Protesters held a banner of Poroshenko behind bars. Photo: Olena Makarenko
It has been a week since the start of new protests near Verkhovna Rada (the Parliament) demanding the “great political reform.” And the end of it is nowhere in sight, since its central figure is exiled Georgian president and Odesa Oblast ex-governor Mikheil Saakashvili announced that they will last at least till November 7. Many have compared these protests to Ukraine’s Euromaidan revolution of 2013-2014, citing the reform demands and diverse composition of the protesters. But can they really be compared to Euromaidan? And do they have a chance of growing into something bigger and changing the power in Ukraine?
During the week the agenda of the protests changed. They were first summoned under the slogans of a “great political reform” which included an election reform, creation of an Anti-Corruption Court, and canceling parliamentary immunity. Later, slogans against Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko became dominant.
Switching demands: from reforms to overthrowing Poroshenko
The reforms agenda was mostly formed by the NGOs which took part in organizing the protest. The three demands were indeed the questions on which activists were working in hope for positive transformations – to reduce the corruption component during elections, move the fight against corruption forward by introducing the missing link in the anti-corruption investigation process, and making MPs carry responsibility for their wrongdoings.
However, the goals of the politicians standing behind the protests went further – to overthrow Poroshenko:
“As long as there is Poroshenko, there will be no fight against corruption! As long as there is Poroshenko, there will be poverty, humiliation, emigration, especially of youth. There will be the decline of Ukraine’s prestige; money, including that allocated for defense, will be stolen,” said Saakashvili at the first day of the protests.
After two days of the protests, a part of its organizers decided not to take part in the protests on the street, but to continue it “using other means.” They included the Reanimation Package of Reforms, Civic Movement “Chesno,” Anti-Corruption Action Center, the Hromadianska Positsiya, Democratic Alliance, and Samopomich political parties, and others.
By the end of the week, Saakashvili announced his plan on reforming Ukraine in 70 days. Its first point is the impeachment of the President. It noteworthy to say that the plan is not new. During the Skype conference, Saakashvili held for Ukrainian journalists just after he was deprived of Ukrainian citizenship, the plan was already on the agenda.
Apart from Saakashvili, another notable politician is supporting the protests – Batkivshchyna party leader Yuliya Tymoshenko. Both of them are interested in overthrowing Ukraine’s authorities. It is the only way Saakashvili can get to power, as his political force Rukh Novyh Syl is not represented in parliament and has low support. Meanwhile, Tymoshenko would receive a chance to strengthen her positions in case of early parliamentary elections: her party is a leader of ratings and would get more seats in parliament.
But is the scenario of calling for early elections realistic?
How realistic the politicians’ goals are
Three situations which can lead to early parliamentary elections exist in Ukraine (the regular ones are planned for October 2019).
First, a breakdown of the parliamentary coalition. According to the Constitution, if it is not formed within a month, the president of Ukraine has the right to dissolve the parliament and announce early elections. Other factors include a situation wherein plenary sessions aren’t opened for 30 days, or if the government cannot be formed for 60 days.
The pressure of the streets is the main instrument of protesting politicians. But how big is this pressure?
It is estimated that on 17 October, at least 4,500 people gathered near the Verkhovna Rada. The square The square near the Parliament was also crowded on 22 October, during the viche:
The rest of the time, there were only tents with some protesters and crowds of law enforcement operatives. The former organize their life in the camp, the latter stand near the building of the Parliament or wait for their shift while sleeping in buses, playing guitar, or watching open-air films shown on mobile screens. Under these conditions, how can the turning point occur?
One of the sad lessons of the Euromaidan revolution is that innocent blood summons people. After the students peacefully protesting at Maidan were cruelly beaten by the riot police, hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians gathered on the streets. So unless the new protests turn violent, it is unlikely that the current power will be overthrown. There were situations with a possibility of a bloody outcome at the start, with a major incident on the first day, when one soldier and one protester were injured.
The government prepared for such a situation by sending 3,500 law enforcement officers who provided security for the event. Protesters considered it an attempt to control opposition-minded people in runaway president Viktor Yanukovych’s style.
As the possibility of “big blood” was in the air, civil society activists from Reanimation Package of Reforms made a statement in its regarding:
“From the very beginning, the Reanimation Package of Reforms stressed: any other political demands of the participants of the protests are their personal position and can’t be interpreted as a common position of signers of the Memorandum on Common Actions. In case of committing any provocations, attempts to seize state institutions, violent actions etc, Reanimation Package of Reforms will stop its participation in the protest and will take away its signature from the Memorandum. Unfortunately, not all preliminary agreements which were reached by the participants on the eve of the action were respected. This poses a threat to the continued effective and smooth operation of the entire civil society.”
The popular moods and the reforms
An opinion poll conducted in April 2017 testified to the low trust of population in the President (71,9% distrust him) and the Parliament (86,6% distrust it). So it is possible to say there is ground for political demands of the protests. However, apart from distrusting the President and Parliament, Ukrainians don’t trust politicians in general: the same poll shows that 83,5% people don’t trust political parties. While Saakashvili isn’t in Parliament and is in opposition to the current government, he is still a politician and events around him like his scandalous forceful border crossing to return to Ukraine in September didn’t help increase his ratio of trust.
Meanwhile, the fight for reforms is ongoing, but not on the streets. So far, civil society is its main driver, meaning it is also the main threat for the government resisting effective changes. The President and the Government hear demands of the activists quite often. However, the tricky question is how they implement them. For example, Poroshenko reacted to the demand of depriving MPs of immunity at the very first day of the protests by registering the bill (#7203) which envisages amendments to the Constitution on cancellation of parliamentary immunity. But there is one controversial detail. If the Parliament votes for the bill suggested by the president, the law will come into force only on 1 January 2020. The activists do not agree to such a delay.
Also, the President already supported the idea of creating an Anti-Corruption Court, but the details of its implementation might undermine its effectiveness. First, the process might be protracted. Also, the president and his inner circle can leave the international experts out of the process of selection of judges. It means that dishonest and corrupt judges who are ready to serve the system may form the new institution.
“The current government is much more creative than their predecessors. They are very experienced, they are more powerful in terms of media. They know how to act in different situations and in case of some failure they can steal the show of any event by throwing information rubbish in media,” told Oleksandr Lemenov an expert of Reanimation Package of Reforms, to Euromaidan Press.
The real fight for reforms is taking place not near Verkhovna Rada, but in cabinets during the negotiations of the government and civil society activists. And it is the activists for whom the support of Ukraine’s western partners is crucial.
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