Internet movements are helping Ukrainians to overcome intimidation, disseminate accurate information and coordinate activism, yet they should not be viewed as an alternative to street protests
While the government controls the traditional mass media, it is failing bitterly in the battle with online activists. “Heroism is for difficult times, my boy,” Erich Maria Remarque wrote in The Three Comrades, “but we live in times of despair. Here, the only decent response is humour.” Several popular Ukrainian websites have apparently heeded this call; their subscribers and contributors maintain a long-standing resistance against the government with a pinch of humour. One such website is durdom.in.ua, translating roughly as “madhouse.in.ua”. Its objective is to “treat” politicians and those addicted to politics. Here Ukrainians can read the latest news about the website’s “patients”—including Viktor Yanukovych, Mykola Azarov and Vladimir Putin.
A PLACE OF FREEDOM
The website’s founder Roman Shrayk believes that public opinion will soon be shaped mostly online, encouraged primarily by the freedoms that the Internet offers. “The benefit of it is that nobody really regulates it,” Roman says. “Ever since the emergence of social networks, the most interesting and creative things have been spreading like viruses, and you can’t stop them. The government may persecute one activist but it cannot shut down a thousand of them. All of these jokes and memes reflect a highly concentrated opinion - they are more than just funny pictures.”
Public opinion of the Party of Regions’ campaign slogan, “An improved life today” was the driving force behind the creation of the “Church of Improvement Witnesses”(Церква свідків покращення), a Facebook community. “In the beginning was the hat, and the hat was on a man, and the hat was of mink fur. Viktor saw that the hat was good and stole it,” the witnesses enlighten the uninitiated. “Then the forces of good sent Viktor to Earth to improve life immediately. He passed through fire and water, jail and car fleet to become famous…”
In addition to primitive jokes and memes about stolen hats, the Church updates visitors about attacks on press freedom, car accidents involving officials and many more serious developments. Still, the project started out as a joke, and it maintains its popularity through humour.
“Humour is eternal. It’s a universal tool of struggle,” says Sviatoslav, the man behind the Church of Improvement Witnesses page. “Surely it shapes public opinion because people who are mocked so often receive little respect unless they’re willing to laugh at themselves. Then humour can act as an element of self-promotion.”
The Witnesses are often advised to create a public platform or a political force, called to decisive action or criticized for inactivity. Yet, Sviatoslav believes that the Church is already fulfilling its mission: “I always say that humour helps people to not be afraid of those they mock. Today, every official in Ukraine acts as if he were a lord or a nobleman, not an employee. This intimidates people, and that’s what we’re struggling against.”
Sviatoslav insists that one meme that takes five minutes and costs nothing to create can steal more votes from a politician than 100 minutes of expensive advertising on TV can win. “The simpler the idea or joke, the easier it is to comprehend and disseminate,” he explains. “All it takes is for a popular user to come up with a slogan and post it online, and you have a meme. It hits the web and people begin to connect a politician to that online brand instead of the perfect image on TV. Just look at how the word ‘improvement’ has become a symbol of what’s going on in Ukraine - of all the bad things happening in the country.”
The community’s contributors realize that not everything is fit to be presented as a joke. Thus, the Church offers analytical coverage of the latest episodes of “improvement”, including corruption, police misconduct and impunity, and more.
The Church movement is gaining ground: “By January 14, the community’s potential audience was 1.3 million. This includes subscribers and their friends. The actual audience over the past week hit 141,000 Facebook users alone, and that doesn’t count other social networks and websites that repost our news,” Sviatoslav says. Online activists believe that the social impact of websites and social network communities will soon equal that of television in Ukraine.
WHERE THE GOVERNMENT FAILED…
Though smaller than that of the conventional media, the audience for online communities and blogs finds Internet sources more reliable thanks to the human factor and the fact that popular media outlets are often involved in scandals. Unlike the opposition in the parliament, protest-oriented bloggers not only declare ideas, but take efforts to back them with real action. For instance, Olena Bilozerska is a freelance journalist and activist. Thousands of users read her Livejournal blog every day. Perhaps this is why the police keep an eye on her. Last January, the police searched her apartment in Kyiv and confiscated all of her equipment as part of an investigation into the arson of a downtown Party of Regions office. The only official reason for the arrest was a link to the arson video posted by unknown YouTube users that Olena had reposted on her personal blog.
Dmytro Riznychenko, another popular blogger and activist involved in the July 2012 protest against the Kolesnichenko-Kivalov bill on regional languages has also received police attention. His attack on a Berkut special-purpose police unit during the protest resulted in a two-year prison sentence, but he was later released on one year of probation. In Dmytro’s opinion, the Ukrainian government has hopelessly lost the web. “Its entire apparatus is useless on the Internet,” he says. “As soon as the authorities shut down some file sharing site with pirated movies, the user community kills the official sites of the president, the government and the Interior Ministry. And no special services can prevent this, nor can the authorities put someone in jail for it. Opposition politicians are the winners of all the online political surveys, and those in power will have to eat spoonfuls of public frustration and discontent if they dare join the Internet community and play by its rules.”
Akhmetov, we’re waiting for you!–Keep waiting!
On the other hand, the frustration often does not go beyond virtual reality, and opinions on the impact of social network-fueled campaigns vary greatly: they facilitate the development of civil society on the one hand, yet hamper it on the other, acting as sort of a vent that releases public discontent and diminishes initiative to take action. Riznychenko disagrees with the latter: “The Internet is an electronic noosphere where words and ideas live. There is always a huge gap between ideas and actions, whether in an individual mind or throughout the country. Still, whenever someone dares to leave the couch and take to the streets with others to make the world a little better, his inspiration surely comes from the Internet, not TV.”
A VIRTUAL AMPLIFIER
The web helps mobilize people provided that the target audience is properly selected. “Of course, this depends on the communities and the way they were established,” says Olha, an activist for the campaign to release Dmytro Pavlychenko and his son, who were convicted of murdering judge Serhiy Zubkov. “Over the past month, I’ve involved people from the “Free the Pavlychenkos!” community to help us out with various initiatives, from posting stickers to monitoring the media. That’s how we got cameras and a power generator for our rallies,” Olha explains.
Unlike Western European countries, Ukraine cannot yet boast a noticeable political platform born from the web – and it hardly needs its own political pirates right now. What it does need is a chance to overcome intimidation through laughter, access to reliable information and an opportunity to coordinate activist efforts. To a greater or lesser extent, the Internet provides all of these.
 Viktor Yanukovych faced two felony convictions – rumour has it that he had been stealing mink hats – and served as director of car fleets at a number of Donetsk Oblast enterprises at the beginning of his career.
On Oct. 2, 2012, Holosiyevo District Court in Kyiv sentenced Dmytro Pavlychenko to life imprisonment and his son Serhiy to 13 years in prison for the March 21, 2011 murder of judge Zubkov. Citing discrepancies in evidence, many claim that the men were wrongly convicted. Witnesses claim that they saw two men at the scene of the crime. A few days later, the police announced the arrest of Dmytro and Serhiy as suspects. The motivation announced by the police was revenge for the judge’s decision to evict the Pavlychenko family from their apartment in downtown Kyiv and demolish an addition to the apartment. Football fans (Serhiy is a member of the Dynamo FC fan club) have been rallying in Kyiv, Kharkiv, Lviv and other cities all over Ukraine to have them released.