovna Rada.

January 19th marks the beginning of the third level of the Maidan and the end of the peaceful protest movement. That day, the far-right Pravy Sektor began its altercations with the militia, which blocked access to the Verkhovna Rada. For several days, there were effacements, during which the first victims have died. Four people were killed by firearms. Violence out of necessity has become something normal. Nobody found it strange that increasingly well-organised para-military units armed with night sticks and shields (often with those which they took from the militiamen) are walking across the Maidan.

These are not student protests

Some tried to pigeonhole the EuroMaidan and give it a label that would simplify an easy characterisation of that which happened on Independence Square. Similarly as in the case of other protests around the world, some tried to present it as a protest of creative people. Like the massive anti-government demonstrations in 2011-2013 in Russia, they were considered to be the protests of an indignant middle class; similarly, the first phase of the Maidan was supposedly dominated by students. In reality, their participation was insignificant. Regardless of the studies and the phase of the Maidan, the average age of the participants exceeds 35 years. The British Academy was the first to gather information on November 27th 2013. Only 21 per cent of the respondents were less than 35 years old (this does not mean that all were students).

Interestingly, in the first weeks of December on the streets there were significantly more young people. According to the studies done by the Democratic Initiative Foundation on December 7th-8th, (http://www.dif.org.ua/ua/events/gvkrlgkaeths.htm) their proportion was 38 per cent, although students accounted for just 14.4 per cent. There were also few future students, as pupils were only 0.4 per cent. The number of students radically decreased after the altercations at Hrushevski Street: (http://www.dif.org.ua/ua/events/vid-ma-zminilosj.htm).

If any label is appropriate for the Maidan it is that it is a protest of educated people. At the beginning of December they accounted for 62.7 per cent of the protestors. In the February study, their proportion fell by nearly one-third to 43.1 per cent. Meanwhile, the proportion of people with a high school education doubled and thus has equalled the number of people with a university education, from 22.1 to 43.1 per cent.

The participation of the inhabitants of Kyiv dramatically changed with respect to the people from the regions. If still in December their number was more or less the same, in February the latter accounted for as much as 87.6 per cent. The problem that appears in the studies from December 7th-8th is the fact that there still was no question of whether the people responding to the questions attended only the Sunday demonstrations or have been at the Maidan constantly.

The crisis will prevail

The increasing repressions on the part of the authorities did not only change their stance towards violence. The more the authorities wanted to harass the Maidan protestors, the more determination there was among the latter. This was the case on November 30th, when after a brutal breaking up of the demonstration on the same day at Mikhailovsky Square (part of the people who successfully fled the militia was hiding there) more than 10,000 people came; the atmosphere was much more militant than at the restrained EuroMaidan. Meanwhile, several hundred thousand people were at the protest on December 1st.

Although future events were not as numerous, the Maidan still has a great potential for mobilisation. Additionally, the participants of the protests are much more determined and increasingly less ready to compromise. In February, studies of the Foundation of Democratic Initiatives revealed that as many as 82.7 per cent of respondents claimed that they will leave the streets only when all the demands of the Maidan are fulfilled. This is the largest proportion in the history of this movement.

Additionally when asked if the opposition should join the government, 61.9 per cent of respondents decided to answer that as long as Viktor Yanukovych is president this has no sense. Meanwhile, 22.1 per cent is able to support such activities as long as the amendments to the 2004 Constitution strengthening the role of the prime minister and weakening that of the president are reintroduced.

A lack of readiness for real compromises on the part of the president’s camp makes one believe that the Ukrainian political system will not be resolved any time soon.

Translated by Filip Mazurczak

The author thanks the Warsaw office of the Heinrich Böll Foundation for making his visit to Ukraine possible.

Paweł Pieniążek is a journalist specialising in Eastern Europe. He is a contributor with the Polish daily Dziennik Opinii, New Eastern Europe, the Polish magazine W Punkt,and the portal Zaxid.net.

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