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28 March, 2020  ▪  Maksym Vikhrov

The axe behind God’s door

The Maidan continues to be an effective factor in Ukraine’s politics. How to preserve its achievements?

(The axe behind God’s door refers to a poem by Taras Shevchenko about a man stealing God’s axe in order to cut down a tree, only to have the axe fly out of his hands and start cutting down everything in sight)

From time to time, claims appear in the press that the Revolution of Dignity was a failure. Some point to what they call the “corrupt counter-revolution” of Petro Poroshenko, others to what they consider Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s massive betrayal of voters, and so on. And yet, emotions aside, such conclusions fly in the face of reality.

The direct results of the Maidan are there for everyone to see. First of all, Viktor Yanukovych’s criminal regime was brought down, and the pro-Russian camp found itself in complete collapse, moreover one that it has not recovered from to this day... Secondly, the political landscape in Ukraine has changed dramatically, and the balance of power, as the Maidan made it possible for the country to irreversibly turn to the West, something that had been sabotaged or ignored by its leadership for more than two decades. Thirdly, civil society was given an enormous impulse to develop. In the few extreme months of late 2013 and early 2014, it was able to gain the kind of experience that the Orange Revolution 10 years earlier had not provided, let alone the “Ukraine Without Kuchma” movement or earlier protests. Each of these milestones was historically significant, but the expectations that were born on the Euromaidan were far more ambitious.

The feeling that Ukraine had radically and irreversibly changed slowly turned to disenchantment and even loss of faith. Yet, the Maidan was and remains a factor in Ukraine’s politics today. The point is to properly assess its impact in the past and its potential for the future.

As a matter of fact, it’s impossible to objectively evaluate the far-reaching consequences of the Revolution of Dignity because even as it was winding down, another overwhelming factor – Russia’s invasion – weakened the revolutionary impulse. To begin with, civil society in Ukraine threw most of its forces into defending the country, and not into taking advantage of opportunities for sweeping internal change that appeared in the first months after the Maidan. A substantial part of these forces were consumed by the war.

This had an impact on human resources, as many of the activists of the Maidan went to the front in 2014 and were killed. The desperate needs of the country’s decimated armed forces meant that the volunteer community shifted focus to supporting the military. Similarly, the threat of Russian occupation – which remained very real even after the front was stabilized and is still very much there today – restricted the means of influencing those in power. Where Ukraine could allow itself large-scale civil disobedience in 2013, once the war started in the Donbas, any loss of stability in the rearguard threatened the loss of even more territory. Coupled with an economic crisis, this became one of the factors hampering change.

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Could serious reforms have taken place without pressure from ordinary Ukrainian?  Realistically, it was unlikely, given that Ukraine was one of the post-soviet countries that found itself trapped in the “unfinished transformation,” as economist Joel Hellman wrote back in the 1990s. Essentially, it was described as: the elites wanting to destroy the socialist order, become aware of the benefits of a transition phase, when the advantages of a market economy are combined with a hand-managed judiciary, while nascent democratic institutions are operating in the midst of political corruption, and so on. Finding themselves the beneficiaries of the circumstances, the elites work to protract this transition.

After the Maidan, the government was once again formed by individuals who had been part of the same system as Yanukovych. But can this be considered a failure of the Maidan itself? Not at all. Obviously, the desire to change those in power was universal among those who took part in the Revolution of Dignity, but their actions were a fairly spontaneous response to current events. In December 2013, 70% of those involved in the Maidan said that they had come out because of the people who were beaten up on November 30, 53% said that it was because Yanukovych had refused to sign the Association Agreement with the EU, and 50% said they wanted to see life in Ukraine get better, according to a poll taken by the Democratic Initiatives Fund (DIF) and the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology (KIIS). In retrospect, from five-year distant December 2018, 55% said that the reason they had taken part was because of the beating of the students, 47% said it was because of the Association Agreement, and 35% said they had wanted to remove Yanukovych and his team from power, according to a Sotsioinform survey.

It seems that the massive objective of rotating elites was not something the Maidan had had in mind. In order to do this, the revolutionaries would have to not only promote leaders from their own midst, but they needed to have a political organization that would ensure the transit of power from the old elite to a new one. But these elements were outside the Maidan’s agenda. A hypothetical rotation of elites could have been ensured by the elections in 2014, but this also never happened, among others because no “Maidan party” ever emerged from the revolution. Yes, the party lists in the fall of 2014 shimmered with the “glamorous” names of guardsmen, activists, veterans and volunteers, but for the most part their role was largely ornamental. The political projects that these individuals attached themselves to made active use of revolutionary rhetoric, but it all just became part of the populist narrative designed to suit the moment. However, this hardly means that there were no changes to the country after the Maidan, even if their pace and depth left a lot to be desired.

Does this mean that the Maidan came and went without any impact on the elite? Hardly. As a powerful impetus for civil society that whipped up the nation, it was something that no group in power could afford to ignore. Ukraine’s Revolution of Dignity is a very convincing example of what kind of direct confrontation with society a government might find itself in. During the Maidan, we saw that critical minority emerge that was capable, at a critical point, of mobilizing broad swathes of the population and driving street protests. What’s more, these protests can very easily move beyond the non-violent model that took place, say, during the Orange Revolution.

But once there was an attack from outside, a repeat of the Maidan was extremely unlikely, which the elite understood very well. Moreover, the war changed the priorities of the revolutionary minority: its main demand of those in power was to organize the defense of the country, while the battle against corruption and other reforms took a back seat. Still, the threat of a third Maidan remains an effective restraining factor for the elite. Mass street protests, such as last year’s “No capitulation!” rallies, can affect the decision-making process – or at least make it clear what’s unacceptable. One of the obvious results of that is that the pro-Russian comeback never took place. Today, even as the russophile camp looks like it’s getting more energized, engaging in pro-Russian activity is a risky business in Ukraine.

And yet, the Maidan is hardly a universal tool. As the last six years have shown, the fall of a regime does not automatically lead to reforms: it merely provides the necessary window of opportunity. To actually take full advantage of it, taking over the streets is not enough. State institutions have to also be taken over. But for this, the revolutionaries – or, perhaps more appropriately, the drivers of reform – need to not just be outside the windows of those in power but inside, that is, not to just influence the government but to be the source of its power. This does not necessarily require a revolution if there are democratic means of transferring power. Still, the rotation of the country’s leadership does snot guarantee results if those who replace the old elite are not a “counter-elite” that is fundamentally different in nature. While barricades and even election headquarters can be set up spontaneously, forming a counter-elite and organizing it politically requires a very different approach.

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Indeed, although the Revolution of Dignity involved millions, like any revolution it was the business of a minority. Only 20% of the population of Ukraine participated in the events on the Maidan – 11% directly engaged in the street protests, and 9% helping with food, supplies and money. It’s also well known that there were significant regional and social disproportions. Whereas in western oblasts the Revolution engaged more than 30% on one level or another, in southern and eastern oblasts, participation was as little as 2-3%. In terms of education, 25% of those with a university education participated, while 14% of those with a high-school diploma did, and only 7% of those who had dropped out of school, according to a 2014 survey by DIF and KIIS. In short, calling the Maidan a nationwide event would be an exaggeration – but it’s hardly a reproach. At critical points in history, the active minority can push events to develop in one direction or another, while the majority goes along with it or not.

On the other hand, no country can develop successfully by stumbling from one revolution to another. So the Maidan, while remaining the basis for consensual values, should not become the only model for collective action. Moreover, the only criterion for collective action cannot be its level of radicalism. Having learned the difficult science of street protests, Ukraine’s civil society has to learn to fight in other forms, including peaceful ones – meaning within the system. As the results of the last few years have demonstrated, this requires at least as much determination and resources as fighting on barricades.

Translated by Lidia Wolanskyj

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