Local protests may escalate to a nationwide movement against the Yanukovych regime well before the 2015 presidential election
After nearly three and a half years under the Yanukovych regime, public protests are becoming increasingly widespread and radical. There were 2,305 protest actions in 2010; by 2012, that number had grown to 3,636. While the purposes of these protests were varied, most had one thing in common: although initially apolitical, they gradually generated political demands. The protests were usually localized in certain territories or within specific social groups whose interests had been violated. The most recent actions showed a common resistance against appalling injustices as witnessed in Vradiyivka, Semypolky and Mykolayiv. Other protests such as those carried out by former Chernobyl liquidators and Ukrainian-language advocates demanded the protection of rights. These uprisings left most Ukrainians sympathetic yet uninvolved: they were not ready to actively support the interests of others. According to sociologists, this allowed those in power to quash such movements and neutralize the highly fragmented protest sentiments even if most Ukrainians shared them (one third of Ukrainians claim to be ready to participate in rallies). In this respect, Ukraine is different from Bulgaria, Turkey, Brazil and Egypt, which responded to similar factors with massive uprisings.
The government may see this as a reason to ignore social frustration. However, while it has managed to abate the fragmented protests of social groups and individual towns in one way or another, it has never addressed the causes of discontent. Thus, many sociologists believe that certain circumstances can cause a simmering conflict to escalate to a national explosion that will speed up legitimate change within the government, as was the case in Egypt, for instance. Factors that may drive protests range from economic shock, a sense of possible victory, the feeling of irreversibility with a lost chance to replace the government, or a new leader who will offer a reasonable alternative to the regime and will be ready to head a protest movement. Currently, sociologists claim that a critical mass of the discontented is accumulating and new fractures between the regime and society are surfacing.
“Declaratively, we have high protest readiness,” says Yevhen Holovakha, a top Ukrainian sociologist and Deputy Director at the Sociology Institute, National Academy of Sciences. “But Ukrainians are not used to protesting without very weighty reasons which they can’t just overlook. What happened in Vradiyivka was largely caused by people’s wish to survive. They realized that they will be next unless they stop the bandits. Ukrainians tend to stay passive until there is clear injustice or a goal – preferably pointed out by someone they respect. A very clear line between good and bad like the one in Vradiyivka or before the Orange Revolution is necessary to push Ukrainians to rise.”
“The thing is that Ukrainians are probably the most patient nation in the world, you can see that in history,” comments social psychologist Oleh Pokalchuk. “Virtually the only thing that can easily sting our people is wounded pride, like with a teenager—which Ukraine actually is. Ukrainians have inflated egos, idealistic worldviews and ambitions inspired by books – all of this occurs already in puberty.”
The riots in Vradiyivka, Lysychansk, Pervomaisk and other places proved that Ukrainian society is electrified and ready for real activity in the streets. This readiness is indicated by the respondents’ answers to “Are you ready to join a rally?”, as much as it is by the lack of any real alternative forum in which people can express their dissent. Developed democracies have several options for public reaction to violent episodes like that in Vradiyivka. Citizens can appeal to a superior law enforcement authority or a police supervisor, file a no-confidence motion against police chiefs in a specific town, file lawsuits and more. In a Vradiyivka-type situation, the citizens of “old democracies” do not have to take to the streets. In Ukraine, none of these options are available. Appealing to an oblast police department makes no sense because it will be headed by the wrongdoer’s godfather who may well turn out to be equally corrupt. Turning to the prosecutor’s office will be fruitless because of its ties with top police officials and the Family on the top level and profound nepotism on the lower level. Vradiyivka confirmed this: the county prosecutor was protecting police officers who had violently raped a local woman and left her for dead. The prosecutor ignored obvious facts of the crime and evidence from the victim for several days. This leaves street protests as the only way to solve the problems of individuals, community and society. Hence, the growing number – and radicalism – of local protests.
“Our whole history shows that Ukrainians will not take to the streets just for something material – their wallets,” says political analyst Serhiy Taran. “Just think of any massive protests – for independence, the Orange Revolution and the like. They were all driven by motives higher than money. Ukrainians are much more likely to support an organization or a person that offers them an ideology, foundation, or alternative. Overall, the fact that people here are ready to publicly protest for something more than money is a positive thing. Revolutions for material reasons often aggravate the situation rather than make things better, such as the October Revolution where the main goal was redistribution of wealth. If Ukrainians rebelled for bread alone, they would be very easy to hush up with bread. Ukrainians are more willing to rally for high ideals, which means that society is gradually maturing and beginning to understand that it must be built on a foundation of law and human rights.”
Unlike other countries where equal protest readiness swiftly escalated into massive rallies, Ukraine’s localized and spontaneous actions have remained just that. Social rejection of the Yanukovych regime (measuring at least 60% according to various surveys) is not escalating into a pan-Ukrainian movement, for which many experts have pointed out socio-psychological and political reasons. “Better organization of protests would make a 2004-style scenario possible now,” Yevhen Holovakha comments. “Otherwise, there will be nothing but a blind riot.” The opposition – in parliament or beyond – could take the lead. But Ukrainian politicians are spoilt and distant from the population, whom they view simply as a crowd that can bring them to power. Opposition leaders are still guided by political strategies and attracted by numbers no less than “hundreds of thousands”. Meanwhile, they seem to overlook the fact that hundreds of thousands begin with hundreds and thousands. As a result, whenever opposition parties took the lead in a local protest, they would swiftly abandon the original goal of the action, downgrading it to a small rally where most protesters were paid to stand with posters and greet one opposition leader or another. This has discouraged proactive people from supporting political demands “without money”, as in Rise Ukraine!
“Two things are lacking in order for a real national protest to start,” notes political analyst Serhiy Taran. “The first is public trust for politicians [following the disappointment with Orange leaders – Ed.] or any organized political rallies. This total distrust, a trauma essentially, prevents people from uniting around a common goal. The second important factor is the management of these rallies. Someone has to seriously work on that on a daily basis, build networks and supervise them. Nobody is doing that in Ukraine right now.”
The conduct of current opposition leaders reveals that they are afraid of heading a real protest movement. After Tymoshenko was put in jail, Ukraine was left without an equivalent to Russia’s Alexey Navalny, who refuses to abandon his goal of replacing the Putin regime comprised of “former Komsomol members and bandits” despite huge pressure from the Russian state machine. Nor does Ukraine have its own Zoran Đinđić, who headed the overthrow of President Milosevic and his mafia system in the Serbian Bulldozer Revolution despite the fact that his own party was in the minority. Another important lesson from Đinđić’s experience or the latest developments in Egypt is that sometimes even a minority can take power in its hands if it offers society a reasonable alternative. Both Navalny and Đinđić struggled to profoundly change the systems that were leading their countries to collapse. Unlike them, most Ukrainian opposition leaders do not have such a goal, therefore they cannot – or do not want to – lead a real resistance. “There are very few passionate people in Ukrainian society today. This is a result of the turmoil of the 20th-century,” Yevhen Holovakha comments. However, the only question here is when the leader or political party will emerge that will be ready to profoundly change the current system in the interests of the Ukrainian majority.
The current scale of resistance does not bother the Yanukovych regime much. “The government is openly ignoring civil forms of protest while accepting radical ones. Put simply, it turns a blind eye to journalists and human rights activists, but when people start burning down local police offices, it uses different tactics to solve the problem.”
However, the regime is taking a risk in assuming that a society deprived of leaders and viable alternatives will never rise up in widespread revolt. In the early 2000s that ended with the Orange Revolution, 20,000 people at most joined the “Ukraine Without Kuchma” campaign and far fewer respondents claimed ready to participate in a revolution in Kyiv than do today. Eventually, however, it swelled into a national movement when society felt that things would become fatally irreversible unless the government was held accountable for ignoring the opposition and the interests of the majority of voters. This suggests that today, voters heated by a slew of fragmented local conflicts and causes that the Yanukovych regime does not – and will not – eliminate, may well respond to a spontaneous mobilization that the government will be unable to predict or resist. Perhaps by then a political force or a leader (preferably not from the current political elite) will emerge that will offer society an alternative scenario and head the protest movement that will bring about legitimate regime change. This may happen well before the 2015 presidential race if the Yanukovych regime continues to infuriate voters at the current pace.
Senior Fellow at the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security on the way American political establishment sees Ukraine today, the stance of the Obama Administration on Russia and expectations of the NATO Summit in Warsaw