THE BLOG
01/20/2014 01:02 pm ET Updated Mar 22, 2014

The Ukrainian Euro Maidan

I was in Kyiv, Ukraine from Dec 14, 2013 - Jan 9, 2014. Almost every day I visited Independence Square or Maidan, to experience and document the Euro-Maidan demonstrations. Euro-Maidan started with protests after the Ukrainian government abandoned EU trade agreement talks. After an evening where special police brutally attacked a group of peaceful student protestors, the resulting anger sparked mass demonstrations demanding the government's resignation and new presidential elections. Having been in Kyiv for the 2004 protests of the Orange Revolution (and as a result creating a documentary film called "The Orange Chronicles", which I had the surreal experience of screening on the Maidan on Jan 1, 2014), I felt both an obligation and desire to document this uprising. My focus was on doing a live video stream with English language commentary, I was able to reconnect with many friends from the Orange Revolution days and will attempt to synthesize my perceptions of the current uprising here in this piece of writing.

I was often asked what differences exist between the 2004 and 2013 demonstrations. On the surface there are lots of similarities; tents on Maidan, soup kitchens to feed the masses, similar slogans, same songs, the same villain... they even both started on the same day, November 21st! But it's the first time in 9 years that people were galvanized to come out in the massive numbers that they did. After years of paralysis and apathy toward politics, something had changed, I think the main psychological evolution in Kyiv was that people came out not for a politician, but an idea. It was the belief that a trade agreement with the EU would give them reforms for a more just and transparent system, that brutal beatings of peaceful students was unacceptable in Ukrainian society, and the idea that Ukrainians were part of the European community, rather than Moscow. Of course this applies to the average, western oriented, patriotic Ukrainian. The Russophile south and east of Ukraine is still much as it was in 2004, sympathetic to a point of view that adheres largely to Russian anti-west and anti-Ukrainian propaganda. One of the largest failures of the Orange Revolution is that it did not attempt to educate and integrate this area, particularly at a time where it could have been effective in reaching out to the younger generation. So as a result, Yanukovych still retains surprisingly strong influence here, despite not delivering on his campaign promise of raising the standard of living.

Another significant difference from 2004 is that the 2013 demonstrations have had intense spasms of violence. This is not surprising to me as in 2004 Prime Minister Yanukovych was the one who wanted to forcefully remove Maidan, but then President Kuchma refused. Naturally Yanukovych has tried to do that now that he has the Presidential authority to authorize such action, but people have resisted en masse and fought back peacefully. Spates of violence have since continued with targeted attacks, against investigative journalist Tetyana Chornovol and opposition deputy Phillip Illienko. The most recent confrontation occurred with the special Berkut police outside a court building, on Jan 11, 2014, where opposition leader Yuri Lutsenko sustained severe head injuries.

However, since those first days of violence, there has been little movement on the ground as far as anything resembling a strategy to reaching the goals of Euromaidan. Performers and musicians perform on the Maidan stage to keep spirits and energy up and opposition politicians make speeches saying people must stand on Maidan until victory. But a strategy on how to achieve that victory through peaceful methods remains unclear since the opposition lacks enough votes in Parliament to sack the government. People have become frustrated with lack of a plan and desire action. The numbers on Maidan have dwindled as many of those who came initially from outside Kyiv have gone home to go back to work, and Kyivites themselves question what is the point of standing on Maidan and listening to politicians' speeches. The hardcore activists remain on Maidan 24/7 as other citizens cycle through, averaging a couple thousand throughout the day and a couple hundred in the late evenings.

Civil disobedience actions are somewhat limited due to the psychological Soviet remnant of provocation conspiracies. One or the other party labels any physical incident a "provocation". This is a term that seems to be used in Ukraine to deflect responsibility insinuating that there is some well thought out scheme to "provoke" certain actions that will lead to a particular response to achieve some specific results. When the police first commented on the beating of Tetyana Chronovol they said it could be a provocation by the opposition, thereby deflecting the truth of the matter. The ruling class uses the word "provocation" to muddy up perception of reality so people get confused and then don't care as much when a case goes unsolved. The demonstrators also label any person who does not stick with a non-violent protocol as "provocateurs" working for the government forces to incite violence. But I think the reality is that there are lots of different people and groups on Maidan and some see physical aggression and civil disobedience as the way to fight back and pressure the government to take the movement seriously. The Yanukovych administration has simply ignored the demands of Maidan, and continued with their day to day, and by doing so Maidan is slowly losing power and dissolving.

There is no opposition leader (except perhaps the one sitting in jail) willing to organize and take responsibility for putting out a call for real revolutionary action. Fears of prosecution and "martial law" are the underlying reasons why. In that scenario, the government is ready for physical battle, while the demonstrators are not. So for a physical takeover to succeed there needs to be some change of loyalty of the army/police from the president to the people. Under current conditions that is unlikely as objectively speaking, the situation is such that essentially a segment of Ukraine's population disagrees with the president's decision on the EU Trade Agreement. This by itself is not reason enough for law enforcement personnel to forgo their duties, even if they are against the aggressive tactics that have been used against the demonstrators. However, during the election cycle, where there is supposed to be a transition of power, it is more likely that if there is a plausible scenario of "injustice", some police and military could switch allegiances.

After the first days of violence, the momentum towards revolutionary action has passed and now there are new battle tactics being developed in different spheres. Many demonstrators are calling for the US and EU to enact sanctions against high-level members of the Yanukovych government. It is yet to be seen if this will be done and how influential it would actually be. I think it's a necessary step in the current process, particularly if it does not yield tangible results, Ukrainians will then realize that they themselves must step up the pressure.
And to a certain degree they have. Video and photo technology has given the people a new weapon. By videotaping police brutality and using photography to identify specific policemen, the people are holding individuals accountable for actions where the state has failed to do so. This also works against media censorship as the power of live video streaming on the internet has made sure no events happen in secret.

Civil activists have also begun to organize themselves and develop new pressure points. Computer programmers have organized a "Hackathon" a marathon collaborative programming session where programmers develop new software that would assist communication amongst the Maidan movement and society in general.

The Democratic Alliance party has put together a multi task initiative that would apply economic pressure on the government and businesses that support it, as well as an informational campaign to educate people to stop supporting Yanukovych. If implemented on a large scale I believe it would be quite effective.

Maidan Civic Council is trying out a system based on a horizontal power structure, where representatives selected by each specific group represent different factions of society. This is a structure that would organize from the bottom up rather then top down, so no current politicians are welcomed in this organization, as the the Council does not want to be leveraged for political PR, but remain an authentic voice of the people.

However, the question remains can Ukrainians successfully organize this way? Ukrainians have a history of shooting themselves in the foot by prioritizing personal ambitions over collective goals. A popular Ukrainian joke illustrates how difficult it is for Ukrainians to reach political compromise: Among any three Ukrainians there are two hetmans (old Cossack chief) and one defector.

Maidan is about more then just changing the president, it's finding a way to change the system. Perhaps Maidan itself is a laboratory in finding a structure as to how Ukrainians can most effectively organize themselves. It doesn't necessarily have to be directly modeled after American or European democracies, but perhaps even something new. Even if the physical Maidan fortress gets removed, the mobilization of processes towards a regime change in next year's presidential election is already well under way, and Euro-Maidan has indeed played the role of sparking these movements into physical and collective being. The opposition has a year in which they should focus their energy not just on calling for new elections, but proposing a concrete strategy and plan for Ukraine to move forward in dealing with its' current problems. If Ukrainian citizens really want these changes, they should not rely on sanctions from the west to make them actual, but decide for themselves to fight back.

With the draconian new laws recently passed in Ukrainian Parliament that strip away basic human rights to voice any sort of opposition, it is clear Yanukovych and his cronies have no plans to give up power and are planning to establish a dictatorial state. Will Ukrainians be willing to physically remove Yanukovych's regime to regain control of their government? If they can learn from the mistakes of the Orange leaders and have enough discipline to unify and keep their personal expectations realistic, I believe one way or another this movement and the changes it seeks are inevitable. It's just a question of how long, one year or another generation?