The Roots of the Maidan
Understanding the events in Kyiv today is not possible without knowing two major sources of the conflict: the core of the Ukrainian mentality and the history of how Yanukovych came to power.
The Ukrainian proverb “It is no business of mine” prescribes a Ukrainian to adhere to non-interference, in either his or someone else’s life. From today’s perspective, this provincial trait at first looks quite attractive, backed by the understanding that this is a sort of social contract. A Ukrainian will not go out of his own accord to another country to spark a revolution there and will not obsessively ask his neighbour if she respects him for he does not care. Likewise, he expects that his neighbours similarly will not interfere in his life and his business. Oftentimes, the neighbours get irritated with such a position.
The other revealing maxim, “If I do not eat, at least I will bite it”, sheds light on another typical trait of the Ukrainians: they do not like to share. However, one cannot say that they do not give alms to beggars in subway stations or at the church steps or do not donate blood or volunteer. They do give alms and donate blood. And there is no paradox here. A Ukrainian does not like to share under pressure, seeing no sense in this. In each of the above cases he understands that, figuratively speaking, he “makes a good deed”. But this feature reveals itself if a Ukrainian has to share with a slacker or an aggressor simply for no reason: “Don’t touch; it’s mine!” This relates to everything, including the job market. Why is there no problem of “migrant workers” in Ukraine? This is because a Ukrainian “looks twice at every penny”. He will not allow an outsider to earn. He will himself hang wallpaper and sweep his yard.
It turned out that this “heedfulness” – again, irritating to the Eastern neighbours – is practically a European trait, as we learned it from our foreign wives that returned from abroad. We learned that outside Ukraine, the foreigners are very “stingy” and very reluctant to pay unreasonable expenses. It is up to you to decide whether this trait is common for Ukrainians and Europeans, or if it makes them different, but it should be noted that this is only one part of the population of modern Ukraine, which is generally accepted to be the west and the centre of the country.
The whole conventional “east and south” of Ukraine has another mentality. On the one hand, there is a real and imaginary nostalgia for the Soviet Union with its ethical code “Lenin told us to share” and penetrating paternalism. On the other, there is hyper-loyalty to Russia as the source of the perfectly Soviet rhetoric, which is symbolic as well as the bearer of the sacral supra-state ideology. In addition, Russia possesses generous reserves of oil and gas. It is also worth mentioning that the population of this territory is primarily Russian-speaking, which has an effect on the self-identification of the people.
Certainly, all these characteristics in their purest form are rarely found, and as a general rule each person has a mixed mentality to a greater or lesser extent. Nevertheless, two rather large and different communities cannot avoid clashes. In everyday life this leads to regular quarrels on ethnic grounds, as the former (the nationalist west) thinks it bears some eternal and primary immaterial values, while the latter (the industrial east) scolds its opponents: “We feed you,” they say, as the majority of industrial enterprises are located in the east, including the ones that are subsidised and unprofitable.
After the Orange Revolution of 2004, the authorities received the unprecedented support of the people and a mandate for reforms. It should be mentioned that the level of self-organisation of the people was rather high at this time after experiencing all confiscatory monetary reforms, the liquidation of Soviet deposits, the hyperinflation of the 1990s and all the delights of the savage initial capitalisation and privatisation. People founded their own small and large companies and ran businesses. With the help of the internet, many shifted to freelance and outsourcing jobs; there were taxi drivers, shop and bakery owners, salesmen at the market, migrant workers – all these somehow survived and functioned.
Indeed, not much was wanted from the authorities. The people only asked that they simply not interfere and allow the people to work and earn money. They didn’t want to be asked “to share” too much. In other words, they wanted the elimination of the corruption tax. In general, the state needed economic and political reforms. This was mandated after the Orange Revolution and the demand existed.
Instead, the authorities of “the Orange team” started playing on the contradictions between the west and the east, in addition to a permanent rearrangement of positions and portfolios. Ukraine was immediately divided into “conscious” and “unconscious” citizens. It was divided into those speaking Russian (the unconscious east) and those who are exemplary Ukrainians, bearing the so-called uniting ideology of the single nation (the conscious west). The actual state of affairs was ignored. Nobody seriously cared about the economy. No significant political reforms were introduced. The government did not manage to present a positive programme or at least an agenda. The corruption “tax” remained. People were again asked “to share”. For example, there was the construction of a hospital personally supervised by Ukrainian First Lady Kateryna Yushchenko: “You understand it, don’t you?” One should not forget that a Ukrainian does not like to share. Oligarchic capitalism, i.e. when the deputy’s seat is viewed only as a source of preferences for business and the subsequent gaining of excessive profits, was still in place and nothing had changed.
Life in the country had not improved, although it was rather secure. Yet the east did not enjoy the feeling of being second-class citizens. And there were opponents, not only in the neighbouring Russia.
The year 2004 saw Viktor Yanukovych as the loser of the Orange Revolution. However, he did not disappear. He and his party realised that in their position the only chance to get back to power was to exploit the frustration from the activities of the Orange team. After the crisis in 2008, when (again!) all the savings in national currency went down in value and the average Ukrainian became almost two times poorer, this was not a difficult task. Thus a proper strategy was used during the next elections: the people were promised “a good living” and the Russian language; in other words, a restoration of the dignity which was stripped by the Orange team. This strategy worked.
Yanukovych was not perceived as the saviour of the nation but as a person who will do things another way, unlike Yushchenko. He had a criminal past, but people believed that a person can change and that his past is indeed in the past. They believed that he would not betray the interests of Ukraine for Russian imperial ambitions and that he would “outwit” Putin and only pretend to be a puppet. After all, people believed that “we are heading to Europe, and our purpose is the EU”, as Yanukovych frequently declared. The people believed because they wanted to believe.
As usual, the expectations failed. Instead of “the Orange phonies” we received “the family” and “the gang”. The people were not taken to Europe, with the pretext that there are only homosexuals there. The people’s patience was exhausted and they went againtothe Maidan. They were beaten with clubs, rudely and severely. In response, even more people gathered at the Maidan. Again, the authorities did not care.
Instead, the authorities unleashed a disgusting propaganda campaign to discredit the protests. The Maidan was taken by students, teachers, businessmen, former militiamen, Kyiv residents and those who came from both the east and the west. But the ruling party media and loyal bloggers kept saying that these people are all bums and “paid agents of the US State Department”.
Detachments of the new red guards – the titushky – were miserable and uncritically thinking scoundrels from the decaying regions brought to Kyiv and told that the enemies responsible for all their miseries are the American servants and idlers that stand at Maidan and waste their money. The authorities once again decided to exploit the difference in mentalities. Taking into account that this difference exists, the trick worked. And it not just worked – the situation blew up! It is now absolutely unclear how to resolve the whole situation.
The conflict now has three parties: first, the authorities and those citizens supporting them. The authorities act with the help of the militia, the titushky and the supportive citizens using social networks. Next, there are the radical activist protesters who stand first at the barricades. Finally, the third and the largest power, which is the basis of the protest, are the so-called “scattered citizens”. They support the barricades with food, supplies and moral and material support.
And this third power is still ignored by the authorities. The whole situation is presented as if the radicals took the people to the streets. In fact, these radicals naturally stood out from the ignored peaceful protest. It is also incorrect to say that the opposition (Vitali Klitschko, Arseniy Yatsenyuk and Oleh Tyahnybok) got the people to the streets. The people came on their own accord, and the opposition politicians joined the crowd only later. This was a thunder clap for them also, and they also do not have an effective programme for overcoming the crisis.
Currently, the protests lack an evident leader. Nobody knows with whom and about what to negotiate. The authorities have lost the moment. Everyone is scared. Will it be possible to cork the demon back inside the bottle?
Translated by Olena Shynkarenko
Sasha G. is a musician, composer and writer based in Kyiv. His named has been changed to protect his true identity.