Three months ago a new mini-state appeared on the map of Europe. It arose out of nowhere, in the very centre of Kyiv, as a protest against the Ukrainian government’s decision to call off its preparations for signing an Association Agreement with the EU.
The new state didn’t recognise violence or rabble-rousing, thuggery or lies. In the three months since it sprang up the Maidan, as this state is called, set its own boundaries, delineated by barricades, and established its own checkpoints. It also created its own self-defence (effectively, its own army), its medical services and supply lines.
Three months ago a new mini-state appeared on the map of Europe.
The well known Ukrainian writer Oksana Zabuzhko believes that, ‘the Maidan has shown that we, the Ukrainian public, can deal with our own problems on the ground, without big government, by creating our own alternative structures’. The Maidan has not only been self-sufficient, but has outlawed all politicians and appointed its own leaders. The only unspoken laws in force here are those of justice, honesty, conscience and truth.
Challenging the politicians
After almost 100 Maidanovites were killed by snipers’ bullets on 21 February, the citizens of this tiny but proud country rose up against the agreement signed between the opposition and president Viktor Yanukovych. Under the terms of this agreement, validated by the presence at the talks of the Foreign Ministers of France, Germany and Poland, Laurent Fabius, Frank-Walter Steinmeier and Radek Sikorski, Ukraine’s parliament, the Verkhovna Rada, was supposed to vote for a return to its 2004 Constitution (under which it had greater powers) and the presidential election scheduled for February 2015 was to be brought forward to a date between September and December 2014.
The 'Maidan' appeared three months ago as a mini state on the map of Europe. Photo CC mac_ivan
The Maidanovites however regarded these terms as a betrayal. After three months of resistance, after the deaths of some of their comrades and official disregard of their demands, the protesters couldn’t accept that a bloody tyrant, as they now saw Yanukovych, would remain in power for another nine months. It was like spitting in the face of the dead and seriously wounded, and the opposition leaders who came down to the Maidan to announce the agreement were booed and catcalled by the protesters. Volodymyr Parasiuk, a 26 year old ex-army cadet from Lviv, climbed on to the stage, grabbed the microphone and declared that the Maidan’s demand – the immediate resignation of the president - hadn’t changed.
‘The Ukrainian people are at a higher stage of political development than even the opposition parties'.
But in the opinion of Ukrainian author Andrei Kurkov, ‘the Ukrainian people are at a higher stage of political development than even the opposition parties, who think they have won a victory’.His speech merged into the concerted chant from the crowd, ‘Zek Get!’ – Yanukovych Out! [Zek is a slang term for a convict: the president was twice jailed for violent crimes in his youth] that had became the mini national anthem of the new state. Parasiuk had shown that the Maidan would make the politicians listen to it, and wouldn’t allow its victory to be thrown away as happened in 2004, when the Orange leaders ended up fighting with each other and lost the impetus to substantively change their country.
The Maidan’s first victory
After Volodymyr Parasiuk’s impassioned speech Viktor Yanukovych’s fate was sealed. He left Kyiv that very night, and his further whereabouts remained unknown for many days, which gave the Verkhovna Rada grounds for voting (by a majority of 328) to strip of him of his powers on the grounds that he had de facto deserted his post. Yanukovych was being called a deserter and traitor not only by his opponents, but his former party comrades as well. The ousting of the president was the Maidan’s first and most important victory, but it was just the first step.
As Patriarch Filaret, the Head of the Kyiv Patriarchy of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, the branch of Orthodoxy with the largest membership in Ukraine, has said: ‘the task of the Maidan is to change our country, to turn it from a totalitarian Soviet system to a democratic one that lives by the laws of justice and by just laws. Because at present, to my great regret, the Verkhovna Rada passes laws to benefit and enrich itself, and not for the good of the Ukrainian people.’
This is why Oksana Zabuzhko believes that so far the Maidan has only won the battle for Kyiv – the first step in the rebooting of an entire governmental system that has demonstrated its complete lack of competence. She sees the Maidan’s further mission in the following terms: ‘the political elite was unaccountable to the public. All it did was manipulate them to win their votes. So people need mechanisms to control the government machine, which won’t clean itself up.’
‘The Verkhovna Rada [Parliament] passes laws to benefit and enrich itself.'The protesters on the square know this. This is why, despite the fact that they have seen Yanukovych off and begun the reboot both of the legislature (there is a new coalition in parliament) and the executive (the Verkhovna Rada has confirmed the composition of the new Cabinet, led by Arseny Yatseniuk), they are still defending the sovereignty of their little state. ‘Our society isn’t changing’ says Andrei Kurkov, as he assesses the present situation, ‘and what’s more, our new politicians are already making statements that simply pander to public opinion. And the more they resort to demagogy, the less chance we have of changing anything.’
Some are protesters now in power ...
A large part of the Maidan population is still camped out on the main square of their little country, and people say they will stay until 25 May, the date finally chosen for the presidential election. It is already clear that the newly elected head of state will have to pass inspection by the Maidan and come here to receive the blessing of its people.
Tetiana Chernovol, who was brutally beaten up in December last year, will head Ukraine's anti-corruption office. Photo Solomko
This has already happened with the new Cabinet: for the first time in independent Ukraine people have learned the names of future ministers not post factum, after they have been voted in by parliamentarians, but in advance. A day before MPs voted on membership of the new government, they all appeared on the stage and each provisional minister was presented to the Maidan for approval. Three of the new ministers are in fact former protesters. Minister of Culture Evhen Nischuk is an actor well known as the voice of the Maidan: he spent the last three months as the protest’s MC, keeping up activists’ morale from the stage. Medic Oleh Musiy, who has been coordinating the Maidan’s medical services, has meanwhile become Minister for Health and Dmytro Bulatov, an organiser of the Automaidan car protest who at one point was abducted for eight days and badly injured, now heads the Ministry of Youth and Sport.
Three ministers in the new coalition government are former protesters.
Maidanovites will also occupy other official posts. Tetiana Chornovol, an investigative journalist who was badly beaten up in December by unidentified attackers, will head the anti-corruption office, and activist Yehor Sobolyev the lustration commission whose task will be to dismantle Ukraine’s corrupt governmental heritage and possibly bring former officials to justice. Viktoria Siumar, another journalist and unofficial Maidan leader, has been appointed deputy head of the National Council for Security and Defence under Andriy Parubiy, the commandant of the Maidan’s ‘self-defence’ forces, who enjoys enormous authority and respect among the protesters. His second- in-command Andrei Levus has become deputy chief of the Ukraine’s Security Service. So the Maidan has provided new blood for the new government.
Ukraine’s new rulers have however stopped short of giving a job in the security service to Dmitro Yarosh, the leader of Pravy Sektor [Right Sector], a coalition of ultra-right nationalist groups. The influence exercised on the Maidan by this group is a source of great unease and alarm for European politicians and people from the south eastern part of Ukraine, and is being used in Russian anti-Ukrainian propaganda as proof of the country’s radicalisation. In fact it was this ‘spread of the brown plague’ that gave Vladimir Putin a pretext for sending troops into Ukrainian territory.
Political experts are however inclined to believe that the Right Sector’s role has been exaggerated, and that including them in government will in fact limit the radicalisation. Andrei Kurkov shares this view: ‘the radical sector hasn’t yet coalesced into a political party. When it does, its status will change, and with it its behaviour and rhetoric. Any extremist group that enters parliament or government ceases to be radical. People stop being afraid of it.’
... but others are still out there
At the same time the protesters on the Maidan are well aware that appointing activists to official posts is no guarantee of change in the system. This is why they are still there and still enjoy enormous influence. Patriach Filaret believes the Maidan will break up once Ukrainians are happy with their government. If the opposition politicians who are now in power ever forget that they are there to serve the people and produce reforms, and fall into the old traps of corruption and in-fighting, the Maidan will be there to remind them of their debt to their fellow-Ukrainians.
Vitaly Klitchko recognises that the Maidan will continue to play a role in Ukraine's politics. Photo CC Mstyslav Chernov
‘The protesters will have a new mission: to drive local politics when they return from Kyiv to their home towns.’Vitaly Klitchko, who heads the UDAR party and will be a candidate in the May presidential election, also recognises the continuing role of the Maidan in the shaping of government policy in the post-Maidan period. ‘The people on the Maidan are our chief allies, our partners, and their voices are paramount. I wouldn’t be at all happy to see our interests at odds with those of the public.’
Andrei Kurkov too sees the Maidan as having another mission in the future. The protesters, he believes, and especially the younger ones, could drive local politics when they return from Kyiv to their home towns. And they are ready to do this: after three months on the barricades they know they just can’t allow the politicians to wipe out their achievements. From now on every government official will have to reckon with the Maidan.