The Euromaidan Revolution in Ukraine: Stages of the Maidan Movement and Why They Constitute a Revolution

By Elias Kuhn von Burgsdorff
2015, Vol. 7 No. 02 | pg. 2/3 |

Stage II: Popularization

Narrative: 1 Dec. 2013 - 16 Jan. 2014

The mass demonstration in Kyiv on Sunday, 1 December 2013 was attended by 350,000 people—young and old, of different faiths and ideologies, Ukrainians from the west, south, and east—all subverting the legitimacy of the Yanukovych-Azarov regime through their collective action on Maidan. This mass demonstration, supplemented by a myriad of anti-government protests on that day, marked the popularization of EuroMaidan. On 2 December the cities Lviv, Ternopil, and Ivano-Frankivsk announced a general strike in solidarity with the anti-government protests.31 What united the people was a perception of widespread government corruption, abuse of power, and violation of human rights.

However, what made the people take to the streets was the conviction that their collective action could in fact lead to change, and moreover, that this change was necessary.32 The Yanukovych-Azarov regime paid lip service to the demands of EuroMaidan and the political opposition but ultimately had no interest in compromising with either. Hence, despite the “oddly festive” mood in the tent-city of Maidan Nezalezhnosti, the second stage of the revolutionary process was one of great uncertainty, with the pendulum of momentum swaying between the regime and its opponents.33

On 3 December Prime Minister Azarov’s government survived a vote of no-confidence in parliament, but the momentum remained in the hands of Maidan. The “March of a Million” on 8 December in Kyiv attracted 500,000 people.34 A group of activists then toppled the statue of Lenin in downtown Kyiv, later replacing the monument with a golden toilet to symbolize the corruption of the political elite in Ukraine. On 10 December the police raided the offices of the largest political opposition party, Batkivshchyna.35

The following day the Berkut riot police unsuccessfully attempted to clear the peaceful protesters from Maidan Nezalezhnosti; 11 December was remembered as the “night of resistance” and strengthened the resolve of the protesters. However, it was not entirely clear how popular EuroMaidan’s support was across Ukraine. The Kyiv Post wrote on 15 December that “in all the ups and downs of EuroMaidan, it’s hard to tell which side has the momentum at the moment—President Yanukovych or those demanding his resignation.”36

President Yanukovych had issued a statement on 1 December saying that he was “deeply outraged” at the brutality used by the riot police against peaceful protestors on 30 November, and appealed to the Ukrainian people that “we are united in our common choice of a European future.” But these words were not supported by any visible actions. On 17 December Yanukovych signed the “Ukrainian-Russian Action Plan,” in which Russia promised to buy $15 billion in Ukrainian debt and cut natural gas import prices by one third, which further aggravated EuroMaidan protesters.37 On 20 December the Ukrainian Prosecutor General Viktor Pshonka presented parliament a one-sided story about the violence on 30 November that had sparked the popularization of EuroMaidan.

A Ukrainian political consultant, Tars Berezovets, argued that by accusing the protesters of provoking police brutally instead of punishing those guilty of exceeding their powers, the authorities effectively showed their intention of keeping the riot police—i.e. force and intimidation—as the main guarantee of their power. Rather prophetically, Berezovets said that “every force will get its counter argument sooner or later and the denial to listen to the nation will most likely cause more violent conflicts.”38

At the Sunday rally on 22 December the political opposition parties announced that they would join hands to form the “Maidan People’s Union,” which Batkivshchyna’s leader Yatseniuk said was modelled on Poland’s “Solidarity” movement in the 1980s. On New Year’s Eve 200,000 people gathered on Independence Square and sang the Ukrainian national anthem, ushering in 2014. On 1 January 15,000 people participated in a torchlight march through Kyiv celebrating the 105th birthday of Stepan Bandera.39 The presence of the far right on EuroMaidan, notably the Svoboda Party, Privy Sektor (Right Sector), and Spilna Sprava (Common Cause), was a fact, but neither the anti-government resolve nor collective action was monopolized by these far-right groups.

To clarify, EuroMaidan was not supported by every Ukrainian—many vehemently opposed the movement—but all available evidence suggests that the majority of Ukrainian people did support EuroMaidan, either directly or tacitly.40 Comprehensive networks emerged to deliver donations, food, and other supplies to Maidan. Police reinforcements were obstructed from reaching Kyiv, e.g. people blocking roads, railroads, and painting windshields. What is more, there existed no sizeable pro-government rallies, not even in the southern and eastern regions of Ukraine which represented the electoral base of the Party of Regions.41

Despite the scale and duration of EuroMaidan, by mid January the peaceful demonstrations had not led to any changes in government.42 The Yanukovych-Azarov regime showed no interest in compromising with EuroMaidan or the political opposition. Instead, behind closed doors, the government pursued an orchestrated campaign to smear critics, sideline opposition leaders, and use law enforcement to harass activists and rely on courts for favourable rulings.43 The regime waged a war of information to delegitimize EuroMaidan.44 The 5,000 to 10,000 protestors who settled on Maidan Nezalezhnosti in Kyiv remained firm in their commitment to oust the government, “for their honesty and future,” as one protester put it.

But the numbers that attended the mass Sunday rallies started telling a different story; they became progressively smaller, and on 12 January just 10,000 people rallied.45 The people were losing faith that their collective action could bring about change. The pendulum of momentum swung in favour of President Yanukovych, who saw the opportunity ripe for the regime to consolidate its power. On 16 January the parliament passed into law a series of “draconian” measures that restricted freedom of speech and freedom of assembly, effectively turning all those who opposed the regime from “romantics into radicals.”46

Maidan: Public Space and the Mythic Present

During the second stage of the revolutionary process, Maidan developed into a community of romantics who created an alternative body politic in the centre of Kyiv that opposed not just the Yanukovych-Azarov regime, but the entire system of power in Ukraine. “I’m afraid I just couldn’t go away from Maidan. The real life is here,” said one protester.47 Lynn Hunt describes this experience as a “mythic present: the instant of creation of the new community, the sacred moment of the new consensus.”48 Notably, the word “Maidan” adopted new meanings in the context, and for the purpose, of radical political change. Considering the case of the French Revolution in 1789, Hunt argued:

Revolutionary language did not simply reflect the realities of revolutionary changes and conflicts, but rather was itself transformed into an instrument of political and social change. In this sense, political language was not merely an expression of an ideological position that was determined by underlying social or political interests. The language itself helped shape the perception of interests and hence the development of ideologies.49

In other words, revolutionary political discourse was rhetorical; it was a means of persuasion, a way of reconstituting the social and political world.

The word “Maidan” is just the Arabic world for “square,” a public space. But a “Maidan” now means in Ukrainian what the Ancient Greek word agora means in English: not just a marketplace where people happen to meet, but a place where they deliberately meet, precisely in order to deliberate, speak, and create a political society. During the revolutionary process in Ukraine the word “Maidan” came to mean the act of public politics itself, so that for example people who used their cars to organize public actions and protect other protestors were called the “automaidan.”50 In this light, “EuroMaidan” is an intriguing invention—linguistically rooted in both east and west, elusive to translate, and an insightful glimpse into the Ukraine’s troubled politics and history.

Who coined the term is not clear, and it became so popular so quickly that it seems almost to have sprung from the collective unconscious. Translating “EuroMaidan” as "EuropeSquare" would be technically accurate but emotionally impoverished because both elements mean much more. Ukraine is part of Europe geographically, but for the demonstrators and their supporters the concept of "Europe" had the resonance of a vision, vivid and frustratingly out of reach. Hence, as with Europe, Maidan became as much an idea as a place.51

It was not just the words “Maidan” and “EuroMaidan” that were transformed into instruments of political and social change; the very language employed on Maidan helped shape the perception of interests and the development of ideologies during Ukraine’s revolutionary process. In December, posters on Maidan included phrases such as: “No Putin No Cry”; “Europe, dear, we are coming back home”; “Don’t steal Christmas tree toys, you are not Yanukovych”; “Yanukovych, we are fucking angry!”—together intimating the frustration of the people, domestic as well as geopolitical concerns, and the peaceful nature of Maidan.52

One particularly imposing poster read: “Try to understand, this is just too much!” The poster was written in Russian by a group of protesters who had come to Kyiv from Kharkiv, in the east of Ukraine, reflecting that Maidan attracted people not just from western Ukraine, as some have claimed.53 Maidan became a public space on which Ukrainians could express their discontent with the Yanukovych-Azarov regime, and exercise political freedom. For as Hannah Arendt writes in On Revolution, “to be free is not merely to be unobstructed; it is to take positive action with others.”54 In the next stage of the revolutionary process, the spirit of Maidan intensified, and the people had to fight to defend their freedom to act in concert.

Stage III: Radicalization

Narrative: 16 Jan. 2014 - 21 Feb. 2014

The “dictatorship laws” passed by parliament on 16 January 2014, and signed into law by President Yanukovych on the following day, sought to put an end to EuroMaidan. The laws de facto criminalized all of the opposition’s methods, and eliminated any sense of freedom of speech and assembly that remained in Ukraine, except for on Maidan.55 But instead of silencing dissent, the laws radicalized the revolutionary process.56 A mass demonstration was held on Maidan Nezalezhnosti on Sunday 19 January in defiance of the “draconian” laws.

This was the ninth consecutive Sunday rally, and unlike previous rallies, the people’s frustration was directed not just against the government, but also against the leaders of the political opposition. The crowds accused the opposition leaders of doing “more talking than leading,” and booed them off stage; even the most militant of Ukraine’s opposition leaders, Svoboda Party’s Tiahnybok, was taunted as “weak.”57 That evening clashes erupted between protesters and riot police, and when UDAR leader Klitschko tried to calm the situation he was publicly sprayed with a fire extinguisher by a young protester. What this signified was simple: the politicians were not in charge of this revolution, the people were.58

The spirit of Maidan had dramatically changedsince the protests began on21 November 2013. The consensus was no longer that EuroMaidan was a peaceful protest, but a “people’s uprising.”59 Violent clashes between some 10,000 protestors and the Berkut and Interior Ministry special forces raged from 20 January to 22 January and led to a stand-off on Hrushevskoho Street. The revolutionary headquarters, the City Hall and Trade Union buildings, remained in the protesters’ hands.

The Kyiv Post described the “surreal and warlike” atmosphere of those days, “the smell of fire, smoke and tear gas, the scent of danger and the ominous drumming” of clubs and shields and shovels pounding aways at the road for stones to use as missiles. Ukraine’s Day of Unity on 22 January, celebrating the unification of east and west Ukraine in 1919, witnessed the first three deaths of Ukraine’s Winter Revolution—denoting its radicalization on a day that could hardly have carried more symbolism. The presence of victims solidified the unity amongst protesters, as well as amongst the larger part of the Ukrainian population that directly or tacitly supported EuroMaidan.60

On 26 January parliament’s three opposition parties rejected a proposal by the Yanukovych-Azarov regime to end the “longest and fiercest political crisis in Ukraine’s history” because it did not include the cancellation of the “dictatorship laws.” Yatseniuk, leader of the Batkivshchyna Party, tweeted to President Yanukovych: “No deal. We’re finishing what we started. The people decide our leaders, not you.”61 Sovereignty shifted. Recognizing that he was losing control of the situation, Yanukovych on 28 January revoked the anti-protest laws and dismissed Prime Minister Azarov, who then fled to Austria.62 Yanukovych’s “compromises” were not appreciated in Moscow, and Russia imposed trade sanctions on

Ukraine and halted its $15 billion aid package, of which $3 billion had thus far been disbursed.63 On 29 January the opposition parties in parliament pushed for an amnesty bill, which Yanukovych reluctantly signed on 31 January, but only after adding to the bill a deadline on protesters to leave occupied government buildings within fifteen days.64 “Shame!” the opposition parties shouted, and said they must “call for a people’s assembly and discuss what to do next.”65 President Yanukovych used the time window to visit President Vladimir Putin in Sochi, Russia.66

The Maidan protestors and President Yanukovych entrenched their positions and were defiant not to retreat; the countdown to the final confrontation began. On 7 February a bomb hidden in a medical package exploded in the Trade Union’s building, crippling two protesters—16 and 20 years old. The Interior Ministry released a statement claiming that the explosion occurred because the protesters were making bombs, and warned that Maidan Nezalezhnosti was dangerous due to the presence of “criminal groups” operating under “right-wing ideology.”67

The far-right had played a significant role in EuroMaidan since its popularization on 1 December, and these radical elements became more dominant as the government became less compromising. A leader of a Maidan self-defence unit said: “It’s true that Maidan is radicalizing, but the reason is that the authorities aren’t carrying out our demands.” UDAR leader Klitschko observed that the “people associate the government only with force,” making violence a logical response.68 Oleksandr Danylyuk’s, leader of Spilna Sprava, which seized the Agriculture, Energy, and Justice Ministry buildings on 27 January, said frankly: “We were very peaceful [before]. Now is the time for actions.”69

The far-right groups were by no means alone in their call for action. At the twelfth consecutive Sunday rally on 9 February, which was attended by 50,000 people, the political opposition leaders called on the Ukrainian people to join the self-defence teams to protect EuroMaidan. The call was answered by thousands who were “ready to give [their] lives for freedom.”70 As a priest recalled: “We could not go back. Any retreat would mean corruption and lies and consent to live in dictatorship like in the USSR.”71 It would also mean persecution. Klitschko explained that because “the judiciary is not independent, nobody in Ukraine [could] have their future guaranteed, especially when they [stood] up to the system.”72 Yatseniuk spoke on behalf of the opposition camp, and for the majority of the Ukrainian people, when he proclaimed: “Our victory is through Maidan only. The real power is here at Maidan.”73 As the 17 February deadline for protesters to evacuate government buildings approached, the conditions for a peaceful resolution to the standoff between the regime and Maidan were elusive.

On 17 February, however, the three ministries that had been occupied by protesters on 27 January were handed back to the government, and it seemed as though both sides were moving towards a compromise. But rather than offering meaningful negotiations with EuroMaidan, President Yanukovych issued a further ultimatum demanding protesters leave Maidan Nezalezhnosti by 6 p.m. on 18 February. A Party of Regions minister commented: “It has to be done now if we don’t want to lose our country forever.”74 The opposition parties frantically tried to find a political resolution, but parliament was in deadlock. That same day Russia’s finance minister announced that Russia would resume its aid package to Ukraine, which had been interrupted since the dismissal of Azarov on 28 January. The visits to Kyiv by foreign emissaries from Europe and the United States did nothing to evade the impending bloodshed. When the crisis talks failed in the evening of 18 February, Yatseniuk declared: “We’re standing on the brink of the most dramatic page of the history of Ukraine.”75

From 19 to 21 February central Kyiv became witness to the most serious clashes to grip the European continent in over a decade, and among the most serious since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. On 19 February the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU)—successor of the Soviet-era KGB—announced it was beginning an “anti-terrorist operation,” effectively giving the police a cart blanche to use live ammunition against protesters.76 President Yanukovych replaced the head of the army’s general staff and announced that the armed forces would be deployed if a state of emergency was declared.

The mood of the 15,000 protesters manning the barricades on Maidan was nonetheless “aggressively upbeat,” and as the first wave of riot police failed to recapture the revolutionary headquarters, the protesters went on the offensive and marched towards Ukraine’s parliament.77 Twenty-six people were killed that day. In the evening a truce was declared between the government and the political opposition, but less than twelve hours later the fighting resumed in central Kyiv—both sides blamed the other for restarting hostilities. At least forty-six more people were killed on 20 February, many of them by sharp-shooters on rooftops.78

On 21 February President Yanukovych finally assented to the demands of the political opposition, notably: early presidential elections before December 2014, a coalition government, Yulia Tymoshenko set free, and Yanukovych restoring the 2004 constitution, which would transfer considerable power from the president to parliament. Yanukovych also approved a full amnesty and the closing of all criminal cases against protesters since 21 November 2013. But after what had happened since the onset of the revolutionary process, and especially during the last two days, this political compromise was not enough for the men and women manning the barricades. When the political opposition announced the deal on Maidan that evening, they were booed off stage. “The people’s revolution continues!” the protesters shouted. President Yanukovych and his political allies received an ultimatum from militant protesters on Maidan, which essentially read: “resign now or else.” The protesters would not compromise with those in power with blood on their hands: “we are not afraid of anything now, we are ready to die.”79

Violence and Power

The true sources of power can be found in the vigorous action in concert among equals ready to sacrifice themselves for their beliefs. This is what Hannah Arendt argues in her essay On Violence, which she wrote following the Prague Spring in 1968. In light of those dramatic events, she observed:

The head on clash between Russian tanks and the entirely nonviolent resistance of the Czechoslovak people is a textbook case of a confrontation between violence and power…. To substitute violence for power can bring victory, but the price is very high; for it is not only paid by the vanquished, it is also paid by the victor in terms of his own power.80

In the last instance, President Yanukovych substituted violence for power, and in effect lost what scarce power he had left. Arendt argues that violence and power are diametrically opposed; “where the one rules absolutely, the other is absent.”81 The sudden dramatic breakdown of the regime’s power that ushers in revolutions reveals in a flash how civil obedience—to laws, to rulers, to institutions—is but the outward manifestation of support and consent. Hence, Arendt makes a distinction between the power of government and the power of people—the former corresponding to the popular opinion of the people, the latter to the human ability not just to act, but to act in concert.82 Over the course of the revolutionary process in Ukraine, more power shifted to the people every time the government used force against peaceful protesters, who in turn exerted their power by acting in concert. The more power Yanukovych’s regime lost, the more violent it had to become. The shift in power from the regime to the people became absolute when the streets of Kyiv turned red on 19 and 20 February 2014.

Violence during a revolutionary process reflects more than anything else the nature of the former regime, i.e. the extent to which violence was characteristic of the old regime and the impact of it on society at large. This line of argumentation evokes de Tocqueville’s thoughts in The Old Regime and the French Revolution, notably that the experience of the ancien regime, and the impact of this experience on the actions of the people during the French Revolution, was persistent and decisive in determining the course of the revolution.83 Violence, then, can be considered as merely the regurgitation of a former violent world, and is thus the least novel of revolutionary actions. Therefore, violence cannot be considered as a determinant of revolution unless considered directly in the context of power. Having said this, violence does serve one further purpose, and that is with regards to death. Arendt suggests:

Of all equalizers, death seems to be the most potent…. Death…is perhaps the most anti-political experience there is…. But faced collectively and in action, death changes its countenance; now it seems more likely to intensify our vitality than its proximity…. Our death is accompanied by the potential immortality of the group we belong to…. It is as though life itself…is “surging upward,” is actualized in the practice of violence.84

Violence does not promote causes, neither history nor revolution, neither progress nor reaction; but it can serve to dramatize grievances and bring them to public attention. And sometimes, violence is the only way of ensuring a hearing for moderation—“to ask the impossible in order to obtain the possible is not always counterproductive.”85 The victims of Maidan, the “heaven’s battalion,” usurped President Yanukovych and his associates of their power. Once those in power were ousted, the possibility existed that a process of reconciliation could begin in Ukraine. The onset of a counter-revolution, however, interrupted this possibility.

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