Yevhen Bystrytsky. Maidan Revolution: Nationalism and European Values. — 2014.
The position paper for the conference “Lessons from the protest wave in Europe” CCCB, Barcelona, April 2014
As I write this, the mass revolution caused by the Maidan has catalyzed separatist movements in Eastern Ukraine. Putin’s regime did not stop after its occupation of Crimea. Separatist putsches in [...] cities in Southeastern Ukraine, carried out by armed agents financed by toppled president Yanukovych, are Putin’s attempt to prove to the international community the legitimacy of his actions in Crimea. The formula he is using to justify Russia’s aggression is simple: the right to self-determination. How did Russia propaganda so easily convince its own population and part of the international community that nationalist fundamentalists, extremists and even gangsters were behind the Maidan? How did national values, a patriotic uprising for joining the European Union, opposition to violence and torture, opposition to corrupt government – basically, the desire for human dignity - tie in to Maidan? I’ll try to briefly provide my answers to these questions.
A short synopsis of Maidan
November 21-24, 2013: failure to sign the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement and start of protests by representatives of NGOs and students on Independence Square (Maidan) (2-3 thousand people every day). Back then it is still called EuroMaidan. Several tents were put up with rotating young protesters constantly present. Meanwhile, on the closest square a rally begins on the initiative of three opposition parties: Batkivshchyna (Yulia Tymoshenko), Udar (Vitaliy Klitschko) and radical-nationalists (Svoboda) – 2-3 thousand people. The opposition proposed they all unite, but protesters refused and invited the politicians to speak on Maidan without any political flags or symbols. They did not unite. From the very beginning, Maidan proclaimed itself a broad public movement.
November 24: in Kyiv (up to 100,000) and large cities in the regions, rallies are held by supporters of European integration while the government stages anti-Maidans under the slogan “No to homo-Europe!”. It’s the beginning of the paid anti-maidan movement, less numerous than Maidan, but which accompanies all protests.
November 30, 2013, Saturday: a small (<500 people) and purely peaceful youth demonstration is brutally attacked at night by armed Berkut – a special unit of the internal troops. The youth were beaten and dispersed. Many were bloodied and suffered concussions. Ukraine witnesses its first brutal beating of peaceful protesters. The government puts up fences on Independence Square.
December 1, 2013, Sunday: after a spontaneous call to protest by the opposition and NGOs, up to 500,000 protesters from Kyiv other cities gather by the monument to poet Taras Shevchenko in Kyiv. They walk to Independence Square. The Berkut troops that were guarding the fenced in square flee. The Maidan mass movement begins under the slogans: “For human dignity!” and “Down with the government!”
In the evening, extremists, with football fans and members of the radical nationalist group Bratstvo on the frontline, attempt to seize the building of the President Administration of Ukraine. They throw stones and for the first time use a limited number of Molotov cocktails. Berkut for the first time responds with sound grenades. The next day the media and extremists interpret this event as a provocation by the government, which organized this extremist attack on Berkut to have an excuse to take action against protesters.
The structure of the subsequent protests on Independence Square and other EuroMaidans across Ukraine takes shape. Standing up to, fighting, the police and internal troops on the perimeter is a small group that I will call “the Maidan fighters” – the most fearless and motivated protesters (500-600, sometimes 1,500 men). This group almost always has the support of the larger mass of peaceful protesters (5-10 thousand protesters during critical confrontations, particularly at night). During the day, the number of supporters grows to 10-15 thousand.
On the weekend large peaceful Maidan assemblies starts to gather (up to 200-350 thousand). They are called “Viches” (popular assemblies held by medieval Slavs). A central stage is constructed where opinion leaders of the Maidan and opposition politicians that start to vie for leadership of the Maidan movement speak. The tent city grows. Protesters occupy the Trade Union Building, Kyiv City Administration and several other buildings near Independence Square. The main contingent is from Western and Central Ukraine, and there are also people from the East and South. They are youth and predominantly adults under 50.
December 11, 2013: starting on December 8 and peaking in the evening of December 11, Berkut launches a massive attack on Maidan to disperse protesters. They use sound grenades. Maidan activists mobilize the people of Kyiv, who quickly descend upon the scene of events. The number of activists increases dramatically. Berkut retreats. It becomes clear that the government isn’t going to retreat or enter into dialogue with protesters. December 11 can be considered a turning point in the history of Maidan: it is clear that the protests won’t be stopped until they win.
A Maidan infrastructure is organized through the efforts of volunteers, NGOs and protesters: supply of food, warm clothing, equipment for tents, firewood, a medical brigade, fundraising, etc. Barricades are erected along the perimeter of Independence Square. There is evidence that certain Ukrainian oligarchs helped finance some of the Maidan infrastructure.
Maidan headquarters is set up and self-defense groups organized. Maidan arms itself. The typical uniform of the Maidan protesters emerges: camouflage attire, helmet, homemade shield and stick.
From December 1-11 opposition politicians overrided the Maidan movements, trying to present the demands of the Maidan to the current government. Public figures appear on Maidan that assume the function of what I’ll call Maidan DJs. They announce the needs of the Maidan camp and at times coordinate the defense against Berkut attacks. During the major clashes with Berkut, you could hear someone on stage saying “Danger on the right, stop drinking coffee and head over there!” They organized concerts, prayers, meetings with public figures. Leading European politicians and representatives of the governments of the US and EU member states spoke on stage.
January 16-19, 2014: the New Year’s calm ended with clashes on January 19 after MPs returned from vacation and the new parliamentary session began. The pretext for the new wave of peaceful protest was the adoption by the pro-presidential majority in parliament on January 16 of draconian laws against peaceful assemblies and NGOs. The law was a harsher repeat of Putin’s laws against NGOs as agents of Western influence. The law also limited the rights of citizens in a way that essentially prohibited the key modes of protest on Maidan and created the legal framework for repression of protesters. For example, it prohibited more than a few cars from driving in caravan in order to stop the AvtoMaidan movement. This sparked even greater protest.
January 19, 2014: In response, the government announced the start of an anti-terrorist operation. January 19 saw mass clashes between protesters, on one side, and Berkut and other special units of the Interior Troops brought in from other regions of Ukraine, including Crimea.
The critical phase of fighting begins on Hrushevskoho Street, which leads to the parliament and cabinet of ministers buildings. Fighting at the front are football fans-ultras that set fire to Berkut vehicles. For the first time tires are used to defend against a Berkut attack along the frontline. Protesters build barricades on the frontline. Internal troops being using guns sporadically. The first four victims are from the combat group of protesters, who are backed at a certain distance by a crowd of 2-3 thousand men at night and up to 5+ thousand during the day. The combat group is brought cobblestones and Molotov cocktails. Volunteer doctors set up stationary points and provide first aid. Volunteers from villages bring milk, which helps against tear gas.
In the following days the government launches a major attack on the rights of protesters. Court processes are held where protesters, including random pedestrians, are convicted without investigation. Many are detained. Protesters that seek hospital treatment are detained. Some activists are abducted and tortured. Several abductees are killed.
The opposition in parliament demands the government’s resignation, annulment of the January 16 laws and amnesty for all protesters. The draconian laws are revoked by parliament. On January 28 the president accepts the prime minister’s resignation. On February 12 the president forms a coalition government. On February 15 the government releases all the detainees. EuroMaidans in the regions unblock government buildings. The opposition demands a return to the previous constitution, which significantly limits the powers of the president.
February 18-21, 2014: The situation on Maidan escalates sharply. During clashes between protesters and internal troops, unidentified snipers (evidence is being gathered that they acted on orders from the authorities) kill 77 protesters. This changes the situation dramatically. President Yanukovych makes concessions: Berkut pullout from Kyiv, sign an agreement with the opposition on a return to the previous constitution within two days. On February 22, as a result of a decisive turn of events on Maidan in favor of protesters and the opposition, Yanukovych flees Ukraine for Russia.
During these days, the image develops of the Right Sector and its leader Yarosh as the main combat forces on Maidan, who whom victory on the frontline starts to be attributed.
Structure of the self-organized Maidan
This view of the self-organization of different environments on Maidan doesn’t claim to be statistically accurate. It reflects my general impression as the head of the largest donor organization for the third sector in Ukraine and someone who well connected to leaders of NGOs and several movements on Maidan, was there at the beginning of the protests and during critical clashes, as well as a participant of the EuroMaidan forums in Kharkiv, Odesa and Kyiv.
I would single out several environments that are important for understanding the structure of the protest movement.
From the beginning the movement was the initiative of NGOs that have well-developed media (most popular Internet Magazine Ukrainska Pravda) and internet (Google group, FB, Twitter) communication. The start of the protests on Maidan catalyzed the creation of The Internet Public TV (Hromadske TV) by leading investigative journalists. The popularity of Hromadske TV grew exponentially with its presence during key events on Maidan and use of Stream broadcasting. It reached above 200,000 consumers. 2-3 TV Streams also had a large number of viewers. Constant information exchange took place via FB and Twitter.
Members of the student strike committee were active participants of the movement from the start until November 30.
After Maidan expanded into a movement of mass protests in Kyiv and the regions, third sector organizations performed a supporting role. Maidan-SOS, one of the most successful projects organized by human rights organizations, collected and made public information about acts of violence against peaceful protesters and provided legal support. Medical NGOs organized first aid for victims. Student organizations gave out leaflets explaining the real situation on Maidan. In many cases, regional NGOs initiated EuroMaidan movements. During the final fighting on Maidan (last weeks of February) representatives of independent think-tanks organized a campaign to lobby the anti-corruption movement to pressure the government to adopt legislation aimed at democratic reforms and establishing public TV.
In the post-Maidan period, these networks of NGOs have been actively and successfully lobbying the Reanimation Package of Reform at the level of the cabinet of ministers and parliament. They coined the image of the Spirit of Maidan and a New Ukraine.
Patriotism, nationalism and the pro-European spirit of Maidan
From the outset, the mass protest movement had a pro-Ukrainian motivation. The issue is that the process of signing the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement was accompanied by Russian propaganda. The alternative to not signing it was convergence with Russia: joining the Customs Union of three post-soviet countries. Public opinion about Yanukovych’s regime as decisively pro-Russian increased significantly after his refusal to sign with the EU and subsequent agreements for Russian gas credits. The motivation of national identify became fundamental for the Maidans and remains so to this day.
That is the reason why the most motivated and largest number of protesters came from Western Ukraine and Ukraine-oriented residents of other regions. Concern for Ukrainian unity accompanied the Maidan movement, starting with invitations to representatives of the Greek Catholic and Ukrainian Orthodox churches to speak on stage, to performances by pro-Ukrainian musical groups. Ruslana Lyzhychko, winner of Eurovision 2004, was one of the most active organizers of Maidan and embodied this sense of national cohesion.
The multi-colored political opposition found common ground. Two other opposition parties, hard to identify as the right, joined up with the radical nationalist Svoboda party, which is recent years declared “Ukraine for Ukrainians” and used anti-Semitic slogans.
Football fans stood out in the first critical confrontations between Maidan and Berkut. Their extremism was based on their eternal conflict with the police, meaning the government, at football stadiums. In the next confrontations, when there was a need for more numerous and long-term opposition to internal troops, another combat group evolved that was united by this same pro-national motivation to defend the Ukrainian idea against the pro-Russian and antidemocratic brutal government of “oligarchs and gangsters”.
And so, the worldview of Maidan, also called the spirit of Maidan, united nationalist, pro-Ukrainian views and political demands, on the one hand, and the entire protest movement that supports moving away from Russia towards the European Union. Freely coexisting here are Ukrainian patriotism, the desire to split from Russia and Russian culture (language) and aspiration for European values and their core recognition of fundamental freedoms.
On the other hand, as the protest movement expanded and the fight against the government’s troops increased, the ideological orientation of the core battle group radicalized. In the end, Right Sector became its center, in reality or as the image of mass consciousness, with its clear radical nationalist program and subsequent announcement of the formation of a political party. Its leader, Dmytro Yarosh, is now competing for the presidency. (Interestingly enough, over the course of its unity with the opposition, the nationalist rhetoric of the Svoboda party changed and became less radical.) The political rhetoric of Right Sector now focuses on criticizing fundamental Western values as well as Russian and “Western intervention” in Ukraine’s internal affairs.
Several words on the political role of opposition politicians after Maidan. Over the course of the protest movement, the civil society part of Maidan tried to distance itself from political leaders. A representative of the political opposition with a clear pro-Ukrainian background led the formation of the rather disciplined Maidan Self-Defense, a large semi-military group of protesters. Nonetheless, this Self-Defense didn’t bow to the commands of politicians, and acted as a general self-defense force for the protests.
For greater recognition of their leading role, the political opposition established the Public Council “All-Ukrainian Union Maidan” that includes representatives of various protest environments, leadings NGOs and think-tanks. The Public Council helped prepare a number of important programmatic documents and ceased existing after Maidan’s victory. Some of the representatives of the public sector assumed posts in the government.
After Maidan the main civic movements against corruption and in support of democratic reforms were headed by representatives of the public sector.
Yevhen Bystrytsky was executive director of the International Renaissance Foundation in Kyiv, Ukraine from 1998 to 2017. Now he is head of the department of the Institute of Philosophy at Ukraine’s National Academy of Sciences.