Independent Ukraine Speaks

27 February 2015, 14:52

The history of independent Ukraine is marked by its Maidans. The quarter-century from the Granite Revolution of 1990 started by students, to the latest events—the “Revolution of Dignity” is not yet over, after all—, can be broken into periods of great social changes and local protests, the epicenter of which has always been the main square of the Capital. Kyiv’s one-time October Revolution Square with its Cyclops-like workers and peasants and Lenins, all on a provincial scale as befits a mere republic, designed for workers’ rallies and military parades, has been transformed, with its sentimental post-soviet clusters of graceless monuments and shopping malls, into a place of grief.

Here, it’s not portraits of Heaven’s Hundred that look down at us from a height, but the burned-out shell of the Union Building, only partly masked by patriotic banners. Near the Post Office is Kilometer 0, where you can easily find the distance to oblast centers and world capitals alike. This is the real Ukrainian crossroad, from which we still cannot see what kind of Maidan this will ultimately be—of Sorrow, of Entertainment, of Independence, or of Victory—not in the distant future, but in the one that we are all waiting for today.

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Ukraine’s historic fate has been to be a testing place. What geopolitical theory has not played out on its terrain? What social experiments have not been carried out here? What types of internal government were not implanted in it? And whatever they were, they were always from outside, in the interests of outsiders. Even a mind unfettered by conspiracy theories at some point begins to interpret events in our country as the consequence of outside influence, the conflict of imperial ambitions, and so on. The minute some serious social disturbance starts in Ukraine, the armchair generals—this military unit that remains the biggest combat unit of all, albeit a virtual one—get out the popcorn and begin the hunt for historical analogies: “Oh, look at the Velvet Revolutions in Eastern Europe, if only we had as much humor as they did, or what about Poland’s Solidarity movement with its rally of dwarves who trolled the police? How about we do something like that and we’ll succeed? No, it’s more like the Arab Spring, because everything was coordinated using social networks.” The more original among them even began to extrapolate on Ukrainian ground the ideas of Mahatma Gandhi, calling for non-violent resistance. But it was all no good. The Maidan will enter world history books as different from the velvet and colored revolutions, with its own name, without translation. Only the new meaning will remain, its Turkic roots forgotten.

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Against the official mythos

The enemies of the Maidan like to talk about economic statistics, saying that there was no reason to rebel, when the indicators for 1990, 2004 and 2013 were way better than the first post-revolutionary years. Of course, they’re not really talking economics. The mind of an unfree person whose sacred cow is stability does not accept change. There’s probably no more compromised phrase than that among Ukrainian politicians. What it really means is, “You stay loyal to us and we’ll give you some nice little handouts.”

Of course, loyalty has different faces. In the 1990s, the government demanded at least a declarative faithfulness to “Lenin’s idea,” and was willing to compromise as far as hanging the Blue & Yellow flag next to the flag of the USSR. By the Kuchma era, it was to overlook the crimes of those in power, to ignore the opposition, and to not resist when they wanted to use you as administrative leverage. Loyalty to the Yanukovych regime was a simple labor-camp hierarchy: you did your job and you were well-fed. Best of all, you’d be left alone, as God forbid you should fall foul of the thieves-in-law and their minions.

The carrot of “stability” from the Yanukovych regime was something far more abstract, having the stagnation under Brezhnev – the era that gave birth to the phrase “They kind-of pay us and we kind-of work” – as its ideal. The currency of bribery was deficit goods under Brezhnev; later it evolved into free concerts for students and bags of produce for pensioners. The government was not particularly generous, but it did promise an unending supply of “goodies,” thereby earning its political dividends.

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The cult of stability is evident in most post-soviet countries. In Russia, Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan, petrodollars keep it going; in Belarus, the overvaluation of state assets; in Tajikistan and Armenia the hope, “as long as there’s no war.” But the main reason is the critical mass of voters who are prepared to accept such rules of play. This is where problems arise in Ukraine: too many people want to take care of themselves and are not prepared to settle for government handouts. And this is the group of people prepared to rebel against (post) soviet stability.

Economic slogans were never a strong point of the Maidan. It was not a hungry uprising and did not arise for the purpose of redistributing wealth. The oligarchs whose money likes peace and quiet were never allies of the Maidan but rather supported the regime and, when there was victory, they built bridges to the new government. The shadowy nature of the oligarchs has saved them so far. The Maidan’s economic program remained unwritten, but came down to a very simple formula: “The heck with your stability, because we can take care of ourselves. The main thing is for the state not to interfere in this.” This, incidentally, also explains why the Maidan, which survived on the basis of volunteers and donations, won over the Anti-Maidan, which was based on funding from the “stable” government and was little more than a crowd of hirelings. This brings us to the failure to understand and the ironic questions of opponents of the Maidan: “So, what were you fighting for? None of you got any richer…?”

The success of the velvet revolutions depended only on democratic elections and changes to various constitutions. The Maidan, by contrast, stood in opposition to a paternalistic model that had taken shape over centuries and was enshrined, not in law but in people’s mentality.

Who’s the boss here?

The Maidan could never have succeeded if it had been a leader+followers phenomenon: the regime hierarchy would have beheaded that leader and destroyed the movement at the very beginning. Even in 2004, when the insurrection had a clearly designated leader, all those who stood up understood that this was not a battle for a new tsar, but against the old system. Today, hostile propaganda tries to appeal to Ukrainians with questions like: “You stood up on the Maidan and now you’re fighting for a president who is an oligarch? What’s the point?” This kind of question is natural, coming from a country where an opera called “Living for the Tsar” is a classic and even the cossack otaman needed to declare himself “Emperor Peter III” in order to raise a successful insurrection. In a Ukrainian context, this sounds completely ridiculous.

The role of Big Politics in popular rebellions in recent years is not worth overestimating. The Granite Revolution of 1990 was launched by students who joined together from various organizations and never did form influential parties afterwards. Significantly, the then-student leaders joined “adult” politics, that is, ran for public office, only 10-15 years after the hunger strike that accelerated the collapse of the USSR and brought Ukraine closer to independence. The Orange Revolution united many opposition parties, but the main force on the 2004 Maidan was non-partisan individuals who rose up and even after victory did not join Viktor Yushchenko’s Nasha Ukraina en masse, while Nasha Ukraina quickly turned into a bureaucratic, corrupt party in power.

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Ukrainians never organized a Solidarity, Sajudis or Muslim Brotherhood, in the sense that none of the Maidans gave birth to a single civic or political force that could have representation at various levels of government. For instance, Narodniy Rukh (People’s Movement) emerged at the beginning of the 1990s, buy its members were effectively barred from influential political appointments by the freshly re-painted communist nomenklatura. Similarly today, Praviy Sektor, which has the justified slogan, “the party born on the Maidan,” has only a few deputies in the new Verkhovna Rada, a handful of activists scattered among the big parties and among the independents. In the Cabinet and Presidential Administration, Maidan activists have mostly been given posts as “advisors.”

To achieve a complete victory, this latest revolution needs to include a replacement of police units by self-defense teams and regional officials by local Maidan activists. After all, in February 2014, the sense of the Maidan went geographically well beyond the central square of the capital. Yes, professionals were necessary and, sooner or later, the contact lists would have had to be gone through, and yesterday’s civil servants screened through the lustration process. But a revolutionary event has no time for superficial renovations: quickly firing all the regime’s functionaries would have helped stop the sabotage and separatist attacks last spring.

Compromise as Thermidor[1]

The era of jacobinism and bolshevism has gone into the dustbin of history, so calls for bloody revenge on enemies of the revolution makes as much sense as placing hopes on horse-drawn carts as a “green” form of transport that, moreover, doesn’t require imported fuels. The language of weapons makes sense on the front, but not in the rearguard. Still, depending on the lustration law alone, however ideal it might be, is also not enough. To clean government of communist functionaries in the early 1990s would have been far simpler than trying to sift out the civil service today, after it has been largely shaped by the principle of permanent criminal gangs. The strength of such gangs is in their ability to conspire, to come up with shadowy schemes, and to negotiate informal agreements.

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To confront unspoken gang rules with the help of legislation is far from straightforward. Party of the Regions was only the tip of the iceberg, the face of the mafioso octopus of the Yanukovych regime. If we recall, in addition to a presidentially-appointed governor of every oblast state administration, the regime had an informal “minder” who made sure the interests of the Family were taken care of, especially its business interests. To try to define in law the limits of influence of such individuals is impossible, although it’s equally naive to believe that the current Administration has no idea of these shadow functionaries and their capacities.

The success of reforms in Ukraine will depend on how much distance the current power elite manage to keep between themselves and various “trusted individuals” of Yanukovych and today’s oligarchs, and from political forces that indirectly work on behalf of the aggressor. Any talk of “peace for the sake of unity” is likely to lead to the same mistakes that were made by the leaders of the Orange Revolution, who allowed the Regionals to return to power and eventually to organize a full-scale reversal.

And the Maidan goes on

The “Revolution of  Dignity” has overturned relations between the nation and the government in such a way that now the ruling elite is seriously worried about staying loyal enough to voters. The paternalistic system and the faith in “stability” that went along with it have collapsed as the main element in public trust.

Government, be it central, local or even military, is becoming accountable to civil society in Ukraine. The powerful volunteer movement that was born on the Maidan makes it possible not only to supply the army with everything it needs, but also to expose the incompetence of generals, their bravura reports, and the failure of officials at various levels to come through on their promises and commitments. The self-defense companies that a year ago consisted of boys in construction helmets and wooden shields have turned into battle-ready battalions that offer a model for how the country’s forces need to be reformed in the future. The Ukrainian community abroad, which mostly loved Ukraine from a distance in the past, has been giving its homeland millions of dollars’ worth of assistance through transfers to volunteer foundations and suppliers of ammunition, while holding the “western front” in the information war through which Russia is using every trick in the book to discredit Ukraine.

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The current government still seems to think that problems are resolved by first setting up a line ministry—along the lines of the Ministry of Information, nicknamed Propaganda Ministry or Minstets after the current minister—, while ordinary Ukrainians are already busy working in the information and cultural arenas. Campaigns to boycott Russian goods began long before the Verkhovna Rada announced its economic sanctions against the Russian Federation. Interest in Ukrainian film, music, literature, and art inside the country is creating domestic demand that Ukrainian artists not long ago complained was missing. Ukrainian bloggers are famously exposing the fakery of Russian propaganda while officials speaking at podiums still talk about “the need for proper measures.”

Changes are moving much faster in Ukrainian society than in the corridors of power. This is a reflection of yet another feature of the Maidan: the revolutionary class is not enthralled with power. Rather, it is demonstrating to the ruling elite those progressive systems and models that they should really consider instituting.


[1] Thermidor, a month name invented during the French Revolution, has come to mean a retreat from more radical goals and strategies during a revolution, especially when caused by a replacement of leading personalities. Source: Wikipedia

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