The Maidan vs the Kremlin

Dimitri Avaliani

The main cause that sparked mass protests in Kiev was the thwarting of the Association Agreement between Ukraine and the European Union (EU). However, having spent more than a week in the capital of Ukraine and having observed the protests first hand, I came to understand that the issue of European integration was not the only cause of the protests. Had it not been the issue of the Association Agreement, something else would have triggered the popular discontent. Those who stand in the Maidan, the central square of Kiev, believe that this protest is the only option they are left with in order for the country, themselves and their families to have any future prospects.

“Glory to Ukraine – Glory to Heroes!” – this is the slogan that can be heard most frequently at the protest rallies going on in and around the Maidan. It is chanted in one voice by students, elderly men and women. National symbols are seen everywhere and the national anthem can be heard every hour – it is chanted by everyone assembled there.

The fight for European integration in Ukraine, against the backdrop of awakened national awareness, has clearly taken on elements of a national liberation movement that has never occurred on such a mass-scale before in this country. This is further strengthened by a clear-cut enemy – the Kremlin, which, in the protesters’ opinions, is attempting to limit their country’s freedom of choice.

Despite numerous problems existing in the country, until the end of November 2013 Ukraine had a more or less peaceful existence. In 2010, after the election of President Viktor Yanukovych, the country experienced a downslide in terms of both the development of democratic institutions and economic growth. The parliamentary elections held in 2012 were assessed as a step backwards by both Western countries and international organizations. Also in 2012, Freedom House downgraded Ukraine from the category of free countries (in which Ukraine had been since 2005) to that of partly free countries. The reason for this downslide was the loss of trust in courts, rampant corruption and increased pressure being placed on the media.

Ukraine remains the most corrupt country in Europe. According to Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index of 2013, the country ranks 144th in the world by level of corruption (Georgia came 55th, whilst Russia is ranked 127th).

The arrest and conviction of the former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, which the West recognized as an act of selective justice and political persecution, has not become a cause of popular discontent.

It seemed that Ukrainian society had become used to all this, but the wake-up call came at the Vilnius Eastern Partnership Summit in Vilnius, held on 28 and 29 November, at which Ukraine was supposed to sign the agreement on association and free trade with the EU. The signing of the document had been a declared goal of the Yanukovych government. However, it not only refused to fulfill a precondition for signing – the release of Tymoshenko from jail, but it also suspended negotiations on the agreement just a week before of the summit. Among the reasons the government cited for this move were: expected economic problems, pressure from Russia and the refusal of the EU to compensate for these difficulties.

This refusal to sign the Association Agreement proved to be the last straw for a segment of the seemingly peaceful, nihilistic Ukrainian society – citizens were drawn towards the Maidan spontaneously. Another catalyst for society was the use of riot police to break up the rally of young protesters in the Maidan on 30 November on the premise of erecting a Christmas tree. This proved an especially shocking blow for the Ukrainians who have not seen or experienced anything like that since they gained independence.

On the day after the forcible break up of the rally, hundreds of thousands of citizens gathered in the center of Kiev; with clashes even taking place outside the building of the Presidential Administration – the responsibility for which the political opposition placed on provocateurs sent by the government.


Since the break up of that initial rally, Euromaidan protest rallies have been held around the clock in the central square of Kiev. On weekends, people take to the streets in especially great numbers – on 15 December, the third popular assembly, or “Veche”, was held on the Maidan, and was attended by citizens numbering between several hundred thousand to one million. During the day, several thousand people remain in the square, while in the evenings after the end of working hours between 20 to 30 thousand people regularly assemble there.

When in the Maidan, you get the feeling that you are in a theatre of military operations rather than at a protest rally – there is a strict regime of issuing passes from the revolution’s headquarters located in the trade union palace, where one is required to renew their press accreditation on a daily basis; there are tents, bonfires and field kitchens; also, the arrangement and maneuvering of “combat” units of peaceful protestors, the preparation of fortifications, and “ceding” and “gaining positions.”

In the conditions of the winter freeze, the presence of many thousands of people in the square ensures the need to run a headquarters and provide other services. According to the commandant of the Maidan, Andry Parub, more than 7,000 volunteers help with catering, cleaning, medical services, security, et cetera at the protest rallies. Food, firewood and other necessary items are supplied from monetary contributions made by ordinary citizens.

The political opposition is led by the leaders of three opposition parliamentary factions – Arseniy Yatseniuk, Vitali Klitschko and Oleh Tyahnybok. They hold regular news briefings about the ongoing situation and future plans. The leaders “agree” each new step – be it a new demand directed towards the government or negotiations with representatives of the government – with the Maidan protesters, announcing these decisions during the rallies or discussing them with a group of representatives from society.

Arseniy Yatseniuk, who is a former minister of both the economy and foreign affairs of Ukraine, is the leader of the largest opposition party, “Fatherland”. The party was founded by Yulia Tymoshenko and represents the jailed former prime minister’s influence at the protest rallies. The 42-year-old boxing champion Vitali Klitschko is relatively new to politics and his political party, UDAR, or the Ukrainian Democratic Alliance for Reform, was founded in 2010. Klitschko does not hide the fact that he is preparing for the Ukrainian presidential elections that are due in 2015. In his political program, Klitschko supports European integration and the fight against corruption. After the Vilnius Summit, he repeatedly called on Yanukovych to step down. At the same time, he made attempts to diffuse the tensions raised by provocateurs and to negotiate with the riot police.

Oleh Tyahnybok is the leader of the nationalist party Svoboda (“Freedom”), which received 10 percent of votes in the 2012 parliamentary elections. Tyahnybok is not trusted by many of the other opponents of the current Ukrainian government because of his radical slogans and actions. It was members of Svoboda that occupied the Mayor’s Office and dismantled the statue of Lenin. Tyahnybok had previously been expelled from the former President Viktor Yushchenko’s Nasha Ukraina (“Our Ukraine”) bloc for his nationalistic attitudes.

From the people in the Maidan one can sense that the citizens have gathered in the central square not in support of any specific leader, but because of their own demands and dissatisfaction. The protest is indeed spontaneous and the existing opposition forces have merely appeared at the head of it. This is something the opposition understands and is thus trying to maintain popular support.

Riot police breaking up the protest rally on 30 November

The timid assault

The watershed moment for the Maidan was the night of 10/ 11 December, when the government tried to storm the Maidan, an event preceded by protesters picketing government buildings. On 8 December, after a large “popular Veche,” throngs of people moved towards the cabinet of ministers and other government entities to blockade them and new barricades began to be erected around the government district. However, on the very next day, with the weather deteriorating, the number of people who were both picketing and standing in the Maidan dropped sharply. The government did not miss this opportunity and early on the morning of 10 December riot police removed the surrounding pickets and easily dismantled the barricades.

Even though the riot police were closing in on the Maidan, on the evening of 10 December one could not feel that the protesters expected any assault – as a result, people in the Maidan, as well those defending the barricades, were fewer in number than the day before. One of the reasons of the absence of any such expectation was the fact that influential Western diplomats – the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Catherine Ashton, and the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, Victoria Nuland, were both in Kiev that night.

The alarm was sounded after midnight when the riot police started assaulting the Maidan from every direction. By about 1 a.m. with the help of special equipment, they started dismantling barricades from the direction of Europe Square. According to official reports, the law enforcement officers were there to ensure the performance of maintenance work on the territory. Suddenly, from that direction, the riot police broke through the cordon defending the Maidan, occupied the city of tents that had been erected and reached the middle of the Maidan. At that moment it seemed that the fate of Maidan was already sealed, that nothing could possibly impede the riot police from crowding out the several hundred people in the square.

Another unit of riot police attacked a line of barricades on Institution Street. Then came the watershed moment. Thousands of people started arriving at the Maidan and the majority of them began erecting new security cordons. The riot police coming from Institution Street managed to dismantle the barricades, but failed to break through the increased mass of people and were forced to retreat.

The riot police also undertook an attempt to attack the opposition headquarters, but there too, they had to retreat. During their advance the riot police did not employ either batons or teargas.

This “positional war” continued till morning. In the morning, several busloads of riot police officers arrived at the occupied Mayor’s Office, but after thousands of protesters gathered around them and other protesters poured freezing water on them from the building, the riot police left their positions. The riot police cordons in Kiev were then at once removed. Protesters perceived the retreat of the police as the victory of the Maidan. From that morning more and more people joined the Maidan protests and in place of the dismantled barricades, the protesters erected stronger ones.

The people whom we met in the Maidan maintained that they are not going to stop their protest until their demands have been fulfilled. Many of them were morally prepared for a long battle – some even said that they are going to celebrate New Year and Christmas in the Maidan. Apart from such high morale, another conspicuous feature was the disciplined and organized nature of the rallies – something which has not been observed at previous protest rallies, either in Georgia or elsewhere.

As a result of their dialogue with society, the leaders of the opposition formulated three main demands – that the illegally detained people be released (in the opinion of the opposition, the number of such people totals 16); that those guilty of violence be punished accordingly; and that the cabinet of ministers resign. Upon these demands being met, the opposition was ready to engage in dialogue with the government about the issue of calling early elections and signing the agreement on association with the EU.

After the unsuccessful attempt to storm the Maidan, the government started fulfilling some of the demands – the Prosecutor General named the Head of Kiev’s City Administration, Oleksandr Popov, and Deputy Chairman of the National Security Council Volodymyr Syvkovych as suspects responsible for the forceful break up of the protest rally on 30 November. The President of Ukraine dismissed Oleksandr Popov and also said that he would not exclude the dismissal of several ministers. However, the opposition was not content with the fulfillment of only some of its demands.

At the same time, on 14 December, the government staged a counter-rally of its supporters close to the Maidan, in Europe Square. For this rally, it brought in participants – who mainly comprised personnel of budget organizations – from all regions of the country. According to the government, up to 200,000 people gathered for that rally.

Addressing the pro-government rally, Prime Minister Mykola Azarov said that the EU required the legalization of same-sex marriage as a condition for signing the Association Agreement. This statement caused ire in Brussels and, presumably, was the last straw for Štefan Füle, the EU Commissioner for Enlargement and European Neighbourhood Policy, who subsequently declared that the negotiations on the Association Agreement with the Ukraine will be suspended until after the government of the country figures out its priorities.

Motives of European integration

The main argument of the Ukrainian government to justify the postponement of signing the agreement with the EU was that Ukraine is not yet ready for European integration, a position that, very surprisingly, is also shared by the supporters of European integration.

A young taxi driver, named Vasily, who spends all of his free time in the Maidan, says that the support for European integration among the youth is almost 100 percent. “Yes, everyone knows that upon joining the EU a crisis will emerge in the country. We have seen what sort of crisis the Poles went through when they joined the EU. But we also see how they live now,” said Vasily.

Arseniy Yatseniuk, Vitali Klitschko and Oleh Tyahnybok at a meeting with Catherine Ashton
Oleksandr Solontay, an expert at the Institute for Political Education, told Tabula that in the late 1980s, one could hardly find a single person in Western Ukraine who had not traveled to Poland or to other neighboring countries. “Back then, Poland was poorer than Ukraine. Today, when Poland, Romania and Bulgaria are EU member states and life has become much better there. Ukrainians are now asking one another – should we be worse than they?” Solontay said.

Oleksandr Solontay asserts that the benefits of European integration are not questioned by those Ukrainians who have traveled to Europe, “whereas in the East [Ukraine], the fear of Europe indeed exists. But for them this is a subconscious fear towards something unknown.”

Perhaps this is how Ukrainian’s attitudes towards European integration differ from the attitudes of Georgian citizens – for them, the EU is not a distant universe, but a neighborhood. They are familiar with both the negative and positive sides of it from the lives of their neighbors and hence, they have better realized their choice – the supporters of European integration know that this process will not be easy, but they understand that, having gone through it, the country will achieve great success.

According to the results of a survey conducted by the company IFAK in October 2013, some 50 percent of those interviewed in Ukraine were in favor of signing the Association Agreement whereas 33 percent were against. In the western part of the country and the southern “pro-Russian” regions the opponents of European integration were greater – 42 percent were against it and 39 percent in support. It is worth noting that compared to a survey conducted in July 2013 by the same company, the number of supporters of European integration decreased, which experts explain as being a result of the change in the rhetoric of the government.

And still, European integration is not the key issue which united the people gathered in the Maidan. “We perceived the agreement with the EU as our last chance; that with the assistance of Europe, the needed reforms would be implemented here and our lives would improve. In one fell swoop, Yanukovych smashed this hope too,” a participant of the rally, Andry told us. This is a topic which many Ukrainians talked about with us, that the refusal to sign the Association Agreement with the EU meant the refusal to implement reforms and to transform. The population does not want to put up with the fact that nothing will change for the better in the country.

The reasons for dissatisfaction are numerous – a corrupt government, the wantonness of law enforcement bodies, unfair courts, appropriation of businesses by high public officials and, on top of all that, deteriorating social and economic conditions of late.

That the Yanukovych “family”, particularly Viktor’s son Oleksandr, and businessmen with close ties with the regime misappropriated a large amount of the country’s economy in recent times, is something that has been noted by Western experts too. Swedish researcher Anders Aslund believes that within the period of only three years, the “family” misappropriated between eight to ten million USD.

The country’s economy, however, faces a crisis. To solve its budgetary problems, Ukraine badly needs new loans, but due to the country’s doubtful solvency, it finds it difficult to secure resources. Negotiations with the International Monetary Fund proved unsuccessful because Kiev does not want to fulfill its strict requirements. It was exactly with the aim of seeking resources that Yanukovych simultaneously bargained with both Russia and the EU.

Decisive moment

Ukrainian experts see the solution of this situation to be the government “waking up” and engaging in negotiations with the opposition.

As a famous Ukrainian editor and journalist Vitaly Portnikov told Tabula, the government views the ongoing developments as an “ordinary color revolution.”

“It is necessary for the government to realize that people will not disperse by themselves. The government thinks that everything will happen like it did in 2004. They think that [the then President of Ukraine] Leonid Kuchma, back then, failed to be patient and wait until the Maidan protest would end; whereas now Yanukovych will exercise patience. This is an absolutely wrong assumption because this is not a color revolution. Back then, people supported certain leaders whilst now it is the other way round: the leaders express the will of the population, of society,” Protnikov said.

Participants in the rally treat police officers with sandwiches Photo: ALEXANDER NEMENOV / AFP
Portnikov believes that the solution to the crisis will be a return to the parliamentary system of governance, the creation of a new parliamentary majority and a transitional government of national consent, which will sign the Association Agreement with the EU.

Vitaliy Bala, Director of the Situations Modeling Agency of Ukraine, describes the reaction of the government as inadequate. “They think that this is just a rally, some unrest, but in reality this is a civil protest, a fight for the rights and freedom of the country; a fight against the U-turn which Yanukovich made by refusing to sign the agreement with the EU. Until the government has realized what is going on in reality, reaching agreement with it will be difficult,” the expert said.

He believes that during such political crises every country agrees to early elections in order to diffuse the tension. The continuation of separate negotiations with Putin irritates people and causes aggression.

In Bala’s opinion, the situation may develop in one of two ways: “either a miracle will happen and the government comes to its senses, or the civil protest will broaden and the pressure from both inside and outside the country will be increased leaving the government with no other option but to agree to negotiations.”

Oleksandr Solontay, who calls the events unfolding in the country a revolution, believes that “standing in the streets alone will bring about nothing,” and the protest movement must thus broaden and “cover new territory,” it must also find new allies – these may be oligarchs, police officers, or official figures.

As regards oligarchs, one of the most influential businessmen of the country, Rinat Akhmetov, said on 13 December that he cannot understand why the Association Agreement was not signed in Vilnius, but he does understand why people took to the streets. He condemned the violence used against protesters and called on the opposition and the government to start negotiations and reach a compromise.

The Ukrainian media, for its part, reported that the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State, Victoria Nuland, demanded that Ukrainian oligarchs stop supporting Yanukovych and threatened them with sanctions if they do not do that.

Akhmetov’s statement, however, was preceded by a statement from the U.S. Department of State in which Washington did not rule out introducing sanctions against the country. European leaders also severely criticized and condemned the police assault of 11 December.

However, before that, during the two weeks after the start of protests, the involvement of the West in the developments in Ukraine was minimal. MEPs and delegations of separate countries arrived in Ukraine, but until 10 December – i.e. the visits of Catherine Ashton and Victoria Nuland, neither Brussels nor Washington sent anyone to Kiev with a mandate to settle the crisis, despite the fact that a 45-million-strong country neighboring the EU risked degrading into conflict and civil war.

Edward Lucas, the international editor of The Economist believes that the situation was caused by the wrong politics of the West towards Russia and the post-Soviet space. In his view, European leaders failed to understand that Russia needs weak and politically vulnerable countries around it. The Eastern Partnership, which will strengthen Russia’s neighbors, is unacceptable for Russia. Lucas thinks that the fate of the entire post-Soviet space is being decided in Ukraine now – Euro-Atlantic integration means an end to “the Putin regime and its satrapies.” If this does not happen, the region’s prospects are dangerous, not only for these countries, but also for the European allies of NATO.

“Western leaders have missed no chance to show the Kremlin that they are not to be taken seriously…. The belated diplomatic support that the Obama administration has given the EU in its eastern neighborhood is commendable. But it also highlights the shameful neglect of previous years,” Edward Lucas wrote in an article published in The Wall Street Journal. According to him, the best way the West can help Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova is to take a much tougher stance with Russia.

The Kremlin, it seems, does not intend to cede its position. The Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, judged the protest on the Maidan as being “directed from the outside.” Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said that a “tectonic split” is occurring in Ukraine, thus officially confirming the cliché of Russian propaganda about a possible disintegration of Ukraine. On 17 December, Putin and Yanukovich met in Moscow and agreed that Russia will decrease the price on its gas supply to Ukraine by one-third and will issue 15 billion USD worth of loans to it.

The events that unfolded in Ukraine in November and December prove that Ukraine is different from Russia; attempts to violently thwart the protest have caused a backlash and people have started mobilizing against the government. However, neither Yanukovich and his clan nor the Kremlin, which has come to face the main threat to its influence on the post-Soviet space as a result of the events in the Maidan, have anywhere to retreat to. The victory of the Maidan rallies and Ukraine’s return to the European path will prove a fatal fiasco for the Kremlin’s politics.

A protest rally in the Maidan in Kiev Photo: GENYA SAVILOV / AFP


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