A protester's tent camp in Kyiv, Ukraine on 25 October, 2017. (c) NurPhoto/SIPA USA/PA Images. All rights reserved.
Ukraine’s “Great Political Reform” protest began as planned on 17 October 2017, though with a fraction of the bang its organisers were expecting. An hour into the gathering outside the Ukrainian parliament on a grey Tuesday morning, observers were under the impression supporters were still arriving. They weren’t.
The protest’s anti-corruption aims, if achieved, could fundamentally clean up the country’s notorious political system: an end to parliamentary immunity, the establishment of anti-corruption courts and reform of Ukraine's voting legislation. Organised by the anti-corruption politicians born out of the 2014 revolution, as well as former Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili, a total of 15 different political parties and organisations sent supporters.
The result — a mix of real activists and veterans, representatives of almost all political parties in opposition, new political projects, ultra-right groups, unaffiliated people dressed in military uniforms, small groups of masked men in black combat uniforms and homeless people. The disparate crowd had disparate ideas.
A few hundred out of the 5,000 demonstrators decided to camp outside parliament until their demands were fulfilled. For many Ukrainians who learnt about the protest and its subsequent camp from the media, it’s not clear who these people are and what they stand for.
Trouble in tent-town
On the first day of the protest, Saakashvili, who is fighting his way back into Ukrainian politics after being controversially stripped of his Ukrainian citizenship, boldly called for Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko's resignation. Simultaneously, several protesters, dressed in various styles of military attire, told journalists the campsite was the beginning of a third revolution.
“The main organisers showed that the formal requirements were only a smokescreen. The real plan of their actions is the destabilisation of the situation in Ukraine,” said Poroshenko during a visit to a regional border guard service on 20 October. Poroshenko also said that he wanted to implement the aims of the protest, but the organisers called this a "manipulation" that they have been hearing for three years.
Tent-town outside Ukraine's parliament. (c) Maxim Edwards. All rights reserved.
Clashes with police while trying to set up the camp, during which one officer was hospitalised, have only served to pit society against the protesters. Five days later, the public's fears were someone what confirmed when a man carrying a shotgun and handgun was detained trying to enter the camp site. Both police and organisers denounced the attempt as a provocation.
Organisers split up
On day three, one of the main organisers, journalist-turned parliamentarian Mustafa Nayyem, stated that he disagreed with continuing the protest camp on the basis that they had achieved progress in two out of their three demands.
Two differing bills on removing parliamentary immunity, including the one he the other organisers initiated, have been sent to the Constitutional Court for review. They also managed to get parliament to consider new election laws for the first time in three years, said Nayyem. Their third demand for anti-corruption courts is still at a standstill.
"None of the politicians involved in organising the protest could become a candidate in the next presidential elections"
By this point, however, the original demands had become a sideshow for Ukrainian media. The organisers were subject to charges of irresponsibly destabilising the country from Ukrainian government officials who said the protesters were looking to provoke violent clashes to justify their lack of mandate. The overwhelming prominence of Saakashvili attracted criticism from all sides of Ukraine’s political spectrum, who accused him of hijacking the protest for his own aims. Nayyem, for his part, tried and failed to steer attention away from the small number of supporters back to the anti-corruption aims.
Bigger parties such as Yulia Tymoshenko’s Batkivshyna and the far-right Svoboda party quietly disappeared from the camp. Members of other organisations such as Solidarnist Nalyvaichenko, an NGO run by three-time head of Ukraine's State Security Services, told me they were there to protest parking restrictions, and took down the flags on their tents.
The four remaining organisers agreed on the original three aims, plus introducing a law on impeachment. Aside from this, they have been pursuing two different political agendas and physically split into two different areas of the campsite.
Journalist-turned-deputy Sergii Leshchenko partnered with Saakashvili, who, using the hashtag #UkraineAfterPoroshenko, projected a presentation onto the Rada of his first 70 days in office. While Samopomich deputies Yehor Sobolyev and Semen Semenchenko, a former commander of Donbas battalion, debuted their new all-party political organisation: The Liberation Movement, which operates under the slogan “Ukraine without oligarchs” and advocates using street politics to push through reform.
"I want to live in free Ukraine" reads one of the leaflets outside the Rada. (c) Maxim Edwards. All rights reserved.
“None of the politicians involved in organising the protest could become a candidate in the next presidential elections,” Volodymyr Fesenko, a political analyst, tells me. Saakashvili, according to Fesenko, is well-known enough, but wouldn't be eligible even if he still had his citizenship because of a requirement to live in the country for 10 years. Leshchenko, Soboloyev and Semenchenko don't figure in the presidential ratings, says Fesenko, they aren't well-known as politicians by the majority of Ukrainians.
Police and national guardsmen line the perimeters of the campsite. After the initial clash on 17 October, the head of police, Sergey Knyazev, stated that they would not attempt to clear out the protesters. A sign of how things have changed, the current Ukrainian authorities do not want to repeat Yanukovych’s mistake, says analyst Fesenko.
But meanwhile, in the back doors of power, someone in Ukrainian politics is pushing draft legislation that envisions vastly increasing the powers of the National Guard. The legislative proposal has made its way past a parliamentary committee, despite cries from Ukraine's human rights ombudswoman and activists. Indeed, the current situation is probably the kind of scenario this draft legislation is designed to counter. If passed, it would drastically reverse the progress the Ukrainian law enforcement authorities have demonstrated with these protests.
Bill 6556 would permit Ukraine’s National Guard to video, photograph and wiretap targets, search property and people, confiscate property without police training or special permission from a court. Most scarily, National Guard troops would be allowed to use force and weapons against protesters without warning if they feel their undefined “minimum safe space” has been violated. They will also be able to detain protesters without suspicion of an offense being committed. Importantly, according to Ukraine’s current criminal code, members of the National Guard can be imprisoned if they fail to carry out their commanders' orders.
A rude message to President Poroshenko spelt out in sweets made by his own confectionary company. (c) Maxim Edwards. All rights reserved.
The National Guard were created in 2014 with the intention of ensuring security within Ukraine's undisputed territory — protecting nuclear power plants and dams. At present, when patrolling the streets, the National Guard have the right to carry out superficial searches, use physical force and weapons, but only as an ancillary function, i.e. when asked to assist and in the presence of National Police. If the National Guard can act independently, Ukraine’s human rights ombudsman argues that the dangers of duplicating jurisdictions can be multiple.
Only one of the six lawmakers that initiated the law could be contacted: “This is not their piece of legislation, they're just acting as signatories,” said Mikhail Kameniev, a member of the working group on law enforcement at the Reanimation Package of Reform NGO and an assistant on the Rada's law enforcement committee.
Anton Gerashenko, an initiator of the law and Interior Ministry Arsen Avakov's right-hand man, declined to comment in detail on his involvement in the bill. Gerashenko pointed to previous commentary he gave to Radio Liberty in which he stated it would help better protect the National Guard from attacks like those suffered in August 2015. Three guardsmen were killed two summers ago outside the Ukrainian parliament when a rogue ultra-nationalist protester threw a grenade during a vote on constitutional amendments.
Since Saakashvili said he would retreat to the camp to protect himself from the authorities’ extradition order, the protest camp has largely fallen off Ukraine's news agenda
On Espreso TV, another initiator of the law, Mykola Palamarchuk, referred to the string of recent assassinations in Kyiv as justification, and pointed the finger at Russia. Evoking the threat of war, Palamarchuk said that law enforcement need more authority to effectively deal with the problem of destabilisation.
It's unclear who's behind the draft law. Though it arguably increases the powers of Ukraine’s Interior Ministry, they issued a statement against the law and denied any involvement. Kameniev says his NGO believe it’s someone at the National Guard itself. National Guard spokesperson Vadym Golub says that the criticism is politically motivated and the law would give the structure the same rights as its Italian and French counterparts. The explanatory note filed alongside the law describes the introduction of the undefined minimum safe distance as a “revolutionary innovation to protect the life and health of members of the military.”
The bill is not yet scheduled to be voted on. Rights activists fear lobbyists could use the accumulation of recent unsolved explosions and assassinations to put the draft legislation on the agenda the next time an instance of violence occurs. Over the past 15 months, there have been eight planned assassinations of high profile figures in Ukraine: Two within the last week, the latter of which killed female Chechen-Ukraine fighter and wife of Chechen rebel Adam Osmayev, Amina Okueva.
Camp continues to stand
Since Saakashvili said he would retreat to the camp to protect himself from the authorities’ extradition order, the protest camp has largely fallen off Ukraine's news agenda.
Sobolyev and Semenchenko announced a blockade of Poroshenko's businesses on 28 October, saying the president had failed to keep his promise of selling them once in office. Semenchenko said they had blockaded Poroshenko's Roshen chocolate factory in Vinnytsia on 29 October, though other sources have yet to corroborate this.
"The tragedy of EuroMaidan is that it created no real leader and because of this the revolution was lost"
“You can't call us the opposition,” says Sobolyev, perched inside one of the tents near the Rada. “That's a term for countries with a developed political system.”
Sobolyev says that in Ukraine’s kleptocracy, where oligarchs rule above law, their representatives are present to a degree in every political party. There are a few people in the state, government and legislature who try to hold up the law and are against corruption.
“The tragedy of EuroMaidan is that it created no real leader and because of this the revolution was lost,” said Sobolyev. He believes the only way to do this is to change the rules of the game, which includes the protest’s aims.
The next plenary session at Ukraine’s Rada starts on 7 November and the protesters have high expectations. But the organisers will have to overcome their differences and stick to a single agenda if they are to persuade anyone inside — or outside — the parliament.