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19 July, 2013  ▪  

On the Verge

While Kyivites were passive in opposition protests in the spring, they could well rise in the future

Many observers, analysts and sociologists note a spike in social tension based on numerous surveys, mass protests organized by the opposition and local protests sparking all over Ukraine. Can they grow into strong resistance against the government, speeding up a constitutional shift thereof, just like in Egypt, for instance?

Actually, one of the factors that probably encouraged the opposition to start the Rise Ukraine! campaign was the outcome of separate social surveys by the Razumkov Centre, the Democratic Initiatives Foundation and the Kyiv International Sociology Institute, whereby 28% to 33% of the population were ready to join protests in early March. In absolute numbers, these percentages would be in the millions.

However, potential readiness does not stand for actual participation. Monitoring public opinion surveys from the past 20 years found that up to 60-70% of Kyivites (1) claimed to be ready to join protests at different times. Protest sentiments peaked in 1992, 1993 and 1998 when economic crises tormented the country, and Kyivites were the most eager to support protests in those years as well (2). However, there were no such mass rallies as the Orange Revolution in Kyiv prior to 2004. Moreover, when the Ukraine without Kuchma campaign began, only four out of ten people in Kyiv believed that mass protests were possible, and increased to five before the second round of the presidential election in early November 2004. At the same time, the percentage of those ready to join rallies at that time had grown insignificantly – to around 30% in August and 25% in November. Thus, skeptics who said that massive uprisings were impossible before the Orange Revolution could now say the same thing: that they study social sentiments and people are not taking to the streets because they are happy with everything. In fact, many speakers of the party in power have lately been saying exactly this. However, they miss one important detail: the motivation that could push people to protests.

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The first decade of Ukraine’s independence showed that the major reasons that could cause protests were of a socio-economic nature. When asked what mass protests should focus on, nearly half of the respondents mentioned the improvement of living standards, utility prices, social benefits to vulnerable people, pensions and so on. In August 2004, however, two intertwined factors became a priority: the shift of government and protest against election rigging. Every fifth respondent was concerned about these factors, while only one in ten mentioned socio-economic demands. Thus, political motivation and the demands expressed in a simple formula – Don’t allow bandits to power; ensure fair and transparent elections! – proved to be the catalyst for public dissent in Kyiv with other cities following shortly thereafter.

Current sentiments in Kyiv also speak loudly. According to the Sociology Laboratory at the Academy of Municipal Administration, every second Kyivite suggested that protests were a possibility and 30% were ready to join in April 2012. The share of the latter barely changed by January-February 2013, while that of those who expected protests  shrank to 38%. This was most likely caused by the October parliamentary election, when almost all the MPs voted for by Kyivites got into parliament. Meanwhile, the share of respondents with pessimistic socio-political expectations increased from 55% in 2012 to 62% in 2013. Most importantly, over 25% of respondents listed change of government as possible motivation for joining protests in 2012. 2013 surveys revealed that their number grew to 35%.

Surveys reveal a great similarity between Kyivites’ sentiments in early 2013 and those before the Orange Revolution. However, another factor worth taking into account is the share of respondents who have not yet decided whether they would join mass protests. 30% of respondents did not object unequivocally, but did not confirm their readiness to join the protest movement before the Ukraine without Kuchma campaign kicked off in 2000.

READ ALSO: Will Ukraine Rebel?

In August 2004 – before the Orange Revolution – the share was almost 40%. Protest readiness appears to have declined between the first and the second rounds of presidential election. Kyiv voters tend to view elections as the key instrument to influence the situation in the country. Those in power at that time were unable to get their candidate elected in the first round and falsifications were not as extensive or potentially fatal for the Ukrainian majority as they were after the second round. The latter signaled the inevitable ascent to power of a clique that was mentally alien to most Ukrainians. Voters obviously interpreted this as the point of no return. This apparently caused 30% to 40% of potential protest participants to act. The 2013 survey showed that the opposition does not have the same potential now with its Rise Ukraine! campaign. The share of participants - only 15%.

However, sociology proves that this can change quickly. Current sentiments in Kyiv make it clear that the “lower classes” do not want to live the old way. What is important is that the radicalization of their sentiments does not come from the worsening of their material status. Actually, the share of respondents claiming that the welfare of their family has grown worse over the past two years dropped in 2013 compared to 2012 (3), while the share of readiness to support resistance has barely changed. Meanwhile, the number of those frustrated with the socio-political situation and openly expressing it has increased. The government’s actions are adding fuel to the fire. Its attempts to establish total control over the election process by appointing loyal people in the Central Election Commission, legalizing possible election fraud and ignoring the voters’ will – especially in the last parliamentary election – is leading to a social explosion. Surprisingly, many Ukrainians still view elections as a life saver that gives them hope that potential changes are possible in the country amidst appalling injustice. Losing this hope and realizing that it’s gone, as well as the impossibility of changes as a result of the conservation and degeneration of the regime –factors that have been in place these past few years – are likely to become the last straw that will consolidate and mobilize citizens to protect their fundamental rights. And this can happen long before the 2015 presidential race. 

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