It would be ridiculous to speak of a pre-revolution situation in Ukraine just because Afghanistan war veterans and Chornobyl disaster victims were holding protests. No revolution seems to be in the making in Ukraine. But the protests have demonstrated a major shift in public opinion in the regions where the Party of Regions is – or, rather, used to be – popular. In any case, since the 1991 Declaration of Independence, no one has stormed the Donetsk Region State Administration with pitchforks and torches or beaten its security guards. Yet the following picture could be observed in the capital city of the coal-mining region: dozens of pensioners trying to force their way into the building as they protested against higher utility tariffs and the authorities’ failure to make payments to “children of the war.”
This spontaneous social explosion took place amid the protests of Chornobyl disaster victims in Donetsk Region who demanded enforcement of the law under which they are entitled to preferential pensions. The Donetsk authorities could not think of anything better to do than to use the courts to force the protesters to stop protesting. As the police carried out one such order on November 27 and took down one protester’s tent, they trampled Hennadiy Konopliov, a disabled man who later died. Instead of quickly bringing the guilty to account, the authorities decided to frame it as an accident. Moreover, they tried to shift the blame to (surprise!) the rally’s organizers. A day later, the protesters blocked roadways as they carried a symbolic casket and a cross along Donetsk’s streets. The head of the Donetsk Region Administration referred to the protests as “provocations by political forces,” while the local eparchy of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate) called on the protesters to repent. No wonder…
Protest rallies organized by Chornobyl disaster victims and tent villages spread to other regions, including neighboring Luhansk Region. On November 30, eight protesters announced a hunger strike there. Remarkably, these two regions are not among those worst hit by the Chornobyl disaster. Many more victims reside in Kyiv, Zhytomyr and Rivne regions. They are silent for now, but that does not mean that they will not storm administrative buildings in the future.
Recent joint actions by Chornobyl victims near the Cabinet of Ministers show that there is sizeable potential for protests. Several hundred Berkut special task troops struggled to contain 2,000 people. An apt comment on these protests came from one participant from Donetsk. He said to a journalist: “We lived a normal life for five years until this government came along. There was a law on Chornobyl victims and people got their pensions. And then through this new decree, they cancelled it all.”
The problem of preferential pensions is indeed hard to solve. But the “solutions” the government is offering to Chornobyl disaster victims and Afghanistan war veterans often defy common sense. For example, Anatoliy Prysiazhniuk, head of the Kyiv Region State Administration, found his own way to fight Chornobyl victims. He set the police and the prosecutor’s office against them with orders to find “falsified” court decisions entitling these people to higher pensions. He would do better if he said what residents of Polissia District, part of Kyiv Region, are supposed to do now – after losing special social payments they will find themselves at the end of their rope. There is no industry in the district, and Kyiv is to far away for commuting. Where are the much needed investments? Where is support for small businesses?
The government, personified by Party of Regions MPs who pushed populist social laws through the parliament on the eve of the 2004 presidential elections, had the wisdom of getting entire districts hooked on social benefits. However, by unwisely depriving millions of Ukrainians of their entitlements, this same party appears helpless in the face of a coming social explosion.