Thoughts from Kyiv – 02.02.2014

[infobox title=’Thoughts from Kyiv’]Thoughts from Kyiv is brought to you by Mychailo WynnyckyjAssociate Professor of the Department of Sociology and Kyiv-Mohyla Business School, Director of the Doctoral School, National University of “Kyiv-Mohyla Academy”. Below are his thoughts and writings on the situation in Ukraine. [/infobox]

My wife Marta went to Maidan the other day, and while there happened to meet with Mykhailo Hawryliuk – the Kozak that Jaguar riot police (a unit similar to Berkut) captured last week, and then unsuccessfully tried to humiliate by parading him naked in sub-zero temperatures on Hrushevskoho St. behind the line of fire. Not surprisingly, Mykhailo is somewhat of a celebrity on Maidan. As my wife approached him, he was in the middle of being embraced by an English-speaking female tourist, drenched in tears, lamenting how wonderful she thought the Kozak was. Mykhailo speaks absolutely no English, but he felt obliged to calm the young lady, and thank her for her support. When my wife approached, he assumed she wanted a hug also. Apparently, what followed was a kind of massive bear hug that made Marta feel ultimately safe (her words…). Afterwards, she thanked him for having added to the upbringing of our children, to their understanding of dignity under extreme circumstances. Apparently, Mykhailo chuckled sheepishly. Amazingly, this Kozak seems to honestly believe that “any Ukrainian” would have reacted exactly the same way to such “childish attempts at humiliation” on the part of riot police. His celebrity status is well earned if you ask me…

I cannot tire of repeating: the safest place in the world today is Maidan! I realize that may sound strange to anyone that has not been to Kyiv during the past 3 months, and given the videos and photographs of mass violence and burning tires that have crossed the globe, it is not surprising that many are skeptical. But thousands of people have repeated the same observation on Facebook: on Maidan one feels safe – even when you’re passed by a group of young men with masks carrying baseball bats on their way to the barricades at Hrushevskoho. As soon as you leave Maidan though, and you pass a traffic policeman, or (God forbid) a group of cops purportedly “keeping the peace”, inevitably a shiver wanders up your spine.

After a wave of kidnappings, beatings (e.g. Bulatov, Chornovol, Lutsenko), and unexplained arrests, edginess is probably justified. Yesterday, the car of Canadian embassy political and media officer Inna Tsarkova was torched, as was that of Naval Captain Yevhen Lupakov, head of the Officers’ Union of Ukraine who publicly criticized the Yanukovych regime on Jan 26/27. Interior Ministry General Dakhnovsky, who publicly rebuked his police colleagues about a month ago for trying to link the beating of journalist Tetiana Chornovol to a gang supposedly connected to the Klitschko brothers, had a Molotov cocktail thrown into a bedroom window in his house; the building was burned irreparably. Most residents of Kyiv that I know have removed the blue-and-yellow ribbons they once wore on their jackets, and cars no longer fly the Ukrainian flag – why risk getting stopped unnecessarily, or identifying yourself as a Maidan supporter to the gangs imported from various regions of Ukraine to roam the streets of Kyiv under police cover?

But “going underground” should not be seen as a decrease in the resolve of Ukrainians (particularly in the capital) to change their government. Quoting the U.S. Declaration of Independence may seem a bit tacky, but in reality its text reflects the mood of almost everyone I know in Kyiv today:

“Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government.”

Lately, I have been spending a significant amount of time speaking with foreign journalists who are trying to understand the essence of Maidan: is this a revolution, a rebellion, a sit-in, or a radical-right inspired conspiracy (this last depiction became especially popular after Putin’s scandalous statements during last week’s Russia-EU summit). Certainly, World War II Ukrainian Insurgent Army leader Stepan Bandera’s portraits are common on Maidan – primarily thanks to right-of-center Svoboda party activists – but there are also two very large photographs of Tymoshenko on the “tree” on Maidan, and no one seems to believe that the protests are aimed exclusively at freeing her… Maidan is a unique phenomenon: the protesters represent a vast ideological spectrum, but they are united in a single cause: regime change.

Maidan has been compared to the Arab Spring uprisings, but there are two very significant differences (a third difference is climate, but that’s less relevant here). Firstly, the armies of the North African Arab states where revolutions toppled entrenched dictators recently seem to have enjoyed significant public trust, and military leaders could legitimately pretend to play the role of arbiters between the protesters and the outgoing authoritarian rulers. This is not the case in Ukraine – no military leader (with the exception of Hrytsenko who has been out of uniform for over a decade) could conceivably rise to lead this country.

On the other hand, similarities between the mostly peaceful uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt and the Ukrainian Maidan are certainly plain: according to surveys of pre-revolutionary Tunisia (see 60% expressed disaffection with their politicians; 86% believed that corruption in government was common, and only 28% said that current government officials care about what people think; a mere 29% believed that government policies served the interests of the Tunisian people. Large amounts of survey data showing comparable statistics from Ukraine are widely available. However (and this is the second difference between Maidan and the Arab Spring), no single unified alternative political force has emerged from the current Ukrainian uprising – i.e. no parallel to the Muslim Brotherhood. Although analysts alarmed by the recent rise of Svoboda might argue that Tiahnybok’s party could potentially fill any post-Maidan political vacuum, this is seems highly unlikely because of the foreignness of nationalist ideology to the central and eastern regions of the country.

During the early (peaceful) weeks of the Maidan protests, renowned historian Yaroslav Hrytsak compared the demonstrations to the Occupy movement prominent in the western world in recent years. However, as my colleague from Kyiv-Mohyla Academy’s philosophy department, Volodymyr Yarmolenko, pointed out today, “Occupy” seems to be primarily a revolt of disenchanted youth against an installed bureaucratic elite that operates in a closed world of complex derivatives (in all senses of the term). Ukraine’s elite does not claim a white collar pedigree – on the contrary, its past is bloody, and its personalities are often primitive gangsters who hide (poorly) behind expensive fashionable facades: houses, clothes, cars, European (ironically) resorts, etc. Whereas the “Occupy” protestors universally condemn the inequality engendered by the large corporations of modern capitalism, Ukrainian Maidan protestors seem to crave entry into this “civilized” European world of meritocratic inequality.

Clearly, I am simplifying. But my point here is not to analyze Occupy/Indignants or the Arab Spring. Rather I am trying to present the truly unique nature of Ukraine’s Maidan. In my opinion, Valeriy Pekar, a former MBA student of mine, and now friend and colleague, captured the problem succinctly (my translation and paraphrase):

It is difficult to grasp the nature and demands of Maidan because as participants we are dealing with several very complex problems simultaneously:

  1. Removing a regime that has infuriated us all
  2. Freeing brethren who have been jailed illegally or kidnapped; ensuring the rightful prosecution of those responsible for rampant illegality and violence (Berkut, judges, regime officials)
  3. Avoiding the artificial conversion of the current “regime vs. people” conflict into an “east vs. west” struggle – i.e. maintaining the integrity of the country, and engendering a common vision of its future for all
  4. Changing the system of government, so that the next government cannot degenerate in the same way as its predecessor
  5. Preventing our geopolitical opponent (Russia) from consuming us in an effort to prolong its own decaying existence
  6. Completing the modernization of our country – in all aspects: economic, technological, perceptual and cultural
  7. Trying to remain peaceful, and avoiding infighting, while doing all of the above

Lately, several additional processes have been added to the above, namely: safeguarding those who have been brutalized by the regime (tortured AutoMaidan leader Dmytro Bulatov was evacuated today to Lithuania – escorted by Poroshenko and Klitschko); catalyzing and supporting the gradual break-up of the ruling Party of Regions (MP Hrushevsky today announced from the Maidan stage that he was “with the people”, but less than 2 hours later, the Party of Regions website published his retraction with a claim that he had been forced by opposition leaders to defect).

Each of the above tasks deserves a separate essay, and indeed, the fact that all of these processes are happening simultaneously (and are somehow being managed without a hierarchical leadership structure!) is truly amazing. Of all of the tasks facing Maidan activists, the one that seems to be getting the most press is “the Russia factor”. Here are my two cents on that issue:

Tonight, journalist Mustafa Nayem published an article on the Ukrayinska Pravda website in which he did not mention Russia at all. Instead, he claimed that the Maidan protests were a miscalculation on the part of the Yanukovych Administration. Specifically, in November 2013, Yanukovych advisors had two options before them: a) to launch Yanukovych’s re-election campaign on a pro-European platform (a difficult task given his low ratings in opinion polls nationally), b) to get him re-elected after having secured a major bail-out package from Russia that would be directed to a broad constituency of impoverished voters (effectively buying their votes). Apparently, they decided on Plan B, but everything went wrong when the EuroMaidan didn’t disperse for more than 6 weeks after Vilnius. At that point Yanukovych decided to crack down, and pushed through the January 16 “dictatorial” laws – hastily translated from their Russian original. Things went really wrong when the President’s own faction began to rebel against him in Parliament (last Thursday), and that’s when he was forced to intervene personally. Yanukovych then suddenly went “on sick leave” on Friday – to be able to deny personally giving orders in case a state of emergency or other measure needed to be enacted. (Note: this was the first time in Ukraine’s history that a President had gone on sick leave). According to this theory, police brutality and Berkut attacks are seen as a result of the incompetence of mid-level actors, rather than planned/regimented activities undertaken by individuals following orders from superiors.

The above theory would be plausible if it weren’t for the numerous rumors and speculation as to the direct involvement of Putin in Ukraine’s affairs. Most recently, Andrei Ilarionov, former advisor to the Russian President, stated emphatically that Russia was just stalling for time until after the Sochi Olympics before directly intervening in Ukraine. He claimed the best Ukraine could hope for in case of a military move by Russia was a partitioning of its territory – if not outright occupation. Certainly, Russian media hype during the past months would serve to support Ilarionov’s prediction. But one must ask – why? Why would Putin want to incorporate an economic basket-case on his border, and why would he want to try to pacify a territory that has clearly demonstrated a desire for autonomy (at least) if not independence from Russia for decades (if not centuries).

Supporters of the “Putin conspiracy” theory claim that the Russian President is ideologically bound to Ukraine. Putin is on record as having opined that the greatest catastrophe of the 20th century was the break-up of the USSR, and without Ukraine, no renewed Soviet Union is possible. This theory is supported by observers of Russian elite discourse: to many in the Russian intelligentsia, the existence of Ukraine as an independent state is an accident of history, and a gross misunderstanding. For them, Kyiv is the “mother of Russian cities” and the cradle of Rus civilization which later became Russia. Accordingly, the ideological justification for annexing Ukraine to the Russian Federation is akin to that underlying Serbia’s claim to Kosovo: regardless of current ethno-linguistic and political realities, the territory of Ukraine was once the historical cradle of the Russian nation, and therefore should be rejoined to the motherland.

These myths are certainly powerful (on both sides), but it seems more likely that Putin’s keen interest in Ukraine’s ongoing revolution has less to do with imperial ambitions than with a fear of losing power at home. His hatred for all things orange after 2004 are well documented. Indeed today, several thousand demonstrators in Moscow marched into the streets to protest against repressions perpetrated by their government after the Bolotnaya Square arrests, and many in the crowd carried Ukrainian flags. Certainly, many in the Russian intelligentsia view Kyiv’s Maidan with envy – much to the chagrin of President Putin.

So after all of the above, here’s my take on what’s going on (purely speculative): Yanukovych’s about-face on EU integration in November was likely a manoeuver that was planned and executed in Kyiv without direct involvement from Moscow (except for the public lobbying against the Association agreement by Viktor Medvedchuk’s “Ukrainian Choice” which is likely funded, at least in part, by the Kremlin). Certainly there are individuals more loyal to Putin than to Yanukovych within the Party of Regions, and even (possibly) within the Ukrainian President’s inner circle, but until mid-January I firmly believe “the shots” were being called by Yanukovych. However, when the situation on the ground began to get out of control (i.e. violence led to sanctions from the West, and a possible revolt within the ruling Party of Regions), and the prospect of a domino effect became very real, Putin became directly and personally involved in managing Yanukovych’s ouster.

Indeed, this is what scares people on the ground in Kyiv most. Today, Kharkiv governor Mykhailo Dobkin held a founding conference (with 6000 attendees) for a movement called the “Ukrainian Front” whose mission is “to clear Ukraine of its western/banderite/nationalist occupiers”. By holding such a meeting without the consent of Yanukovych, Dobkin declared himself heir-apparent to the President, whom he considers a lame-duck. The Party of Regions is clearly splitting, and the split is (tragically) occurring along regional lines with Russia inevitably being dragged into the conflict as the “arbiter” for the losing side…

Several days ago I spent a couple of hours discussing current events with Myroslav Marynovych, vice-rector of Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv, and a former Soviet-era prisoner of conscience. We discussed the Russia factor, and what the West could do to counter it. His message was clear: the West (NATO, the EU, the US, the UN, the OECD, and any other relevant organization) should do everything possible to send Putin a clear message “Hands off Ukraine!” Ukrainians must be allowed to settle their own messy problems without “help” from their northeastern neighbor. Given the ideological and media frenzy that current events in Kyiv have caused in Moscow, I believe that keeping “the Bear” at bay will be an enormously difficult task. But it must be done! Ukrainians deserve to be able to solve their own problems by themselves. And if the atmosphere on Maidan is any indicator – they’ll do a fine job of it if left alone.

God help us!

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