The incumbent regime resents dissenters just as the Soviets did. But since it cannot use its predecessor’s method, it resorts to clowning around
History repeats itself. Moreover, it is a common knowledge that the former tragedy is often repeated as a farce.
In the USSR in the 1920s-1930 there was a fashion for crowded meetings of workers specially appointed by the party, demanding savage reprisals against the “spies” and “enemies of the people”. Such ecstatic unanimity of the masses only became possible after the elimination of any opportunity for unauthorized public appearances. This was exactly the main reason for the success of such gatherings, which not only impressed foreign nations, but also broke down the Old Bolsheviks – perhaps faster than torture at the hands of the Cheka.
Under Leonid Brezhnev, similarly masterminded manifestations of “mass solidarity of the working people” were mostly perceived as farce. However, the war of the Soviet regime on dissenters was far from just mockery. You could laugh at the pompous meetings (but not out loud), yet should you attempt to organize citizens in any unauthorized way, you would soon be sorry. Consequently, there was never an alternative to “public opinion” and this kept the regime afloat up to a certain time.
At first, the homo sovieticus tradition of organizing the masses moved on to independent Ukraine without any changes. However, the unfortunate attempts by Viktor Yanukovych’s electioneers to organize “workers' marches” and other shows of “the solidarity of the working people” revealed that such compulsory administrative methods had become obsolete here, too.
Instead, the free hand of the market stepped confidently into the fore. Not that pre-paid public actions had never been held before. But paradoxically, they have become a mass phenomenon after the Maidan.
The nature of the further mass political actions (for instance, rallies to protect Yanukovych’s entourage in 2005) left no room for doubt. Participation in public protests (or, conversely, “supportive” actions) was becoming more and more like an ordinary job, with varying levels of complexity, depending foremost on the weather. Advertisements, openly recruiting volunteers to wave the colors of one or another party, at specified prices per hour, day, or week, started to appear on the Internet en masse.
The last of the recent large-scale actions, which can be described as “public” without stretching a point, was the Tax Maidan in the winter. The reader will remember that its outcome was not particularly inspiring: the tents were pulled down by the police, while the staunchest activists, despite the president and prime minister’s public promises to refrain from persecution, were kept in custody on dubious charges using even more dubious means which in civilized countries would entail no punishment greater than a fine.
Thus, the past repeated itself to a degree. Unlike the Orange era, when anti-government rallies not only turned into a profitable business, but also became quite a safe pastime, the incumbent president and government clearly implied that they would not tolerate any alternatives to their own opinion.
And if resorting to this type shady PR is out of the question (when appearances have to be kept in the eyes of the West), other technologies can just as well be employed. For instance, if there is a picket, a counter-picket can be used to neutralize it, just like outside the Pechersk Court in Kyiv, where Yulia Tymoshenko is being tried this summer.
When you speak to people in the picket lines you will find convinced protesters on both sides. But you will also find all sorts of proof that both sides are getting paid. Some more, some less, but the fact remains true.
On the other hand, subtle policies sometimes fail. On July 25, Tetiana Lisovyk, a pensioner, made news when she complained about the people who had hired her to picket “against Tymoshenko” in the ranks of Army Union, led by a former Party of Regions MP Oleh Kalashnikov. “I do condemn Tymoshenko,” she told the journalists, adding that nonetheless she would never rally for hours for free. According to Lisovyk, who showed the journalists a token entitling her to the reception of a miserable 15 hryvnias per hour, she had not been getting any money since July 18.
Even earlier, on July 21, a special press conference was called by Pavlo Tselovalnikov, member of a public initiative named “Tymoshenko Should Be Made Responsible!” He and his colleagues got way more than the down-and-nearly-out pensioners — 500 to 1,000 hryvnias a day. Tselovalnikov said that payments were handled by the Party of Regions headquarters on Lypneva Street, and the whole “business” was masterminded by Deputy Prime Minister Andrii Kliuiev.
Young men sporting black T-shirts with caricatures of Tymoshenko and her entourage also had a tough job, which was to stay in the spotlight. For example, once they were used in order to prevent journalists and MPs from getting into the court room. Ushered in by an obscure person, these “anti-Tymoshenko activists” occupied most seats there. However, opposition MPs were not inclined to engage in long discussions and promptly turned them out.
According to Tselovalnikov, activists were also supposed to cover the walls of buildings in downtown Kyiv with graffiti saying “Kireiev is a hero!” (Rodion Kireiev is a judge who presides the trial) – which, by the way, itself is a misdemeanor. Also, two weeks ago his colleagues were allegedly going to hire people with fresh injuries – in order to provoke a fight with the BYuT MPs and present them as victims that had suffered at the hands of the opposition.
Tselovalnikov said that it was exactly what had prompted him to speak before the journalists. In turn, the authorities' PR machine retorted that preparation for a crime should be reported to law enforcement authorities rather than to mass media (although why not?).
All this story of a bundle of smart guys drawing party funds for the sake of getting in the limelight would not be worth such a detailed description, if it were not for a very revealing stand the law enforcement authorities have taken. We have already mentioned one episode, the penetration of unidentified individuals into the court room even before it was open. There has still been no explanation of how this could have happened.
Another instance is the tough guys in black t-shirts who were able to freely get into the courtyard of the Pechersk Court building, where ordinary mortals may not walk. The Ukrainian Week was informed that some of the “anti-Tymoshenko fighters” had been using false journalist IDs. The whole problem is that only an extremely myopic person might have taken those IDs for real: not only editors’ signatures, but even seals were missing. Replicas of well-known media logos, typically of those not very loyal to the regime, including that of The Ukrainian Week, were also used.
This all means that “anti-Tymoshenko activists” have also added the violation of copyright and related rights to their record. Yet the police and court security service, who are very cautious with journalists and even MPs, are not in the least worried by these facts.
From a formal viewpoint it allows one to qualify the publicity offered to the Tymoshenko trial by the powers associated with the incumbent regime, as a “farce on a farce,” a corrupt remake of the comedy of rallies and protests of the previous years – which, in their turn, were only an unfortunate replica of the technologies of those common in Soviet times.
The difference between Ukraine and the USSR is that anti-governmental protest actions here do not entail capital punishment; moreover, even physical reprisal is optional. But you should remember that Stalinist repressions started with a mere six months’ detention for an unsanctioned rally.