Government policies and an inert opposition stir new protest movements
Ukrainians can now rightfully state they have been abandoned by the government. Officials clearly care mostly about their place in the administration hierarchy. Reforms are limited to throwing the burden of the situation in Ukraine onto the shoulders of ordinary Ukrainians. Fighting corruption is all about settling scores with the opposite camp and public activists who dare speak out against the current administration. The opposition has failed to find the proper mechanisms to act and is facing more and more failures both in mobilizing the public and arranging efficient measures to oppose the government’s actions with which it disagrees.
Polls show that people are not happy with the situation. Moreover, they do not merely share their displeasure with their friends. Ukraine is seeing more and more spontaneous protest movements that unite those who are able to speak up for their rights. The hasty amendments to the Tax Code, shelved bills and administrative resolution restricting the use of the Ukrainian language or the students' rights, hesitation to pass bills that could find negative reaction among voters, such as pension reform, and the attempts of the current Administration to solve at least the most burning problems, all confirm that the efforts of proactive citizens are not going to waste.
The truth is, politicians are not giving in. The government is trying to levy criminal charges against protest organizers for absurd reasons. In return, the opposition and the pro-Government forces do not mind turning proactive citizens into cannon fodder to protect their party interests.
The experience of other Central European countries shows that self-organized protest movements could produce new waves of politicians or, more importantly, a new quality of politics that would better address Ukrainians' interests. But the process has just started in Ukraine and it is still sensitive to various “growing pains.”
The leaders of many protests insist that they are preparing for mass events which they say will peak this spring or summer. The Ukrainian Week has investigated the current protest movements to see whether they can lead to the implementation of at least some of the goals they declare.
The echo of the Tax Maidan
The Tax Maidan at which entrepreneurs protested against new provisions of the Tax Code aimed at eliminating small and medium business gained the most publicity and had the best effect last year. Today, those who are known for their speeches at the Tax Maidan are not just protecting corporate interests, but declaring political slogans that could raise interest in their movements among various groups in society.
Currently, the most visible such movement is the Common Cause headed by Oleksandr Danyliuk, one of the Tax Maidan 2010 activists. Its leaders are continuing dialog with entrepreneurs while trying to represent other groups, too. They have taken part in mass protests against the arrests of the activists of other movements several times. The organization claims its strategic objective is to impeach the current President and throw out the Verkhvna Rada saying that the Administration and Parliament have monopolized power.
“Once we have mobilized enough people, we will start a series of protests that can grow into a national strike.” Danyliuk says sharing his organization's plans. However, some activists from the Tax Maidan claim Danyliuk is working for former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko’s Batkivshchyna party to attract new supporters. The leader of the Common Cause and his circle deny any ties to Tymoshenko “other than contact with several deputies to protect entrepreneurs.” Meanwhile, Mr. Danyliuk’s statements and actions hint at his ambitions of a politician who is eager to use the protest movement as a launch pad.
Other leaders are seeking to make the most of the moment as well. The Headquarters for Saving Ukrainian Entrepreneurship that took part in Tax Maidan-II is still active. According to its members, the organization is about to change its branding and expand to cover not just business, but other social groups, too. The Headquarters promise new protests soon to attract new social groups such as those concerned about pension reform.
After the protests in December 2010, an All-Ukrainian Trade Union of Market and Commerce Employees and Entrepreneurs emerged. It protects small businessmen both from the despotic administration of the markets and illegal inspections. Businessmen say that there are other attempts to set up trade unions, too.
In many European countries, trade unions are fairly influential part of society and play an important role in the political process. Sadly, this is not the case in Ukraine. In fact, Ukrainian trade unions are controlled by the party in power: the Federation of Trade Unions of Ukraine is chaired by Vasyl Khara (Party of Regions). Meanwhile, the trade unions set up by Maidan-II activists remain the weakest of all civil opposition movements. So far, their new unity is just an idea politicians are trying to use for their own purposes. The government is making an effort to gain control over newly-born trade union initiatives. Danyliuk said that he has received complaints from entrepreneurs whom the administration is trying to force into specific trade unions. Batkivshchyna is eager to control the young trade union movement too.
Platforms for new and old politicians
Alongside entrepreneurs’ protests, conventional public movement is gaining momentum. In 2004, quite a few trends and initiatives including ‘I Know!’, ‘A Clean Ukraine’ and other played a remarkable role in drawing public attention to the violations of legislation and the need to protect human rights. In 2005-2010, seen by major donors and Western grant providers as redundant, this kind of public activity declined. Currently, the threat to democracy has brought forth a whole new generation of initiatives uniting both NGOs that are already known in Ukraine and new activists.
One of the most visible campaigns is the New Citizen organization with nearly 50 sub-organizations acting in various areas. Among others, it involves the Democracy Initiatives foundation, the Media Law Institute, the Youth Guard public campaign, and Don’t Be Indifferent, an all-Ukrainian public movement. All of these are actively protesting against the government’s initiatives on language policy, the draft Residential Code and more.
Local activists are also trying to unite to protect their rights following the general wave of the growing discontent. Attempts to develop local projects, including those for political purposes, are nothing new. In Lviv, for instance, Mayor Andriy Sadoviy won the election at the height of popularity of the NGO Self Help. Today, a series of initiatives are active in Kyiv protesting against violations of the citizens’ rights including illegal construction in the capital, sporadic communal service sand so forth. The most active ones include Unite Kyivites!, Kyiv Strength, Kyiv for Kyivites… Even though it is possible that their leaders will get political ambitions, too, this process is sound in and of itself – people uniting around specific problems and finding solutions is virtually the only way to prevent the domination of the government.
Many members of opposition parties that find no significant support with voters are trying to play a role in public protest organizations. Many see this as their chance to have a successful political career in the future if their initiative eventually gets close to implementation. Notably, many new public movements involve quite a few members of Nasha Ukrayina which has lost the most support overall. For politicians like this, taking part in public opposition campaigns is an opportunity to return the trust of voters and break through to the top.
Currently, students often just protest against the initiatives of Education Minister DmytroTabachnyk but they have yet to succeed. Their protests against the introduction of paid services in post-secondary education have been successful – the government dropped that initiative.
Now youth organizations are resisting the new bill On Post-Secondary Education that significantly narrows the autonomy of universities and allows post-secondary institutions to raise tuition every year. Active participants of this movement include Direct Action, an independent student trade union; the Repulse public movement, the Regional Initiatives Foundation, a youth organization; the Student Brotherhood of Kyiv Mohyla Academy, the Student Board of Kyiv Mohyla Academy, and others.
Protest movements aiming at changing the current government are trying to cooperate with the youth, but students are almost exclusively focused on education. Still, some more experienced opposition figures are certain that the youth will join political public movements as soon as any large-scale events begin.
The third Maidan: reasons and possibilities
More and more various public associations are now presenting themselves as opposition to the current government but their actions will hardly grow into serious widespread protest this spring.
However, new public movements lack unity and their leaders lack the trust of ordinary Ukrainians. Representatives of various Maidan-II groups still criticize each other and suggest their rivals in the opposition are government shills. They have to find common goals that will unite entrepreneurs and students, as well as other citizens. If they don’t reach understanding soon, Napoleonic plans for new opposition movements will at best find outlets in local protests of various groups, each one protecting its own narrow interests.
Meanwhile, if the government does not change its policy this will only fuel the protest movement. Antisocial amendments to legislation, defiantly ignoring laws and the pressure on the opposition and journalists push public moods closer and closer to protest, in particular in the regions where Mr. Yanukovych and the party in power have their key voter base. Polls are already showing this trend very clearly.
If new criminal cases against public activists are combined with growing general discontent, this will give opposition movements more ways in which to unite efforts. When desperate, people are capable of decisive and radical action. Meanwhile, sociologists suggest that declining standards of living will eventually grow into widespread resistance.
Director of Democratic Initiatives Foundation
– Predicting mass protests based on opinion polls is wrong. For a defiant mood to grow into something serious many factors are necessary. First of all, people need organizations and leaders they can trust. When people went out on the streets in 2004, they thought their future was being taken away from them, a future that they associated with Viktor Yushchenko. They were convinced that, without the Maidan, the Kuchma-era would last forever. Right now, these factors are missing. Back then, people believed in the politicians they were fighting for. Now they don’t believe politicians at all. Most likely the current mood will manifest itself only in local protests, similar to the protests of the SMEs whom the government was trying to suffocate.
President of the Open Politics think-tank
– The general temperature is on the rise because of political and socio-economic indicators. People’s feelings about their place in society are growing worse as food, utilities and gas prices all go up. The government is becoming more closed as it pushes through its policies. This kind of situation encourages a confrontational mood. But I'm not so sure today that there will be a major explosion of protests in the spring. The situation in Ukraine has not yet reached the boiling point. Normally, massive protests break out after a specific event that stirs feelings of injustice and profound discontent with the government. People need a reason to take to the streets. For instance, in 2004, when most people voted for Viktor Yushchenko but Viktor Yanukovych became the President, many Ukrainian voters felt that they had been robbed. So far, there is no such reason for the mood to grow into massive resistance.
Director of Berta Communications, personal and strategic consultancy
– There won’t be any nationwide phenomenon such as a new Orange Revolution. There’s just too much apathy. Yet, the government is doing its best to agitate many social groups to the point of serious protest: entrepreneurs, students, the clergy… Policies that go against a specific social group will provoke local protests. The government is always providing good reasons for the protest mood to heat up. If this mood reaches the boiling point, any event, even a very trivial one, could trigger massive protests.
Right now, Ukrainians are in the process of accumulating anger. The Orange Revolution was preceded by Ukraine Without Kuchma in 2001, a protest movement that failed. But if this failed rally had not taken place, there might have been no Maidan, either, as it gave birth to a generation of street politicians, such as Yuriy Lutsenko and Taras Stetskiv. Today, the first failed political protest has already taken place, the Tax Maidan that the police dispersed and whose leaders it arrested. But the fact that these people were put behind bars doesn’t mean that others won’t come to take their place.
Right now, the government will try to actively counter the growing opposition movement. Yet, these movements will grow stronger and their networks expand, precisely because they are under political pressure, and they will intentionally spur the government to use force. Experience shows that totalitarian approaches to dealing with civic movements only results in resistance—and “colored” revolutions.