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Are street protests back in Ukraine?

The recent protests in Ukraine demonstrate the authorities’ lack of vision and leadership. There is a high demand for mobilising and engaging projects, which could utilise the high social energy, but there is nothing on offer. Therefore political turbulence will continue.

November 28, 2017 - Valerii Pekar - Blogs and podcasts

Image by Ivan Bandura

Ukraine: The European frontier – a blog curated by Valerii Pekar.

After a four-year recess, since October 17th street protests in Ukraine have been on the rise. What does that tell us about the current political situation in the country?

Firstly, the number of protesters dramatically contrasts with the attention the public has paid to the events. The number did not exceed 5,000 people who protested for only several hours on one day. On the following days, there were just a few hundred – If not dozens – people who continued protesting, and even on the weekend the crowds were not too large. The size of the demonstrations stays in huge contrast with the 500,000 protesters in peak moments of 2013-2014 EuroMaidan.

If that is the case, why the public paid so much attention to the events? The protest drew an extremely wide response. During the first weeks people in Ukraine spoke only about this, and after a month attention is still high. The reason is that society needs this form of activity as well as open political discussions, leadership and initiatives. The great social energy freed by Maidan was not utilised and there are no mass political parties in Ukraine which could channel this energy.

Mass media, which usually belongs to old-fashioned big business groups, do not support the discourse of the country’s transformation. Economic activity is also unable to consume the social energy – the level of economic freedom remains low and it is not easy to start and run a business. Thus, this energy looks for an outlet. Social media “holy wars” and small local level initiatives are not enough.

Why was the number of protesters so small? The first reason is that it is hard to convert ratings to street support. The second is that the postulates of protest leaders were not clear for the majority: the three major demands to establish a specialised anticorruption court, to revoke MPs’ immunity and to conduct electoral reform were all part of post-Maidan electoral promises, which are not among the top priorities of common people and even many civil society organisations. Third, while many people think that the current authorities are bad, they do not see them as hostile. The demand of the president’s impeachment, which appeared from time to time on stage, was not popular: the president enjoys a low level of trust, but other potential candidates – even lower.

At the same time, the political elite consider the events as a serious threat. Unprecedented security measures (fences around the district, metal detector frames, live cordon of policemen) were introduced not only to prevent violence (which may be reasonable, given the fact that an accident at the same parliament square on August 31th 2015 took four lives), but also out of fear of larger protests. The number of law enforcers was not lower than the number of protesters and the whole downtown was paralysed for weeks.

Rumours say that some decision makers wanted to disperse the protests, while others warned them against doing this. Indeed, the decision to avoid police violence was right, as four years ago it was police brutality that sparked the giant protests, which ended with the president’s flight and resignation. Perhaps this is exactly what some of the protest leaders wanted to achieve to consolidate their support base. And as history has shown, large-scale protests are possible in Ukraine only as a response to great mistakes of the authorities, injustice and iniquity. Without active resistance, street protests naturally dissolve.

A weak and underdeveloped political system does not provide any response to the needs of society. For the past four years, an active minority made a huge leap from indifference and dissociation to powerful volunteer movements. They succeeded in supporting the logistics of the armed forces during the first – and the hardest – years of war (when the state was unable to provide soldiers with food, clothing, munition, personal protective equipment, communication, transport, etc.), forming volunteer battalions which stopped the aggressor in the open sectors of the front and saved many towns from plunder.

They also created a huge network of assistance groups which accommodated 1.8 million internally displaced people who fled from the Russian troops and Russia-supported mercenaries, and authoritative reformist NGOs which played a major role in the development and advocacy of many necessary laws.

At the same time, political parties continue to be small clans ruled by oligarchs – big business leaders who control the media, and have neither low-level structures nor systemic low-level political activity. That is why society does not trust political parties, and that is why political parties consider every meeting with political demands as a crisis.

Both the local authorities and the opposition are weak and fragmented. Opposition parties were able to mobilise just a few hundreds of supporters for street protests during this autumn. The ruling parties got scared, fearing bigger protests. In fact, the electoral race had already started, but nobody has an idea what to offer to the demanding, tired and disappointed society.

From this point of view, street protests are a positive development. They demonstrate the demand for political discussions, mass mobilisation and a clear vision of the future, which nobody has yet offered. They demonstrate the demand for faster political, economic and social changes. Street protests will be widely used in the near future to support faster reforms. To this end, I deliberately did not mention any names in this article. Names do not matter, the focus should be on trends.

Street protests demonstrate the authorities’ lack of vision, strategy, leadership and mass mobilisation initiatives. There is a high demand for mobilising and engaging projects, which could utilise the existing social energy, but there is nothing on offer. Society looks for lofty aims and uniting visions and strategies but does not get them from any political leaders, whether old or new. Therefore political turbulence will continue. A sleeping society is long gone.

Valerii Pekar is a co-founder of the Nova Kraina Civic Platform, a lecturer at the Kyiv-Mohyla Business School and a former member of the National Reform Council. He curates a blog titled Ukraine: The European frontier.

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