Ukraine’s Revolution – Sunday December 8, 2013

Dec 9th, 2013 | By | Category: Civil Society, Diaspora, Editor's Choice, Freedom of Assembly, News, Politics, Ukraine, Ukrainians Worldwide

Given the overwhelmingly positive reaction to the destruction of the statue of Lenin in Kyiv today that I have been reading on Facebook, I realize that this note may not be received well by all. My thoughts may be particularly controversial to friends from outside Ukraine. Before I get into details, let me state outright: I am NOT a fan of Lenin. I have always seen the presence of a Lenin monument in Kyiv (the city that I have called home for 12 years) as an insult to the memory of my grandfather who spent almost a decade in a labor camp in Siberia, and to my wife’s grandfather who lived through a similar sentence for “anti-Soviet activities”. Nevertheless, I am convinced that demolishing the statue TONIGHT was the wrong thing to do.

At 1pm today, when my family and I arrived at Kyiv’s Independence Square, we were part of a crowd that was unprecedented in this country’s history. There were more people on the streets today than last week, and more than we ever saw during the Orange Revolution. Estimates of numbers range from 500 000 to 1 million – in reality no one can really tell.

Whereas last week (in my opinion) people were guided primarily by their emotional reaction to the Nov 30 beatings of students on Independence Square, today, people came motivated by a rational desire to be part of a revolutionary change. Last week, after most people dispersed from the day’s demonstrations, the night turned very ugly: first provocateurs attacked the police barricades in front of the Presidential Administration, and then the “Berkut” riot police reacted by beating everyone in their path (including journalists). This week, after the massive influx of people to Independence Square began to clear, again things got out of hand, with the Lenin statue bearing the brunt of the crowd’s anger.

I don’t know the identities or allegiances of the provocateurs that orchestrated the demolition of the Lenin monument tonight. Svoboda activists are claiming responsibility, but the fact that police stood by and watched as the monument was destroyed is suspect. One thing I am sure of is that this event will be used by the Yanukovych regime as an excuse to strengthen police presence in Ukraine’s capital (if not to order forceful removal of demonstrators from the city center). Certainly, the video footage of the destruction of Lenin will be broadcast extensively by TV channels loyal to the regime in eastern and southern Ukraine (where Lenin is still considered an honorific historical figure) with ample Russian-language commentary as to the “neo-fascist” nature of the Euromaidan, and its “hooligans”.

During the past week, I have read countless notes and messages from friends in the West (and from Ukrainians also) calling for “action” from the Ukrainian people. Clearly the demolition of Lenin will be welcomed by these “armchair quarterbacks” as a commendable example of such action. I guess in this mindset, other monuments should be demolished next. I have only one rhetorical question to ask in this context: how many monuments will need to be demolished in order to force Yanukovych to resign? Demolishing statues is not what this revolution is about: it is about regime change in the context of a national declaration of Ukrainians’ desire to be part of a European identity and community of values. In this context, Lenin is irrelevant – removing his statue should be one of the tasks of a new government, but not of vandals disguising themselves as “revolutionaries”.

Lenin is a very strongly negative symbol for many in Ukraine (particularly in the West), but Lenin is also a part of the identity for another large section of the population in the eastern regions. Removing the statue of Lenin in Kyiv in an act of vandalism will only lead to national disunity – at a time when what is needed is the opposite: greater unity throughout the country. This was Lutsenko’s message from the stage today at the peak of the demonstration. I am convinced that other leaders of Ukraine’s political opposition understand the importance of national unity also. However, old ideologies sometimes may lead them to forget that they are being watched by the entire nation, and not just their own constituencies: at tonight’s press conference, while Klitschko was adamantly proclaiming that no political decisions had been taken to demolish the Lenin statue, Svoboda leader Tiahnybok found it very difficult to contain his elation.

When Yatseniuk took the microphone he first joked about Lenin (brushing off the event), and then proclaimed his main message: Yanukovych is preparing the legal basis for a declaration of a state of emergency (i.e. legal suspension of all civil liberties, and enforcement of curfews through martial law). According to Ukrainian law, a state of emergency can be declared in a particular region or part of the country for a period of 60 days, and nationally for 30 days. These time periods may be extended for 30 days if deemed necessary by the President. In order to proclaim a state of emergency due to civil unrest, the President must provide a warning to protesters, and ask them to disperse peacefully. Simultaneously, he must table a bill in Parliament asking for confirmation by the legislature of his intention to declare a state of emergency, and this bill must be voted on within 2 days. Clearly, under present circumstances, the opposition will attempt to block any such vote, but given the now assured (after the Lenin statue incident) support of the Communist Party, it is unlikely that Yanukovych’s Party of Regions would have trouble gaining majority support for the President’s request.

Today, Yatseniuk was clear: if a state of emergency is declared, ALL supporters of the revolution from all areas of Ukraine should descend upon Kyiv. Clearly such a massive influx of people would be difficult to control, but it would certainly constitute a real popular revolution that the opposition hopes would simply sweep away Yanukovych. I have little doubt that such mass movement of people on Ukraine’s capital would be met with bloody force, and would quickly degenerate into chaos.

A more likely scenario (if Yanukovych resists the temptation to resort to mass violence) is an attempt to resolve the current political crisis through negotiation. Last week, EU and OSCE leaders called for “round table” discussions, and today, several commentators have suggested that such negotiations could be organized by one (or all three) of Ukraine’s past Presidents. Clearly negotiations represent a civilized way out of the current crisis, but there is a problem: who should represent the Euromaidan? Vitaliy Klytschko, Arseniy Yatseniuk, and Oleh Tiahnybok are leaders of three Parliamentary opposition parties, but they are certainly not considered to be the legitimate leaders of the protest movement by the protestors themselves. In fact, when the first protests began 2 weeks ago, students insisted that no political flags be present at their protest, and several politicians were denied opportunities to speak at their rallies. Negative attitudes to opposition politicians have softened somewhat during the past week, but none of the three party leaders has yet emerged as the voice of the Euromaidan. Nor has anyone else.

The other problem with the “round table” scenario is the lack of basis for negotiations. The Euromaidan protestors are calling for the President’s resignation; legally this can only be achieved either voluntarily (according to the Constitution, a Presidential resignation must be personally proclaimed in Parliament) or through death; both variants are very unlikely. A “round table” negotiation with the regime might result in the arrest of Interior Minister Zakharchenko, the resignation of the government of Prime Minister Azarov, and even the freeing of political prisoners (certainly demonstrators arrested after the beatings on Dec 1 will be freed, but whether Yulia Tymoshenko will be released is still questionable), but it will certainly not result in Yanukovych’s resignation. Will the protestors on Euromaidan accept such a compromise?

As was poignantly pointed out by one television reporter tonight: it is one thing to step forward as a leader of the Euromaidan, and quite another matter to gain control (respect, obedience) of the people gathered there. The Euromaidan itself is now an independent actor in Ukraine’s revolution, and its radical wings are not necessarily controlled or led by Ukraine’s thee-headed political opposition. That is a political factor that needs to be taken into account when looking at how the current crisis will end.

The scenario according to which the current crisis is most likely to unfold, in my opinion, is one of long-term stand off. Both sides will try to gain some advantage during the coming weeks (months?), but the crisis will continue as a war of attrition. Short-term gains by Euromaidan protestors may include temporarily blocking some government buildings (in addition to the Cabinet of Ministers and Presidential Administration), and even an attempt to picket the Mezhyhiriya residence of President Yanukovych 17 km from the city center (this initiative was announced today as the next step in the protestors’ escalation plans, but it is unlikely that any such march will break through the multiple barriers of armed interior ministry troops along the way). The regime may try to clear the demonstrators from the Cabinet of Ministers’ building (the road in front of the building – a main traffic artery through the center of the city – was blocked tonight), but this will only increase the resolve of protestors on Independence Square. Whether the would-be revolutionaries will be able to survive in tents in Kyiv’s severe winter weather, and whether the government will be able to maintain some semblance of operations with its main buildings blocked are both open questions.

Actually I am quite optimistic about the “stand-off” scenario because I’m convinced that this war of attrition is one that the regime will lose – although exactly how the loss will come is still unsure. The Euromaidan has logistical operations fully established; the stage is host to great musicians and speakers; greater numbers are gathering each week, and the atmosphere could not be more positive. Yesterday I was invited to give a lecture at something called the “Euromaidan University” – an initiative aimed at adding some intellectual content to the protests. Clearly we are in this for the long haul…

On the other hand, the government is noticeably in crisis. It must manage an economy with a state budget that is bare. Its support in Ukraine’s capital is now in the single digits, and the fact that many national television broadcasts (including the popular 1+1 channel) have been neutral or supportive of the Euromaidan protestors indicates that loss of support in the regions is sure to follow. At the moment, the resolve of Azarov (at least publicly) is unquestionable. Yanukovych’s mood after his return from China, and meetings with Putin in the Russian town of Sochi on the return leg, are unclear. The next few days will be telling…

God help us!

Mychailo Wynnyckyj PhD

Kyiv-Mohyla Academy

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