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Repeating the Past: Is EuroMaidan the New Orange, or Something Else?

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On November 21, 2013, Ukrainian journalist Mustafa Nayeem posted on Facebook a call to Ukrainians to come to Maidan Nezalezhnosti to protest Yanukovych ending trade agreement negotiations with the European Union. The significance of the timing was not lost on Nayeem, who, like many in Kyiv, remembers the first tents going up on the square November 22, 2004 at the beginning of the Orange Revolution. EuroMaidan and the Orange Revolution both had catalyzing events that brought people to the streets, an abandoned trade agreement and a falsified election, respectively, but both were and are indicative of deeper frustrations of Ukrainian citizens, many that are the same even nine years later.

While I never doubted the potential for powerful demonstrations in Kyiv after the Orange Revolution, I did not expect EuroMaidan, now in its sixth week, to go in all of the directions it has gone. Hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians have gone to Kyiv's Maidan Nezalezhnosti and thousands more have held solidarity protests around the world. Following attacks by police, protestors have consistently redoubled their efforts. After a long clash with Berkut in early December, protestors built new barricades around Maidan with bags of snow and anything they could find -- some barricades were then drenched in water, which quickly froze into walls of ice -- while veterans of the Soviet war in Afghanistan were serving as a citizens police force. EuroMaidan has received immense support from the international community, including a relatively strong condemnation from U.S. Secretary of State, John Kerry, and a visit from U.S. Senators, John McCain and Chris Murphy. Organizers have turned the square into a commune of sorts with food, housing, trash removal, systems for requesting and allocating resources, and even a tech center.

Through all the successes of EuroMaidan, the government seems to have become more targeted in its intimidation and aggression in recent weeks. Democratic structures in Ukraine have been eroding for several years now, but there has generally been less interference in civil society and press. Following reports of 36 blacklisted activists and academics, raids of opposition media offices, a number of physical attacks and intimidation of activists, and a brutal attack of civic activist and journalist, Tetyana Chornovol, the desperation of the government to regain control is increasingly evident.

Although a number of the blacklisted individuals have been involved in successful nonviolent social movements abroad, the Chornovol case is perhaps the most blatant attack on Ukrainian civil society. The journalist's car was blocked on a road outside Kyiv on December 25 by a group of men in an SUV who then pulled Chornovol from her vehicle and beat her to the point of requiring hospitalization and surgery. Many believe Chornovol was targeted because of her reporting on corruption and, specifically, the building of a luxurious residence in a village south of Kyiv for Vitaliy Zakharchenko, Ukraine's Minister of Internal Affairs and a friend of Viktor Yanukovych's son. Chornovol has published a number articles on government corruption in Українська Правда (Ukrainska Pravda) and other media outlets, with her most recent post on December 24 including photos of the residence under construction and descriptions of a helipad, hangar, and security around the estate. While Yanukovych condemned the attack and requested an investigation (two have been arrested), the opposition asserts the government's involvement in the event and the attack has renewed the recently waning international attention on the protests, brought thousands of people to Maidan again for a protest called "Solidarity Against Terror," and sent an autorally to Yanukovych's residence outside Kyiv on December 29.

One of the fundamental rules of successful social movements is to diversify the base and continually recruit members. Stagnation of social movements occurs through a variety of reasons including failure to achieve goals, but also through minor government concessions. Such minor concessions bring apathy through assuaging the demands of more moderate allies who often make up a significant portion of social movements. What keeps these allies and recruits new supporters in semi-democratic systems like Ukraine, however, is the attack of innocent people by the government. A fragmented civil society becomes incredibly cohesive and motivated, while the government is often domestically disrupted and internationally condemned. Rather than following Putin's strategy for dealing with social unrest, Yanukovych could have slowed EuroMaidan protests and weakened their size -- at least temporarily -- by ensuring no force was used against protestors. (He could have also avoided such obvious blunders as hiring fake supporters and not paying them, but most have come to expect as much from Yanukovych.) Instead, he has consistently made it easier to motivate people to come to Maidan in the freezing cold. Ukraine has an extremely active civil society, a successful democratic social movement in very recent memory, and an infrastructure to support the organizing of massive protests. Yanukovych's Ukraine is not Putin's Russia, as much as Yanukovych pretends it is.

Where does this leave the state of Ukrainian politics? So long as the government uses aggression and refuses to make concessions, and so long as access to Internet and media websites like hromadske.tv and Українська Правда exist, there will be people to vocally support the goals EuroMaidan. The scale of the encampment on Maidan may rise and fall, the demands may be modified, but Yanukovych will not have the support he needs to be re-elected democratically and faces a new, popular, united opposition through the remainder of his term.

Though it is cliche to say that history repeats itself, I believe that it may be doing so in Ukrainian politics. EuroMaidan is often compared to the Orange Revolution, but those protests were not born from thin air and orange ribbons. Yanukovych would do well to skim Ukrainian political history from the early 2000s and remember that the organizing that led to the massive protests of 2004 was born through a smaller movement called Ukraine Without Kuchma. If the Ukrainian political system continue the way it has, it is believable that EuroMaidan could be the seed for something even larger. And if the political opposition uses the hard-earned wisdom of their predecessors, Yanukovych has good reason to be afraid.