How was he to know? The cracking of the Ukraine regime

Ukraine’s parliament has abandoned the law to curb public protests only recently introduced and the prime minister has resigned. What lies behind these dramatic events?

Oleksandr Butsenko
28 January 2014
Maidan protest, Kyiv

The nation against the system: protesting in Kyiv. Flickr / Ivan Bandura. Some rights reserved.

It’s difficult to analyse events in Kyiv from inside. Easier to take part in them—and in the general feeling that this has not been a confrontation between the opposition and the power bloc but between the nation and the system.

In his recent Moral Blindness, Zygmunt Bauman called 2012 a “year of people on the move”, adding that the “following year will go down in history as the year of a renewed prominence of social conflicts and of a redrawing of their frontlines and interfaces”. Riots in different parts of the globe in 2013 were in many moments similar: “People on the streets presage change … People took to the streets in the hope of finding an alternative society.”

An alternative society will need an alternative power structure—and this is the key direction of the Ukraine protests. After the national enthusiasm of the 2004 Orange revolution, a huge new wave of popular elation was not anticipated, especially after the general frustration with the presidency of Viktor Yuschenko, whom the revolution propelled into office. Indeed disillusionment and passivity on the part of many voters, particularly young people, allowed the victory of Viktor Yanukovych during the last presidential election in 2009.

Lessons learned

From early 2010, Yanukovych and his team demonstrated the lessons they had learned from his 2004 defeat by Yuschenko. These were: a) Ukrainian legislation needed some changes, beginning with the constitution, to become an efficient tool to secure immunity in power; b) such legislation could only be efficient with a transformed judicial system and strengthened secret and police services; c) the power hierarchy should be lubricated with possibilities for personal enrichment in exchange for loyalty; d) the best practices of the Soviet propaganda machine, along with the organised “people supporting power” should be put into action, and e) corruption and totalitarianism should be hidden under democratic rhetoric and Manichean attacks on political predecessors as guilty of all evils.

Three years ago, for most people in Ukraine talk about a European orientation and European integration was just that

And they began to apply these lessons, testing them first with the incrimination of Yulia Tymoshenko and Yuriy Lutsenko, respectively the former prime minister and minister of internal affairs. In spite of protests in Ukraine and abroad, both political rivals were accused and imprisoned. Public protest was neither strong nor unanimous because the victims, especially Tymoshenko, were associated with the disappointing presidency—and the arguments of the new political managers sounded rather convincing when they recalled gas agreements with Russia and other less than transparent episodes.

The limits of power were demonstrated when, after two years and several months, Lutsenko was pardoned by presidential edict. Rather as with the pardoning of Mikhail Khodorkovsky and members of Pussy Riot in Russia, this was a way of saying that “it may be a drastic law but it’s our law”. Tymoshenko was not however released—the power bloc also recognised the limits of risk. The judicial system, meanwhile, became more and more guided to make summary judgments, even before a crime had taken place, provoking feeling of powerlessness and despair.

European values

Three years ago, for most people in Ukraine talk about a European orientation and European integration was just that—desirable but remote and inconsistent with political reality and the collective mindset in an atmosphere of distrust. But the government and president persistently declared a European trajectory and all regions elaborated action plans to move in this direction. In the run-up to the Eastern Partnership summit in Vilnius in November 2013, it seemed unimaginable that all this hard work and expense could be rendered null and void.

Of course, it would take time for Ukraine to recognise European values, implement democratic norms and introduce responsible governance. And in the present it suffered from Russian pressure, both economic and political—shady meetings between Yanukovych and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, even on the eve of the summit, were troubling. So the triumphant smile of the president, rejecting the European agreement on association as unfavourable to Ukraine, especially in economic terms, led some young people to assemble in Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square) in Kyiv, asking the president not to steal their future. Mr Yanukovych, however, kept smiling.

Bauman also writes: “Under the date of 14 July 1789, Louis XVI, King of France, entered in his diary just one word: Rien. That day, a crowd of Parisian sans-culottes flooded on to the kinds of streets not usually visited by les misérables, not en masse at any rate—and certainly not to loiter on. That day they did, and refused to leave until they had overwhelmed the guards and captured the Bastille. But how was Louis XVI to know?”

How was Yanukovych to know that the brutal dispersal of sparse protesters would provoke such a wave of reaction?  The subsequent events are well-known: violence and self-assurance played a spiteful trick on the powerful—the people’s contempt for them converted into hate, indignation and a demand to put an end to such governance. After the parliament adopted (by the ruling majority), on January 16, a law restricting most of the civil liberties in the country, the confrontation became fierce. 

Alternative society

Maidan is now all over Ukraine. Temperatures of -15-20C betray resolution and courage, as well as despair, among those staying on the street. Many have been arrested, wounded, kidnapped, tortured and even killed. But more and more people have come to Maidan.

January 28 saw an extraordinary session of Parliament—in both senses, with the majority overturning the public-order law passed less than two weeks earlier. This could prove the first step to compromise or to a further escalation of violence. Experts and commentators consider different scenarios—up to the division of Ukraine between an independent west and a pro-Russian east and Crimea, however unrealistic this is when one takes into account demographic diversity.

What will emerge is an alternative society—not tomorrow but within a year or more. And young people, without doubt, will be an active electorate at the next presidential elections. Whom will they support? And the key question: who could lead and unite the nation?

Indeed, is it possible? Yes, but with great difficulty, demanding personal courage to forgive and secure the chance of renewal. Bauman once more: “Louis XVIII, restored to the throne in 1814, decreed the forgetting of atrocities, including the regicide, committed by the French Revolution. He wrote into the new French constitution that ‘all inquiry into opinions and votes preceding the restoration are prohibited. Both the courts and the citizens are obliged in equal measure to forget them.’ And recall the exemplarily smooth and humane exit of South Africa, due largely to Nelson Mandela’s inspiration, from the long dark years of injustice, hatred and blood-letting.”

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