Recently a number of internationally recognized scholars and public intellectuals signed a letter in full support of the Euromaidan protests, backing “Ukrainian society” against the “Ukrainian government”. Zygmunt Bauman, Ulrich Beck, Craig Calhoun, Claus Offe, Saskia Sassen, Charles Taylor, Michel Wieviorka, Slavoj Zizek and many others celebrated the “legal” and “peaceful” protests embodying, as they claimed, “the best European values”. They demanded a “Marshall-like plan” for Ukraine, and expressed the hope that, if welcomed into the EU, Ukrainians would help to build “a new Europe and a fairer world”.
Leader of the Ukrainian party “Svoboda” Oleh Tyahnybok speaks to protesters during the rally of the opposition on Independence Square in Kyiv on 5 December 2013. Next to him on the left: Vitali Klitschko of the UDAR party. Photo: jbor. Source:Shutterstock
Unfortunately, the letter shows an unacceptable level of simplification and misrepresentation of the very contradictory nature of the Ukrainian protests, which have exhibited very dangerous trends that will only be given greater legitimacy if they go unrecognized by such esteemed academics.
There is little doubt that Viktor Yanukovych’s rule is corrupt. It stands for the interests of the wealthiest in Ukraine’s highly unequal society and is responsible for the brutal suppression of the oppositional protests. The majority of protesting Ukrainians coming to the rallies hope for a just, fair and democratic society even if naively connecting this hope to an idealized “Europe”.
Yet Euromaidan is not a conflict between the Ukrainian government and Ukrainian society as a whole. Just before the protests began, Ukrainian society was almost evenly split between the proponents and opponents of the EU Association Agreement. In early November, the EU and the Customs Union of Belarus, Kazakhstan and Russia each had the support of roughly 40 per cent of Ukrainian citizens while, at the same time, many citizens supported both agreements simultaneously and others rejected both of them. Even after the instances of police brutality against the Euromaidan protesters, various polls have shown that between 40 and 50 per cent disapprove of the Euromaidan protesters. The support for Euromaidan is heavily concentrated in the western and central Ukrainian regions, while Ukrainians living in the east and the south of the country, where heavy industry is concentrated, overwhelmingly disapprove of the protests. They are justifiably worried about the consequences for their jobs and well-being in the face of both the increased competition accompanying free trade with the EU and the severing of economic links with former Soviet countries. They reject not democracy but the structural adjustment and austerity measures that come with IMF credit, which are not all that different to those that recently prompted protests involving even larger numbers of protesters on the streets of various cities in the EU. To present the position of just one half of the population as that of Ukrainian society as a whole while silencing the voice of the other half is a misleading and undemocratic exercise of the discursive power legitimized by high academic statuses.
Demonstrators direct a hose at militia ranged outside Kyiv City Hall, 11 December 2013. Photo: Smerus (David Conway). Source:Wikipedia
Although Ukrainian riot police actions were undeniably brutal and the Ukrainian government has so far failed to punish all those responsible for the violent dispersal of the protest camp on 30 November, the Euromaidan protesters themselves were not entirely peaceful either. Occupying the Kyiv City Hall building was not legal and neither was the dismantling of the Lenin monument, an act of vandalism of which the majority of Kyiv inhabitants disapproved. For several hours on 1 December 2013, protesters violently stormed the unarmed police line near the presidential administration building, until they were finally attacked by the riot police, resulting in the bloodiest street confrontation in the history of independent Ukraine, with more than 300 people injured. Despite the popular version blaming the violence on “provocateurs”, numerous investigations show that the overwhelming majority of attackers hailed from the far right and neo-Nazi militants belonging to the so-called “rightwing sector”, which unites various nationalist groups participating in Euromaidan.
Surprisingly, the open letter signed by established academics, many of whom are mainly politically progressive, ignores the extent of far-right involvement in the Ukrainian protests. One of the major forces at Euromaidan is the far-right xenophobic party “Svoboda” (“Freedom”). They are dominant among the volunteering guards of the protest camp and are the vanguard of the most radical street actions, such as the occupation of the administrative buildings in central Kyiv. Before 2004, “Svoboda” was known as the Social-National Party of Ukraine and used the Nazi “Wolfsangel” symbol. The party leader Oleh Tiahnybok is still known for his anti-Semitic speech. Even after re-branding, Svoboda has been seeking cooperation with neo-Nazi and neo-fascist European parties such as the NDP in Germany and Forza nuova in Italy. Its rank-and-file militants are frequently involved in street violence and hate crimes against migrants and political opponents.
At Euromaidan, particularly, far-right attackers assaulted a left-wing student group attempting to bring social-economic and gender equality issues to the protest. Several days later, a far-right mob beat and seriously injured two trade union activists, accusing them of being “communists”. Slogans previously connected with far-right subculture, such as “Glory to Ukraine! Glory to the heroes!”, “Glory to the nation! Death to enemies!”, “Ukraine above all!” (an adaptation of Deutschland über alles) have now become mainstream among the protestors. On 1 January 2014, “Svoboda” organized a torchlit march to celebrate the birthday of Stepan Bandera – the leader of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists, which for a certain period collaborated with Nazis, participated in the Holocaust and was responsible for the genocide of Poles in western Ukraine. To keep quiet about this dark side of Euromaidan, presenting it as a model of “civic maturity” and “the best of European values”, only serves to legitimize xenophobes and neo-fascists and helps them to win hegemony within Ukrainian civil society.
Certainly Euromaidan cannot be reduced to the fascist riot that the hostile Russian media frequently presents it as. The level of civic self-organization in the protest camp is impressive and the mass rallies are gathering hundreds of thousands of people who are not involved in any political parties or even civic organizations but who are hoping for fundamental change in the name of the European Dream. However, the only political representation that the protests have to call upon are Ukraine’s three main opposition parties: one of them is the far-right “Svoboda”, the other two (led by Arseniy Yatseniuk and Vitali Klitchko) are full of people who have already discredited themselves when in power after the “Orange revolution”, and are connected to certain Ukrainian oligarchs. They have neither the intention, nor the ability to bring about socio-economic reform of the Ukrainian model of oligarchic neoliberal capitalism. If Euromaidan succeeds, these very parties, and no one else, will come to power. To ignore this fact and to celebrate blindly, without proper analysis, any old alternative to the current regime, corrupt and brutal as it is, is politically irresponsible.
Ukrainian progressive grassroots movements and civic organizations do really need international support in defence of the social-economic rights of impoverished Ukrainian citizens and in building genuine political representation from below. But pathetic and superficial words about “European values” and naive castle-in-the-air proposals for a “Marshall-like plan” for Ukraine at a time when the EU is willing but unable to help Greece and other southern European economies in crisis will not help these movements and organizations in any way. From celebrated intellectuals and academics one would have expected a critical and nuanced position, raising and examining all these important, albeit unpleasant, issues. Remaining silent on them will only provide discredited politicians and the Ukrainian far right with more legitimacy in their struggle for power.