Are Ukrainians ready to protest?

20 November 2017, 16:57

The October protests in front of the Verkhovna Rada were not as large-scale and high-profile as the organisers had hoped. This could have one dangerous implication: those in power could develop a false sense of security and control over the situation in the country. It is unlikely that this would be advantageous for the government itself or, above all, society.

According to recent sociological studies, there have been no significant changes in the mood of Ukrainians over the last three years. The scarcity of demonstrations cannot be attributed to loyalty to the current government, but rather to the fact that the opposition is equally far away from understanding what the citizens need and how these needs can be met.

On October 23, the Razumkov Centre presented the results of a poll conducted at the beginning of the month, just prior to the protests next to Parliament. In addition to measuring the electoral preferences of the population, the results of which were quickly picked up by the media, sociologists also investigated the level of trust in state and social institutions, as well as support for government actions.

The most trusted institutions in Ukraine appear to include volunteer organisations, churches and the armed forces. This has been the case since the very beginning of the Donbas war; the trio has strengthened its positions compared to data from April. The balance of trust versus distrust is +46.7%, +41.9% and +24% respectively. Also among the leaders are volunteer battalions (+22.7%), the National Guard (+18.4%) and the State Emergency Service (+ 17.9%). Slightly behind, but still in a position of respect, are NGOs (+11%). During the summer, Ukrainian media outlets managed to improve their image in the eyes of their audience somewhat and change their negative rating (-3.3%) to a positive one (+5.9%).

Institutions that are associated primarily with politicians and officials cannot even come close to such results. Russian media are the leaders in distrust with -78.4%, followed closed by the Ukrainian courts with -71.6%. The Prosecutor's Office has somewhat improved its position, although it still has one of the highest negative ratings (it was -73.8% and is now -59.9%). Trust in officials in general is at -69.5%, in the Verkhovna Rada -66.9%, in the government -53.3% and in the president -43.4%. Even the newly formed National Anti-Corruption Bureau, Specialised Anti-Corruption Prosecutor's Office and National Agency on Corruption Prevention cannot claim to have citizens' trust – their ratings are -37.5%, -39.9% and -42.9% respectively (although NABU has slightly improved its image over the past six months, similar to the Public Prosecutor's Office).

According to the deputy director of the Razumkov Centre sociological service, Mykhailo Mishchenko, a high level of distrust in institutions does not necessarily result in mass protests. This situation is typical to not only Ukraine, but also other countries. Mishchenko gives the example of France, where François Hollande also reached a high level of distrust at the end of his presidency, yet there were no mass street protests.

"The level of distrust, of course, reflects the attitude towards the authorities. They are not meeting certain demands from society. We should also consider how exactly the public tries to put pressure on the authorities. It is not just about protests. Grassroots activities from society to influence local government are more effective than attempts to influence the president and Cabinet. This method of applying pressure is probably more effective, as the situation in society is largely determined at the lower and middle levels, not at the higher level," says Mishchenko.

At the end of September, the Institute of Sociology at the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine and the Ilko Kucheriv Democratic Initiatives Foundation published a further study aimed at assessing the level of social tension and protest sentiment in society. In total, 22.7% of citizens consider the level of tension to be extremely high and another 38% higher than average. Sociologists estimated the average tension score to be 6.79 out of 10.

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At the same time, this high level of dissatisfaction in society has been maintained for several years. Almost half of the respondents (48%) believe that "the situation has aggravated to the point where it is no longer possible to tolerate". In 2016, this figure was also 48%, in 2015 – 45% and in 2014 – 39%. At the same time, when respondents are asked to name factors that they think will reduce tension, a change of power and protests are almost at the end of the list. 11.2% believe that mass demonstrations could reduce tension and 14.6% that resignation of the government would help, while 11.6% are convinced that early presidential elections would be effective and only 7.4% think the same about parliamentary polls. Instead, the following items top the list: real punishment for those guilty of corruption at the highest level of power at 61.8%, realisation of projects that improve prosperity and living conditions (prices, utility rates, salaries, pensions, real changes in education and health care) at 49.8% and the achievement of genuine progress in resolving the conflict in the Donbas (ceasefire, release of captives, etc.) at 40%.

According to the survey, 21.1% of people are ready to protest. On the whole, this figure is relatively stable and has fluctuated between 20 and 30 percent for the last 10 years. It is interesting that in 2013, on the eve of the Maidan, 22% of citizens stated that they were prepared to take to the streets, according to the same Institute of Sociology. 

Mishchenko is of the opinion that it is almost impossible to predict the decisive factor that will turn an ordinary protest into widespread rallies. Similarly, it is impossible to draw a clear line between political and social protests, as in the context of tension and general dissatisfaction, one certain event may result in unpredictable consequences.

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"The protests in November 2013 were not so large-scale at the start either. They were even smaller than those that took place last week. However, a few careless actions from the authorities – and several hundred thousand people took to the streets. If the level of dissatisfaction with the government is high, any seemingly insignificant situation or conflict can turn into mass political demonstrations. And then it's hard to say whether it's a social or a political protest. For example, when the students were attacked in November 2013. The term ‘trigger effect’ is used. When tension is high, a rather minor event that in other circumstances would not have such consequences can be enough," he says.

Over the past 12 months, almost 85% of respondents did not participate in any protests, according to polls conducted by the Institute of Sociology. Most of those who did take to the streets were opposed to utility rate hikes. The headline-making demonstrations against illegal construction and corruption, as well as unfair legal proceedings and investigations, attracted at most 2% of the population. The main stimulus for Ukrainians to take to the streets is the struggle for justice – 16% of those polled are ready to defend it. Another question, which politicians and political scientists have not yet found the answer to, is what exactly this justice consists of and in which specific circumstances.

Translated by Jonathan Reilly

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