Gintautas Mažeikis: In Ukraine, the “small dog” of civil society has appeared next to the “big elephant” of the revolution
Gintautas Mažeikis, a Lithuanian political scientist and professor of the Kaunas University of Technology, speaks about the uniqueness of Ukraine’s EuroMaidan
Ukraine has become a popular destination in recent weeks for a number of European politicians, intellectuals and civic activists who have come to express their support and solidarity with the EuroMaidan protests. The public in the European states was surprised to discover “bold” and “courageous” Ukrainians who are willing to defend their rights and freedoms out in the streets in sub-zero temperatures and even at the risk of beaten up by the riot police. Professor Mažeikis is one of those who are actively commenting on the situation in Ukraine and voicing their support for the protesters.
U.W.: In your opinion, how does the phenomenon of the Ukrainian Maidan compare to other mass protest movements of today?
I believe that the Maidan is a uniquely Ukrainian phenomenon. The mass protests in Tahrir Square in Cairo, Taksim Square in Istanbul, Bolotnaya Square in Moscow or in Athens were quite different from Ukraine’s Maidan in terms of protest culture, organization, political slogans, citizens’ motivation, etc. Remarkably, however, all of them united various, otherwise incompatible strata of society on some platform. For example, petty bourgeoisie, oligarchs and the underprivileged came together in one square to voice their vision of the country’s development. Uniting under the banners of direct democracy are right-wing radicals, moderate leftists and anarchists who never cooperate in one political field.
The second Maidan is very different from the first one, which was a rally supported by the emerging civil society. Now, in 2013, we are seeing a certain division between leader-centred parties and civil society, which makes the EuroMaidan more developed — and more interesting — from the civic viewpoint. Ukrainian parties are not developed political structures and their programmatic ideological foundations are vague. They are, rather, leader-centred organizations and thus are unstable and liable to turn into ideological political entities within several years. Leaders supported by large capital, so-called oligarchs, are not interesting to Europe’s civil society. This is interesting, above all, to the leaders themselves, who are playing their games. For example, Viktor Yushchenko and Yulia Tymoshenko, who rose to power after the victory of the 2004 Orange Revolution, courted and cooperated with various financial-industrial groups, while the civic dimension was pushed into the background.
In contrast, what we see today is vivid civil society with a number of symbolic features. I am talking about numerous self-organized groups which are the main driving force behind the Maidan and make it possible to resist the government’s attempts at violent crackdown. This high self-organization ensures the Maidan’s continuing survival and includes, among other things, organization of feeding, volunteering, street cleaning, sanitation, medical assistance, security, and various cultural and educational programmes. The latter are a certain challenge. Symbolically, we can single out here the big stage and the small stage. The former is seen by everyone, and speeches are made here mostly in the language of manifestos, which is good for motivating large groups, but there can be no serious discussion here, because it is psychologically impossible to hold a meaningful discussion in front of tens of thousands of people. In contrast, the small stage – the recently opened University of the EuroMaidan – involves more or less substantive discussion. However, because the stages are separated by a mere several hundred metres, the small one always feels the presence of the big one behind it.
Nevertheless, the “small dog” of civil society has appeared next to the “big elephant” of the revolution, and this dog is already raising its voice independently of large parties. Civil society is still weak and cannot express itself in all aspects, but it exists irrespectively of political leaders. This will have two important consequences in the future: on the one hand, it will foster the growth of self-government locally and gradually raise the consciousness of society; on the other, the latter will demand increasingly meaningful ideological and programmatic content from political parties. This, in its turn, will guarantee that parties will not be flashes in the pan. When parties become increasingly stable and civil society develops, peace comes to the country. This is what I wish for Ukraine – to have no need for the third Maidan.
The Maidan phenomenon lies also in the fact that the majority of mass protest movements in Europe in the past years were held in the name of EU criticism. Meanwhile, Ukrainian citizens are rallying in favour of European integration. The EU was to a certain extent unprepared to see such ardent support of the European project in Ukraine. The European bureaucrats are now forced to speak about the revolution as a positive phenomenon, even though this word may have been missing from their rhetoric earlier. The European idea is paradoxical for the Ukrainian revolution, and this paradox rubs off on, for example, the Svoboda (Freedom) Party. For example, the Lithuanian ultra-nationalists were somewhat shocked to see that the Ukrainian nationalists decided to act in support of the EU. However, it should be noted here that the EU is not a monolithic entity. Rather, it is composed of many countries each its own vision of the Union’s future development. They are competing between themselves, and temporary blocs are forged to pass this decision or another. Next year, right-wing and even ultra-rightist political forces are expected to rise and achieve moderate success in the election to the European Parliament. If Ukraine’s Freedom Party were part of the European Parliament, it would find many partners there.
U.W.: In your opinion, what message is the Ukrainian EuroMaidan sending to the Ukrainian community and political circles?
The Maidan is now being perceived in Europe as an act of casting off the vestiges of the Soviet past and the threat of being swallowed up by the Customs Union. The latter has been dubbed Turbid Union, because it is based on non-transparent schemes, corruption and lawlessness. Investments and capital flow within this entity are unlikely to benefit the population, because no preconditions to this effect have been put into place.
Ukraine’s EuroMaidan is, above all, good news to the EU. The latter always needs it. Good news used to come from the Baltic countries, but it was largely about the economy, and there has been a lack of good political news. The rallies in Istanbul in June were one example of a positive signal, because they were, in a way, oriented to the EU. However, today Brussels is not prepared to engage in deep dialogue with Turkey about its accession to the EU. The situation with Ukraine is totally different. It is a member of the Eastern Partnership and, together with Georgia and Moldova, was a leader in this programme and thus more interesting to Europeans than Turkey. Ukraine’s aspirations to become an associated, and later full-fledged, member of the EU is good civic news which has been eagerly awaited in Europe. I believe that the Maidan has literally injected new life into these European structures.
U.W.: After Ukraine and the EU failed to sign the Association Agreement at the Eastern Partnership summit in Vilnius, do you think that the EU will have to revise its strategy for advancing democracy in the post-Soviet space, considering the geopolitical challenges posed by Russia?
The EU states will evidently revise their policies on Eastern Europe to increase their soft power. What does soft power mean? Let me give you an example. For a while, there was tough competition between the EU and China in Africa. Both were making their investments there but in very different areas: China invested in mining and the construction of large processing plants, while the EU poured money into advancing civil rights, primarily women’s rights, health care, agriculture and environmental projects. The policies of China and the EU in Africa are as different as night and day. In Ukraine, oligarchs and some industrial groups that want to join the EU have a mindset similar to that of China. They believe that raw materials and heavy industry are the main resource. This is what the Chinese project in Africa is about; it lasts for a mere 10-15 years and completely exhausts the economic territory and the population. The European project rests on totally different foundations: promotion of democracy and human, minority and women’s rights; developing health care and social security systems. Only then does economic growth take place on a new level. To those who think in strictly industrial terms, this is incomprehensible.
In the Baltic states, the Soviets developed heavy machine construction and built large plants and factories which turned out to be uncompetitive after accession to the EU. In place of these unprofitable enterprises, thousands of small and medium private businesses emerged, allowing the Baltic economies to overcome the consequences of the 2008-2009 economic crisis within a year. This kind of rapid economic revival was not seen in Britain, France, Spain or Italy. Germany was close but still lagged behind the Baltic states. Some say that many people are emigrating, but it is not like the interwar migration when people left for good. For example, Lithuanians first went to Spain, then moved to Ireland and Great Britain and from there went to Norway and Sweden. People who have accumulated certain capital and experience return to Lithuania to set up small enterprises, which is an important link in the stability and growth of the Baltic states. The same thing is happening in Poland.
U.W.: The Kremlin’s propaganda machine is trying to picture the events in Ukraine in a very negative light. Is Russian propaganda is effective in reaching its goals, in your opinion?
Russian propaganda against Ukraine is the so-called classic form of propaganda, one that has zero creativity. The Kremlin is churning out propaganda clichés to show the image of the enemy in the most terrible colours and scare the wits out of people. These are old Soviet schemes. This kind of propaganda targets, above all, the lowest strata of society which, for example, are computer-illiterate and do not know how to use social networks or have low to medium education level. This type of propaganda is always risky, because more educated people can launch counter-propaganda movements. Moreover, this is, in general, a rather inefficient way to spend money. Nearly all developed countries – from the USA and Great Britain to Japan – rejected it a long time ago. It is much more efficient to use public diplomacy, which, among other things, involves propaganda through brand promotion. For example, when Pepsi Cola came to the USSR under Brezhnev thanks to an agreement with the Soviet government, it immediately became, owing to its brand, an element of public diplomacy and thus turned into the fiercest type of anti-Soviet propaganda.
U.W.: What part have social networks played in galvanizing and mobilizing social protests in Ukraine? Have they been as instrumental as in the Arab countries during the 2011 revolutions?
Social networks have played an even greater role in Ukraine than they did during the mass protests in Turkey in June. At the time, the Turkish authorities blocked social networks. What we have seen in Ukraine is a more interesting situation: videos of the events were streamed online via Youtube and social networks from several different video cameras. This made it extremely difficult to falsify events, and those who did falsify are now worse off than a hedgehog in the fog.
U.W.: What is your take on the government’s attempt to crush mass protests in Ukraine?
The way the authorities acted seems thoughtless and powerless. They can neither win nor lose: they were unable to disperse the Maidan and, at the same time, failed to take steps and calm down people in the streets. Mykola Azarov’s government could have been dismissed immediately, and the whole situation could have returned to normal at that point. Or the government could have acted in a way that would not lead to protests. Signing the Association Agreement with the EU does not yet mean a final decision; there are many diplomatic decisions available to avoid fulfilling this Agreement: from ratification to imitating its implementation. Therefore, there was no point in bringing people to the barricades over this. This is political madness.
Diplomatic work among various groups that would resolve the political crisis in Ukraine is lacking. The government’s attempts to put pressure and rattle sabres, which gets other groups of protesters artificially involved, can only escalate the situation. It is absolutely sensible to seek intermediaries. Many European countries, among others, have volunteered to mediate. It is the most difficult thing to comment on Russia’s role in this situation. Its public position is not completely clear, but it is clearly being very active behind the scenes, as usual.
U.W.: Oligarchic groups play a major part in Ukrainian politics. What can they contribute to defusing the political crisis in Ukraine?
I believe that, in general, the oligarchic system as such, which originates from Russia and Kazakhstan, is a very bad thing. It doesn’t matter whether the oligarchs are going to support or oppose the Maidan — oligarchy is evil in any case. Oligarchic capital is viewed as a bigger evil than that of large corporations, which are considered ruinous. But there is nothing you can do about it – oligarchs have a say in the political process.
Gintautas Mažeikis is a professor at the Kaunas University of Technology where he heads the Department of Social and Political Theory. His academic interests include class consciousness in the framework of the contemporary critical theory, modern interpretations of Soviet propaganda, analysis of modern political myth-making, poly-linearity of history, political hegemony in Central and Eastern Europe and empowerment of minorities as a way to democracy