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Protest and opposition in Russia and Ukraine

There is one central similarity between Euromaidan and other recent movements across the world: protesters’ self-reliance and distrust of politicians who pretend to represent them is what gives their movement its democratic credentials, but it is also a weakness.

In many ways, Ukraine’s Euromaidan is rather unlike the wave of mass protests in Russia that followed the rigged election to the State Duma in December 2011.

In Russia, the protests erupted spontaneously when reports of election fraud were posted online by hundreds of volunteer election observers across the country. There had been several waves of mass protest in preceding years in response to welfare reforms and restrictions on the import of cars and spare parts, as well as numerous smaller movements against urban landfill construction and environmental degradation, but no election protests to speak of. After 4 December 2011, protesters took to the streets in virtually every region and returned at regular intervals, although turnout soon dwindled in the provinces as the most active among them travelled to Moscow for several huge rallies. Only once, after the violent clashes in Moscow on 6 May 2012, did multi-day protest camps spring up in a number of cities, most of them in city centres yet far from the seats of political power. Many mutual assistance initiatives emerged in the first months of the movement but, in general, the protest infrastructure was feeble, and had to rely heavily on logistical support provided by a handful of pre-existing political groups and NGO activists.

Euromaidan, 19 January 2014. Photo: spoilt.exile. Source:Flickr

Although the large Moscow rallies continued into 2013, the nationwide movement had petered out by then. Repressive measures ranging from regular beatings and detentions to astronomical fines discouraged all but the most indomitable. Once Putin’s inauguration had become a fait accompli, protesters were left without a shared theme, and many had enough of ineffective and repetitive rallies culminating in speeches by celebrities without any popular mandate. Many of those stirred into action during the winter of discontent decided to channel their energies into grassroots activities of various kinds, discovered new causes, or were kept busy drumming up support for the dozens arrested in the spring and summer, many of whom remain in jail despite Putin’s very limited recent amnesty. The NGOs were often sceptical about the protests from the outset, and further distracted by the need to challenge legislation branding them as “foreign agents”. Even in Moscow, by the first quarter of 2013, the top themes of protests were social issues and political prisoners, not outright anti-regime contention. Organized nationalists, especially self-styled national democrats, had participated in the mass rallies but had kept a relatively low profile and mostly refrained from violence, even though their xenophobic views found fertile ground among protesters. Now ultra-nationalists are actively rioting again.

In Ukraine, the first mass rallies in Kyiv and elsewhere also began spontaneously, following Prime Minister Mykola Azarov’s surprising refusal to sign the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement at the end of November. They were sparked by bloggers, journalists and activists, such as Mustafa Nayem. Unlike in Moscow two years earlier, however, the protests have continued without a day’s respite, though with varying intensity, for over two months. Although many protest events of different kinds have taken place across the country and in various locations in and around Kyiv, the centre of the capital, and particularly the permanent protest camp on Independence Square, has remained the main focus of activity. About a quarter of those in the camp have been there since the start of the Euromaidan. The infrastructure and logistics are much more sophisticated than they were in Russia, drawing on both experienced individual organizers and a constant supply of volunteers. For two months now, the ranks of a permanent but relatively small “stationary Maidan”, populated mostly by non-Kyivans, have swelled every weekend with a much larger, and more local, “Sunday Maidan”. Ultra-nationalists are more prominent in the protests, both in Kyiv and elsewhere. They have been more successful at instigating violence, and have done much to alienate potential supporters among Communists, and among Russian speakers outside Kyiv. Left-wing protesters calling for social justice and questioning nationalist slogans are even less visible than they were in Russia.

Although support for an association with the EU ostensibly prompted the protests and gave them their name, it soon became clear that it is resistance to police brutality and state repression that really has the power to galvanize large numbers of participants. The brutal clampdown on Euromaidan on 30 November, and the attempted breakup on 10 December, led to the biggest demonstrations yet. And Yanukovych’s package of dictatorial measures, passed on 16 January, sparked the fiercest clashes since the protests commenced, claiming the first lives and creating a tangible threat of spiralling violence. Thus in all but the impressive turnout, the post-November protests are a much more direct continuation of earlier trends than the Russian rallies had been. As the Ukrainian Protest and Coercion Data project documented, protests against police brutality and corruption had been on the rise for months if not years before Euromaidan, not just in response to two prominent rape cases in Mykolayiv Oblast.

Thus the Russian protests seem to mark the end of, or at least a very serious setback, for the electoral revolution model that had commanded so much attention among observers of post-socialist countries since the events of 2000 in Belgrade, which led to Slobodan Milosevic’s downfall, and the “Colour Revolutions” in Tbilisi in 2003 and Kyiv in 2004. What is currently happening in Ukraine, however, is part and parcel of a new wave of post-Soviet public contention, along with the massive outcry over torture in Tbilisi’s Gldani Prison in 2012 as well as a string of cases in Russia, including the mass beatings and arrests in Blagoveshchensk near Ufa in 2004, Major Yevsyukov’s shooting spree in a Moscow supermarket in 2009, a hit-and-run incident in 2010 involving the vice president of Lukoil, and several cases of police torture in Kazan in 2012. In this perspective, the Russian protests, too, were not so much about abstract regime change or democracy than they were against corruption and impunity for well-connected violent offenders. Not surprisingly, corruption has remained among the few high-profile protest causes since the mass rallies died down.

But there is one central similarity between the Russian and Ukrainian cases, and it concerns relations between the majority of protesters and the politicians who pose as their leaders.

In Russia, the first mass protests after the parliamentary election took opposition politicians both inside and outside the Duma by complete surprise. The elated and carnivalesque atmosphere of the first months of protest was all about individual self-expression and bonding with strangers, even in the face of police crackdowns. None of this had anything to do with opposition politicians, and although in some regions they managed to ride the protest wave quite adroitly, in others people voted with their feet and organized rallies to rival those staged by political parties.

Very quickly, however, opposition figures began to portray themselves as protest leaders voicing the demands of the street and to negotiate with the authorities on behalf of demonstrators. None of this was backed by a popular mandate. Most rallies, especially in Moscow, had nothing to do with the opposition: according to data assembled by OVDInfo, 60 per cent of protest events that took place there in 2012 were organized by unaffiliated activists. Surveys at demonstrations and quantitative analyses of protest signs showed that protesters mistrusted the organized opposition almost as much as they disliked Vladimir Putin and his party United Russia. All attempts to form organizing or coordinating committees based on pre-existing parties or NGOs failed very quickly. When a number of activists close to Alexei Navalny staged televised debates and online elections to a Coordinating Council of the Opposition, they attracted a lot of attention and around 100,000 participants, but those elected were mostly Muscovite media personalities, and the Council quickly went the way of all previous coalition clubs. Those councils that did survive, for example in Nizhny Novgorod, were local and involved genuine street-level activists rather than figureheads. Angry accusations against politicians who had flushed the protests’ momentum down the drain accompanied the movement almost from the outset. Yet unaffiliated activists never managed, nor even tried very hard, to build a durable nationwide protest infrastructure of their own.

The situation in Ukraine is not dissimilar, even though protesters there are generally better organized. Although opposition party leaders Klitschko, Tyahnybok, and Yatsenyuk did not initiate the protests and appear interested in them only in as far as they can serve their political careers, they managed to convince a lot of people, especially Western journalists, that they are in charge. The German media in particular treat Vitali Klitschko, leader of UDAR, like a rock star and routinely refer to protesters as “opposition supporters”. This, manifestly, they are not – certainly not the “Sunday protesters”, who are in a clear majority. In a first poll at the Maidan carried out by the Foundation for Democratic Initiatives and the International Institute of Sociology, 70 per cent of those surveyed said they had come out against police brutality; a mere five per cent said they had turned out in response to calls by the opposition; and only 7.5 per cent said they cared enough about the “leaders” that they might leave if those leaders disappointed them. Even in a later survey at the “stationary Maidan”, where politicians are more prominent, only 12 per cent said they had come as part of a group organized by parties (15 per cent are party members), and another 12 per cent said their presence was due to civic organizations. Just as in Russia, the kind of community created on the Maidan was a community of individualists: according to Irina Beketova, who co-organized the surveys, many protesters complained that the pollsters only wanted formal replies and didn’t take time to really listen to their opinions. This somewhat anarchic atmosphere was what appealed most to revolutionary tourists from Russia, who were quick to compare the Maidan to their own earlier protests, or even put on their culturalist hats and brought out Gogol quotes to claim that it was a new kind of Zaporizhian Sich it was a new kind of Zaporizhian Sich (the independent Cossack keeps on the Dnieper River that existed between the sixteenth and eighteen centuries).

The tensions between unaffiliated protesters and opposition politicians has led to constant conflicts (and, sometimes, reconciliations) between rival committees and staffs, and between political activists and volunteers, for example when medical staff who had volunteered to help after the first clashes with the police were later ousted by an “official” Maidan medical service. All this is in stark contrast to the 2004 Orange Revolution, when Viktor Yushchenko enjoyed much stronger support than the opposition leaders do today.

The Ukrainian protesters’ self-reliance, individualism and distrust of opposition politicians is what gives their movement its democratic credentials, but it is also a weakness. Few can live in a state of permanent mobilization, so a measure of professionalism, bureaucracy and representation is indispensable. When Automaidan activists called for a single leader, that is probably what they had in mind. But in the absence of mechanisms to elect, legitimize and control such leaders, acclamation can only lead to schisms and disillusionment.

Just as the Russian protesters two years ago, the anti-Yanukovych movement in Ukraine today is faced with the peculiarities of what Graeme Robertson has called the post-Soviet political ecology: political elites, including the “opposition”, treat them as pawns in their quest for more power, and street-level protesters have few means at their disposal to exert pressure on those who pretend to represent them. Even beyond the Soviet successor states, this is a serious dilemma for many recent movements across the world that pride themselves on being based on horizontal networks of individuals rather than strict hierarchies: most of these movements end up dissipating without having achieved much in the way of tangible political change, or benefitting political elites that had nothing to do with their emergence in the first place. Sometimes it seems as if all they can hope for is to encourage long-term social transformations; short-term regime change that actually corresponds to the protesters’ interests remains elusive.

Published 22 January 2014
Original in English
First published by Eurozine

Contributed by Transit © Mischa Gabowitsch / Transit / Eurozine


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