Surely there were many Ukrainians who wondered what would happen next, if the massive protests against president Viktor Yanukovych were to succeed. Among the tens of thousands who joined the (mostly) nonviolent protests at the Maidan in central Kiev, there were certainly some who were concerned about a violent backlash, but apparently few who expected that, within less than a week, Russian troops would occupy a large chunk of their country.
This article is an attempt to understand how the EuroMaidan protests succeeded in bringing political change—the dismissal of an authoritarian and widely despised, albeit democratically elected, regime—and in doing so, quite possibly risked Ukraine’s independence.
On November 21, 2013, the Yanukovych government suddenly cancelled a pending agreement with the European Union, choosing instead to take Russia’s offer of a loan. Within days, a permanent protest camp was established in Kiev’s central Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square)—the site of the 2004 “Orange Revolution.”
By mid-December, the protests spread throughout the country. The larger Russian-speaking cities of the Donbass region saw their first protest actions, often in the face of intimidation by local authorities.
The protesters of 2013-14 were younger than those of 2004, used social media to organize, and more global in outlook. Many were born around the time of Ukraine’s 1991 independence, a generation considerably more likely to see the EU, rather than Russia, as a likely model for their country.
Opinion polls taken in the fall of 2013 showed that 69 – 70% of young adults aged 18 – 29 supported closer integration with the EU, as opposed to 40 – 45% of the population as a whole. The largely Ukrainian-speaking states in the west of the country were more likely to support the European option than the Russian-speaking Eastern Ukraine, but even in the east a majority of the young took a pro-Europe position.
It is wrong to pretend that the EuroMaidan protests were nonviolent. At least 100 protesters and bystanders were killed, as were at least 13 police.
But in the actual Maidan—the square where the Kiev protesters camped out for three months—nonviolence was largely practiced, both on the cultural and strategic level.
The spontaneous, self-organized nature of the camps (particularly the largest and most famous one in Kiev) would be familiar to observers of modern protest culture: communal kitchens, a well-supplied clinic, music concerts, an open university. Veterans of the Orange Revolution reported that the square was more tense than in 2004, in part because of the presence of the extreme right (see below).
The other level of practical nonviolence had to do with the movement’s hard political objectives and the need to avoid being co-opted completely by the two largest opposition blocs in parliament—Vitali Klitschko’s Democratic Alliance and the Fatherland Union of Yulia Tymoshenko. It now appears that they failed in this regard.
Some participants, in particular the neo-fascist Right Sector, came equipped for a fight. In this respect, they played a similar role to the Black Bloc—using a larger movement as cover for their own militant agenda, with the connivance of at least some of the other political figures involved in the demonstrations.
Right Sector was founded shortly after the EuroMaidan protests began. It occupies a small but crowded niche in Ukrainian politics—an extreme nationalist fringe which celebrates “patriots” who fought against Soviet forces (usually in alliance with Germany) during the Second World War.
A larger and more virulently anti-Russian, though less openly violent, group is the parliamentary political party Svoboda, which gained four cabinet posts in the interim government. In a notorious incident on 18 March, Svoboda and Right Sector activists confronted and beat Alexander Panteleymonov, the head of the state television company NTU, forcing him to write a letter of resignation on the spot. His crime? He had not stopped NTU from broadcasting Vladimir Putin’s speech announcing the annexation of Crimea.
By late March, however, the influence of the extreme right appeared to be in decline, with a leading Right Sector member killed and Svoboda losing the most important of its cabinet positions —namely the defence ministry.
On February 23, just a day after Yanukovych’s dismissal, the Ukrainian Parliament voted to repeal the law on regional languages, making Ukrainian the sole state language in all parts of the country. Although this law was vetoed by acting President Oleksandr Turchynov a week later, the damage had been done.
Official Russian criticisms of the “coup” in Kiev now took on darker overtones. The word “fascist” became the standard epithet to describe the Ukrainian uprising. While this is a generic insult in most other countries, it has a very specific meaning when used by Russian President Vladimir Putin and his supporters—that the opposition movement (and not just Right Sector and Svoboda) are direct descendants of the pro-Nazi nationalists of the Second World War. For his part, Putin argued that the Crimea annexation was necessary to protect its people from a “fascist invasion.”
Putin’s skill at media control was on display throughout the Ukraine crisis, but never more so than during the run-up to the Crimean referendum.
Johann Birr of Reporters without Borders notes, “The most shocking ‘non-truth’ I saw was a report on Russian state television in which the anchor was appalled that the West could possibly accuse Russia of having sent troops to Crimea.
“Even some of the soldiers themselves [who wore plain, unmarked uniforms] contradicted Russian media reports” by freely admitting that they were from the Russian military.
The Ukraine crisis was also used as an excuse for a crackdown on Russia’s independent media. RIA Novosti, the state-owned but independent-minded news agency, was merged out of existence in December, while the senior editor of TV network Dozhd was dismissed as a direct result of his dissenting views on Crimea. In addition, during the Crimea campaign, the news websites Lenta.ru, Grani.ru, Kasparov.ru, and EJ.ru were all either threatened or blocked.
Radio station Ekho Moskvy’s website was shut down after it included a link to Alexei Navalny’s blog. Navalny, who is currently under house arrest, is Russia’s most prominent opposition figure.
Despite the repression and disinformation about the Crimean adventure, there were a number of protest actions supporting the Ukrainian protesters and against the annexation of Crimea. The largest anti-war rally, in Moscow, was attended by 50,000 protesters.
There is still risk that Ukraine will be further divided unless the insecurity felt by many of the country’s Russian-speakers is addressed. Some commentators talk darkly of a plan to break the country in two along the Dneiper river, with the eastern half attached to the Russian motherland as “New Russia.” There is also concern about Ukraine’s southwestern neighbor, the unrecognized Trans-Dniestr Republic, which, having broken away from Moldova two decades ago—may move to join Russia.
Some symbolic actions—unnoticed by Moscow but a positive sign for the future of Ukraine’s pluralism—took place in the wake of the language controversy. On February 26, to protest the language issue and in solidarity with Russian-speakers, the solidly Ukrainian-speaking city of Lviv appealed to its residents to use Russian at home, in public spaces and work places. In response, activists from the majority Russian-speaking cities of Donetsk and Odessa called on their fellow residents to speak Ukrainian on that day.
Ken Simons is managing editor of Peace.