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A Long Walk to Freedom

A Long Walk to Freedom
Article by: Yuriy Lukanov
Translated by: Christine Chraibi
Edited by: A. N.

Volodymyr Viatrovych

The title of this article is borrowed from the memoirs of renowned freedom fighter Nelson Mandela. He devoted almost half a century to the liberation of his people. In the week following his death, the funeral of this great African took its place beside the millions of Ukrainians on Kyiv’s central square as a headline story in world news media. The victory then seemed so close that Mandela’s cautionary statements about the long walk to freedom were seen as irrelevant.

After a few exhausting weeks of fighting, it became obvious that this regime will not fall quickly.  The main source of anger for tens of thousands of people was the regime’s apparent failure to take notice of their massive two-month protest. However, over time, the opposition itself became a source of irritation for Maidan. The helplessness and confusion of MPs from the Batkivshchyna, UDAR, and Svoboda parties in the parliament at the very moment when the country was turning into a dictatorship were no less shocking than the audacity of the government standard-bearers.

Ultimately, infuriated citizens unleashed their outrage. And so a real war started on Hrushevskoho.

After Hrushevskoho, Maidan’s focus shifted several hundred meters off the central square. The Bloody Baptism breathed new life into the movement, reviving demonstrations that after two months had dwindled with fatigue. Political intrigues dissipated at the burning barricades under the hail of bullets and grenades. The threat of losing one’s life or health restored the original intensity; fervor fueled action. This new Maidan generated a set of powerful images which made even the most skeptical of us feel proud and realize that Ukraine was indeed “not dead yet….”  The battle has entered a new phase and demands even greater sacrifice. We have again surprised the world, which has been reminded that values are not simply declared, but are defended in battle, paid for with blood.

For me, the most telling symbol of those days was the image of an elderly couple, both of them well into their seventies.  I saw them the night Maidan expanded its territory by moving the barricades on Instytutska up to Olhynska street.  At two a.m., in temperatures of about -15C, the elderly couple had a difficult time climbing up the icy road.  Each of them had one Soviet-made ski pole. Uncertain in their steps due to their age, not their lack of determination, they pressed on to defend “our people from Berkut….”

Since then, the face of Maidan has changed: typical participants are now armed with bats and shields; they are middle-aged men in army helmets, bicycle helmets, motorcycle helmets. The changes are not merely superficial. The internal world of many of the protesters has also changed. It is no exaggeration to say that these people are professional revolutionaries who have crossed a point of no return and understand that they face two options: victory or imprisonment. It is these people who have become the new driving force of the protests.

The atmosphere has also changed on Maidan itself, to which the epicenter of the protests returned after the fierce fighting on Hrushevskoho. It is no longer as lighthearted as it was before. It has grown austere and disquieting. Spontaneous creativity has given way to almost military discipline. Open faces are now hidden under black balaclavas; instead of diversity, the uniformity of camouflage. Maidan has become a military camp. Its main actors are soldiers. Everything else–the kitchen, the stage, and medical services–have become auxiliary services. Some people may like these changes; others, not.  But both the fascination and the rejection are primarily visceral.

Let us look rationally at Maidan’s gains and losses after 19 January as compared to the events preceding them. This will enable us to answer an important question: is violent battle really more effective than peaceful protest? This attempt at analysis does not in any way deny the depth of my respect for those who sacrificed their health and even their lives in this battle. In fact, it is just the opposite: their sacrifice inspired me to write these lines.

The greatest achievement prior to 19 January was that Maidan became a participant in the political process, a participant to be reckoned with by the opposition, the government, and even a distant and often indifferent world. It is unlikely that any of them foresaw that a minor public rally in late November could profoundly change their agenda and plans for the future. Now, the three main players can no longer be certain that they can make decisions behind the scenes, or that the public will passively accept their backroom dealings. Maidan’s model of self-organization, sacrifice, and solidarity has changed all of Ukraine. Its example has affected people who came through Maidan–millions of them in total–those who just watched, and even those who do not support it. They realized that nothing, not even the most ambitious and expensive astroturfed movement, can compete with a movement of people motivated by ideals.

What other victories came after Hrushevskoho? Most believe that the government got scared and had to come to the negotiating table. Both elements of this hypothesis are questionable. Indeed, despite the determination and perseverance of the protesters, despite three deaths during these events and several more afterwards, despite hundreds of hurled cocktails and cobblestones, neither Verkhovna Rada, the Cabinet of Ministers, nor the presidential administration were seized. After more than a week of fighting, the front line on Hrushevskoho did not shift a single meter. The negotiations also brought no results; the government took part in them before and after the violence, and viewed them as a tool to divide and conquer.

The resignation of the Azarov government was presented as a trophy of this new stage of struggle. This event is connected to the events on Hrushevskoho. Fundamentally, however, this gesture brought little change. The government has continued in its acting capacity, while Zakharchenko, Tabachnyk, et al, led by “Family” man Arbuzov, continue to work.

Active mass protests finally moved beyond Kyiv and Western Ukraine. State administration offices have been occupied in ten oblasts, and protests have taken place in every oblast but two. The trigger was indeed violence, but it was not the violence of the protesters. It was the violence of the government: protests erupted in response to the news of the terrible deaths on the barricades, of the kidnappings and torture of activists.

Western media started to write about Ukraine again, and world politicians took notice again. That is undeniable! But their statements increasingly sound warnings about “the unacceptable use of force by the protesters.”  Moreover, some publications, in referring to the battles on Hrushevskoho, on their own initiative or with the support of our eastern neighbor, are writing about “the danger of the radical right in Ukraine” and “fascists behind the protests on Maidan.”  During the most dramatic confrontations, the split of those supporting and those opposing Maidan, for the first time in three months, approached a dangerous 50/50.

Finally, the key achievement of the violence on Hrushevskoho is the repeal of their primary instigator, the laws enacted on 16 January. The dictatorial laws were in fact repealed, but quite possibly because they had performed their provocative role: inciting some of the protesters to violence. If A is intended to cause B, then the existence of the first makes sense only up to that point. Then A can be disposed of, creating a vehicle for the display of apparent willingness for compromise and dialogue.

Therefore, the gains and victories of Maidan’s new phase are far from unequivocal. Apart from these, there are the obvious losses. In order to analyze these, we should highlight the key success factors for the protest movement. The prerequisites for the irreversible demise of the regime are:

a)  a broad mass resistance movement reaching the widest spectrum of society;

b) a defection to the side of the protesters of a portion of the pro-government elite, especially representatives of law enforcement bodies, which the regime uses as a tool to suppress protests;

c) support for the movement, even if only moral, from the international community.

I will begin with the last point, already partially covered in this article. Events on Hrushevskoho both attracted more international attention and made international observers question the propriety of their support for Maidan. I base this assessment on the analysis of the foreign press, and interviews with Western politicians and journalists who were here. I am certain that if it had not been for Maidan’s Woodstock atmosphere of the past two months, so despised by the radicals, global opinion of the events in Ukraine would have shifted dramatically to favor the Ukrainian and Russian governments.

The narrowing of the movement’s social base, a process that began on 19 January and is practically visible to the naked eye, is being recorded by sociological surveys. In contrast to the peaceful protests, groups that choose violence have a much higher entry threshold. The threshold can be crossed only by those who are physically and morally capable of using force, which means primarily middle-aged men. Other categories of people find themselves largely left out of the protest, and become observers.

Even worse, the gap in understanding between participants and observers is gradually increasing. The former burn all bridges behind them; they cannot go back. Their determination shapes the dynamic of the protest; they further radicalize the entire movement and reinforce its uncompromising position. In this manner, they believe, they are leading Maidan to victory.  But radicalization scares away those who are wavering. They become more distant, despite their earlier active roles. Thus the events of 19 January entrenched the roles of each group: some on Maidan, others in their armchairs. Each group is afraid to leave the security of their place.

Maidan is thus gradually isolating itself from society at large. Its residents are beginning to resemble desperate rebels of the mid-1950s, their eyes burning with determination, resolve, and, at the same time, anger against those who are “not with us and hence are against us.” Maidan has turned into a rebel hideout, impossible to attack, but incapable of influencing the situation beyond its own borders.

Another reason for Maidan’s “desubjectification” is directly related to the events of 19 January. In the aftermath, one thing became very clear: the opposition leaders who appear onstage do not represent the people in the square. The ensuing radicalization of the protest further deepened the gap between the people who have joined the movement and the politicians who are not prepared to take responsibility for their actions. Unfortunately, their unwillingness to engage in public policy kept the radical activists from filling the leadership vacuum. Thus, Maidan has not gotten rid of its unworthy representatives, but has not gained new leaders. Therefore, one of the greatest achievements of the protest in recent months, the transformation of Maidan into a separate political force, is today, at the most critical moment in its development, under threat.

Let us address one last question: how has the violence of the protesters affected the opposite camp? Among the pro-government politicians, the number of defectors is more than modest.  Inna Bohoslovska, who supported the protest in December, was openly joined by only one little-known MP from the Party of Regions with the symbolic last name Hrushevskyi.

Even more elusive is the likelihood of police support for Maidan. The radical activities on Hrushevskoho angered them into forging a monolith. They were defending neither Yanukovych nor Zakharchenko, but themselves and their colleagues. Look at the video posted by the Interior Ministry, where a young soldier of the internal troops talks about being hit by a Molotov cocktail and rescued by his colleagues. He appears confused and hesitant when trying to describe some of the political motives for police actions (“for stability,” “against extremism”), but speaks eagerly about the details of his own rescue. He will now stay to the end, not only because those are his orders, but also to stand by his rescuers. Those on the other side of the barricades are not just strangers now: they are enemies who tried to kill him. These protesters became enemies not only of the soldiers on Hrushevskoho, but also of their families. No political explanation is adequate when the life of your son is at risk. Crimes committed by those who call themselves law enforcement officers–humiliation, torture, murder–became another glue holding them unified and indivisible.

The major loss in the period after 19 January was the deaths of protesters. Casualties are inevitable in any decisive struggle, regardless of its form. In Ukraine, members of both violent and peaceful protests have been maimed or killed. In the first case, victims among the demonstrators play into government’s hand; a few demonstrators killed dampens the boldness of the others. On the other hand, the regime’s killing of peaceful protesters delegitimizes it, causing irreparable political damage.

Thus, the phase of violent protests brought few victories. However, for many, there is no alternative to forceful actions, because nonviolent methods have proven ineffective in Ukraine.  So we will attempt to determine whether peaceful protests are indeed ineffective, and if so, why.

For this we consider the tools of the nonviolent resistance movement, used in Ukraine since the end of November 2013. The most obvious method of the protests is Maidan itself, the Ukrainian version of the worldwide Occupy movement. Protesters occupied the city center. It is impossible to overlook or ignore such protests; they cause financial and moral damage to the government. The effectiveness of this form of struggle depends on its ability to expand the territory controlled by the protesters. Maidan’s expansion, however, was less successful than its entrenchment. To defend their territory, the Maidan protesters built majestic barricades, the boundaries of which have been expanded only once. So the necessary dynamics came to a halt. Events outside of Kyiv after 23 January strengthened Maidan: Occupy’s methods were used or attempted in almost all regions of the country. But in the absence of a coordinated efforts, the occupied administrative premises were quickly lost.

In 2004, the blocking of administrative buildings was a particularly effective method. This time the method was used only to a limited extent.

On 6 December at 6:00 am, a group of EuroMaidan Public Sector activists and I went to block the two entrances of the Cabinet of Ministers on vulytsia Sadova. We were acting in accordance with a previous agreement with other public and political groups. Unfortunately, our group of about two hundred activists were the only ones at the Cabinet of Ministers building. The rest either did not come at all or came late, after the beginning of the working day. The blocking, in effect, did not take place. Entrances to the Cabinet of Ministers (other than that which we handled, and the main entrance, which was blocked by law enforcement agencies) continued to function normally. This scenario was repeated in the following days, at the Cabinet of Ministers as well as near the presidential administration and other government buildings. Subsequently, opposition leaders reported that a “partial blockade” took place. This partial approach to the issue resulted in a situation where active protests to date are simply a “partial revolution.”  However, the blocking of army units in the Kyiv region and elsewhere in the country were effective because they were not partial.

The innovation of this revolution is AutoMaidan, which picketed the suburban estates of those in power and blocked other sites. The movement of automotive caravans, which included anywhere from several dozen to several hundred cars, had a major impact on observers. Its most impressive action was the march on Mezhyhiria.  Additionally, AutoMaidan played an important role in protecting protesters and some sites from attacks by so-called titushky. Their ability to transport a large number of people quickly throughout the city frustrated several provocations.

Generally, the self-defense system, both physical and legal, has been very effective. Despite the scope of the repressions (murder, kidnapping, assault), this system was able to save a lot of activists and, finally, provide continuity to the protest.

Another classical method of nonviolent resistance which established itself during EuroMaidan is the boycott of companies owned by pro-government officials. This grassroots action began with primitive leaflets, and now has amongst its instruments dedicated smartphone apps which recognize such products and services. It is difficult to determine the extent of the boycott movement, but an educated guess suggests that boycotted companies experienced quite substantial losses.

A few weeks ago, the opposition announced from the Maidan stage the creation of the People’s Council as an alternative to the discredited parliament after the vote on 16 January. The next step was to be the creation of councils in other regions and their coordination by the central People’s Council. That is, this was about the creation of an alternative method of leverage. The establishment of parallel bodies intended to gradually take over the powers of the current government is an important and effective method of dealing with the regime. Unfortunately, the People’s Council established in Kyiv did not become operational. Its members, Ukraine’s MPs, returned to the very parliament that they had previously tried to delegitimize, and were drawn back into the usual political routine. Efforts to coordinate the activities of the People’s Council in the regions yielded no visible results. It is important to note that the process of creating the People’s Council began with a noticeable delay. It seemed that the formal leaders of the protests did this very reluctantly, and only under pressure from the public.

As a result, we can say that Maidan has used a wide spectrum of instruments typical of nonviolent protests. Then why are we not yet celebrating victory? The problem is that none of these methods have been used to their full extent. In fact, most of them have only been piloted and then called ineffective. Moreover, no effort was made to use these instruments simultaneously.

No effective leadership organs were created during three months of protest. The National Protest Headquarters, which includes representatives of the three opposition parties, has never functioned as a central coordinating body. Despite repeated calls from the stage, the headquarters never built a network across the country. It could not reflect the real structure of the protest, which from the beginning went far beyond the opposition parties. Furthermore, the Council of the All-Ukrainian Association Maidan, which includes, in addition to party members, representatives of public organizations, never became the center of power. It never assumed this power because its formation was only an imitation of the consolidation process. The council did not convene even in the most critical moments, and the protests at local levels were therefore organized without its coordination. In fact, we know nothing about the role of this council. The formal opposition did not use the advantages at its disposal, did not impose its own agenda on the government, and did not proactively take initiative.

Thus, the problem was not the poor performance of the tools of nonviolent resistance: that they were threatening to the government was acknowledged by the laws of 16 January banning these very actions. The problem was the failure to take full advantage of them. There was an absence of organization and action.

These are things that we can still make up for. Another reason we are not celebrating victory is that nonviolent struggle will not provide fast results. It takes more time than solving problems by violent methods. But at the same time it is much more effective: researchers estimate that for the period between 1900 and 2006, peaceful resistance movements succeeded twice as often as violent ones did (Chenowith and Stefan, “Why nonviolent resistance is effective”).

The problem in Ukraine is not only the infiltration of government by criminal elements, by the elimination of which everything can be solved. We need to change the whole system so that it can no longer breed new Yanukovyches and Zakharchenkos. One component of this system that needs changing is ourselves. Prolonged nonviolent struggle changes not only governance but also the people, teaching them responsibility and solidarity.

The removal of the Yanukovych regime and his team should not be the end of the revolution, but its beginning.  After this, changes need to be initiated to change society as a whole. Again, as study of world revolutions has shown, the institution of reforms after armed conflict is much less likely than after mass nonviolent resistance.

So we must understand that the fight will be long.  It is worth remembering Mandela’s “Long Walk to Freedom.”  On the one hand, it is difficult to think of a long struggle ahead, after the experience of nearly three grueling months. On the other, it gives us a chance to correct our previous errors and, in the end, prevail.

Translated by Myron Spolsky

Edited by Mariana Budjeryn and Robin Rohrback


Translated by: Christine Chraibi
Edited by: A. N.
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