Ukraine’s Revolution – thoughts on New Year’s Eve

Jan 1st, 2014 | By | Category: Civil Society, Events, In Depth, News, Politics, Protests, Ukraine

As many readers have noticed, I’ve had a pause in my notes. Excuses like sickness and being tied up with year-end obligations are just that – excuses. The reality is that for the first time in a while, last week I experienced writer’s block. Now I have a problem: too much to say, and not enough time and space to say it in any concise way. More accurately, in an environment where news events are broadcast globally in real time (e.g. Tanya Chornovol’s beating, Sunday’s demonstration at Yanukovych’s residence, and at the residences of other high-ranking government officials, today’s impromptu press conference by Rinat Akhmetov in Donetsk), I am of the impression that readers expect academic analysis from me, rather than feeble attempts to better Ukraine’s excellent journalists at their own trade (commenting on the Orange Revolution was so much easier – no Facebook then, and a lot fewer English-speaking journalists in Ukraine in 2004)

So here goes my latest attempt at analysis: sit back and enjoy either prior to, or the morning after your glass of New Year’s eve champagne.  Incidentally, in case you decide not to read any further: please raise a glass to Ukraine at some point during this holiday season – we could use your prayers and well wishes in 2014.

Let’s start with a response to many (both in the West and Ukraine) who would call for swifter and more “radical” action from the Euromaidan demonstrators. First of all, we need to realize that any radical resolution to the stand-off between the protestors and Ukraine’s current regime, inevitably would have resulted (and will result if tried in the future) in bloodshed on a massive scale, and probably a break-up of the country. If evidence of this is needed, I remind readers that according to opinion polls taken last week (almost a month after the start of the Euromaidan protests), Viktor Yanukovych remains the single most popular politician in Ukraine with a base of support concentrated primarily in the eastern and southern regions of the country, that amounts to a national support level of 20%. If a run-off election between Yanukovych and any one of the possible opposition candidates were held this week, the President would lose, but in a first round, with multiple candidates standing, he would likely emerge the winner. If Yanukovych were to be removed from office by force (e.g. in a revolutionary event), every fifth Ukrainian would likely feel cheated, outraged, and violated. Inevitably, given the concentration of Yanukovych supporters in the east of the country, any radical resolution to the current stand-off would lead to a call for Russian military intervention across the border – Syria/Lybia here we come!

Another “radical” solution called for by many (including jailed former Prime Minister Tymoshenko) involves delegitimizing the Yanukovych regime by proclaiming an alternative government. One should realize however that such a government will not and cannot be recognized or supported by any foreign power. As former Polish President Kwasniewski pointed out about a month ago, whether we like it or not, Viktor Yanukovych is the legitimately elected President of Ukraine, and that fact is not going to change until March 2015. Clearly that is a very bitter fact that many (including me) would rather not accept. But according to international law and accepted practice in democratic and civilized countries, only elections can lead to a legitimate change of government. Now, if an election result is deemed to be falsified, and therefore is not recognized by the international community, the game changes. For those who are not yet aware, the next Presidential election in Ukraine is scheduled for March 2015…

Given these two constraining factors, the Euromaidan protestors have dug in for the long haul. The task at hand is to spread the values of the Maidan beyond Ukraine’s capital, and to prepare capacity that will ensure a free and fair vote in March 2015. Clearly, this task requires some form of organizational structure that is of a national scale. Furthermore, given the skepticism towards established political parties (including the opposition) present among the demonstrators, this organization cannot be a new political party. This organization has now been formed, and has now become the brunt of both criticism and deep analysis. I’ll contribute my own thoughts to the latter effort here.

More than a week has passed since the December 22 announcement of the creation of something called the “Popular Assembly ‘Maidan’”, or “NOM” (Narodne Obyednannia “Maidan”). The announcement came during the now regular Sunday mass demonstration on Independence Square, and was voiced by former Tymoshenko-right-hand Oleksandr Turchynov – a fact that itself caused significant controversy because a supposedly non-political organization was proclaimed by a very political figure… Since that first false start, the NOM has been gradually renamed (without fanfare) into the “All-Ukrainian Assembly “Maidan” (Vse-ukrayinske obyednannia “Maidan”), but whatever you call it, the controversy does not seem to be fading.  Facebook is buzzing, journalists are commenting on television and radio, and spontaneous discussions on Kyiv’s public transport all seem to be focused on one single issue: what is this organization, and will it survive?

The NOM was proclaimed from the stage on Independence Square as having two governing bodies: a Council of 32 individuals, and 7 co-leaders. Specifically, Serhiy Kvit (President of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy), Yuriy Lutsenko (former Interior Minister under Yushchenko and then political prisoner under Yanukovych), Yulia Tymoshenko (former Prime Minister, and currently in jail), Vitaliy Klitschko (leader of the Udar Party), Oleh Tiahnybok (leader of the Svoboda Party), Arseniy Yatseniuk (leader of the Batkivshchyna party), and Ruslana Lezhychko (popular singer, and hero of the Euromaidan) were the announced co-leaders of NOM as of December 22.

However, less than one day after its proclamation, the NOM seemingly began to fall apart.  Civic activists Yegor Sobolev and Iryna Karpa, proclaimed from the stage on Independence Square on Sunday to be members of the NOM Council, both declared on Monday that they found out about their inclusion in the council from this very announcement. That day, Ruslana announced on her Facebook page that she was resigning from the post of co-leader because she does not feel comfortable in the company of political leaders: “I am not a politician” she wrote. Several days later, the “co-leadership” governing body was disbanded, and the Council was increased to over 40 people with more “non-political” actors included – supposedly in an effort to dilute the influence of political parties on the NOM. However, reports of attempts by opposition politicians (e.g. Svoboda in Lviv) trying to hijack the NOM for their own purposes continue to be hotly debated. Clearly this is not the way to form a viable civil society organization. But is a civil society organization really what the NOM is?

“Civil society” is a term used by social scientists to denote the countless nongovernmental organizations that exist in democratic societies as mechanisms through which citizens are able to both express their views and bond as solidary groups. The term originates with Alexis de Tocqueville’s early 19th century descriptions of “Democracy in America” in which he praised the spontaneous urge of Americans to band together into organizations according to mutual interests, and in this way to control the actions of their government. Later in the 20th century, Robert Putnam voiced concern that the “social capital” that had made US society truly democratic (i.e. controlled by civil society) had gradually been eroded by an activist state, immigration, and Fordist labor arrangements which had resulted in Americans losing their previous propensity to spontaneously coalesce into civic organizations to resort to “bowling alone”.

Whatever the degree of accuracy of these descriptions of American society, the emergence of a vibrant “third sector” (i.e. autonomous from both the state and the economy) is seen by many political scientists as a necessary and sufficient requirement for the development of democracy. The romanticized US model has become a powerful “beacon” for many grassroots activists engaged in peaceful protest against repressive regimes throughout the world: just as the American revolutionaries were once able to band together to overthrow the British yoke, so too can others vanquish their own oppressors if solidarity can be built by citizens from the ground up.

To many proponents of the Euromaidan protests in Ukraine – particularly those who have become skeptical not only of the Yanukovych regime, but also of the leadership of the country’s opposition parties – the spontaneously organized protests on Independence Square are viewed as a focal point for the development of a new civil society in Ukraine. However, the NOM is not a civil society organization: it is clearly created with a political goal. Solidarity in/with the NOM is not based on a desire to engage in recreational and/or programmatic activities during one’s spare time (i.e. in a Habermasian sphere of activity that is autonomous from the state or the economy). Ironically, the NOM is a political force that refuses to be a political party. More importantly (in my opinion), the NOM is a focal point for an identity revolution, and a mechanism for building institutional trust in a society where trust in social institutions has been decimated.

Let me touch upon the issue of identity first. Whatever the outcome of current events in Ukraine, I have a deep desire to avoid the feeling of outrage that I felt in 2008, when I read the reflections of my former PhD supervisor, David Lane, who argued that the Orange Revolution was in fact not a “revolution” at all, but a “revolutionary coup”. In retrospect he may have had a point: although the economic model was tweaked (from dirigiste support for strategic producers to consumption-based Anglo-American style capitalism), political leaders’ faces changed, and even the Constitution was rewritten (it was then changed back to its 1996 version in 2010 by the Yanukovych controlled Constitutional Court), but the fundamental social fabric of the country emerged from the events of 2004 transformed only minimally. This time is different: Ukraine’s society is emerging as just that – Ukrainian.

NB: Ukraine is a European country, so the revolution continues to be “about Europe”, but I cannot remember the last time I heard “Ode to Joy” (the EU anthem) on Independence Square, whereas the Ukrainian national anthem is sung regularly. Although we can continue to call the protest the “Euromaidan”, fundamentally this is a “Ukrainian revolution”.

In a previous post I have called the social processes that I am privileged to be witnessing, the “birth of a nation” (following K. Gorchinskaya), but now I realize that Ukraine’s ongoing social revolution is much more complex. This is not the birth of a collective. Rather, it is a fundamental transformation of each individual Ukrainian, followed by his/her voluntary entry into a community of like others. That may sound like a spiritual process (and to many it feels as such), but in essence we are talking about a deeply intellectual/reflexive process that touches the identity of every Ukrainian.

To illustrate my point, I’ll quote respected Russian-speaking journalist Sonya Koshkina’s December 22 Facebook status post:  “More and more, I feel an internal need to speak Ukrainian. I stress – an internal need. I guess this is my own personal revolution. PS (continued in Russian): I haven’t crossed the line yet, but I’m getting close. And that’s a fact.” Speaking Ukrainian is not necessarily the defining characteristic of being Ukrainian, but it certainly is an important attribute. And in my opinion, Sonya’s “personal revolution” is just what many in Ukraine (particularly in the central regions of the country, and increasingly in the east and south) are experiencing: a revolutionary definition of “I” followed by a realization that many others identify with the same fundamental values of “I” – and therefore the formation of a coalesced and very powerful “WE”. For those who have “crossed the line” that Sonya refers to, the NOM is a focal point.

The depth of the personal revolution that Ukrainians are experiencing, and its uniqueness as a social phenomenon, needs further explanation. Whereas identity in Ukraine once followed a process of “we” defining “I”, the process seems to have now (finally?) been reversed. During the Soviet period, and during the pre-industrial epochs that preceded it, a resident of this country would self-identify based on his/her ethnic group, social status, gender, or some other communal attribute. In other words, historically, a Ukrainian’s self-identity was corollary to his/her social identity. Outside Ukraine, the “we-defines-I” formula, in my opinion, was the basis for solidarity in Diaspora organizations which banded together because of a desire to interact with others of the same community. Certainly in my own case, I remember membership in a Ukrainian diaspora community becoming a mechanism both for self-identification, and identification by others of my person: “Mychailo-he’s-Ukrainian”.

In an environment where civil society is well established, the “we-defines-I” formula simplifies cognitive processes: “self” is defined in terms of an existing group that in turn proclaims a particular value set that the subject can accept (or not). Whether the values of the group exist prior to its members identifying with them is to some extent a chicken-egg argument. Whatever the first cause of the multiplicity of group values, the reality of self-identification in a functioning civil society is closer to making a choice on a menu than to constructing identity ex nihilo.

For this reason (and for many others), “Maidan” is not a civil society phenomenon. Here the formula (for the moment at least) reads “I-defines-We”. In other words, what we are witnessing in Ukraine is truly a society “in statu nascenti”, when individuals/persons seem to be soul searching en masse as to their individual self-identifications and values, and then, having realized that the result of this introspection as to the essence of “I” is not so distant from the “I” of their neighbor, they feel a need to come together as “we”. In Durkheimian terms, their solidarity transforms from mechanical (a taken for granted “we”), to an organic solidarity – although not founded (as the classical sociologist had predicted) on the division of labor and specialization, but rather on a reflexive process of commitment to a community of values – call them “European” if you like.

The Euromaidan has been compared to a religious sect, and indeed, to an outsider it may seem to have spiritual attributes. The fact that its activists/participants/followers have undergone a process of introspection, reflection, and purposeful decision-making as to their own citizenship, and have found others (MANY others) who have undergone the same process, makes this movement truly unstoppable. At this point, regime change is a question of time. A revolution has already occurred in the hearts and minds of a very large portion of Ukraine’s population – primarily in the west and center of the country. And the identity revolution continues to spread eastward with the NOM as a focal point of this movement.

The NOM continues to be a controversial organization – partly because it has few precedents and therefore is easily misunderstood, and partly because it is a very real threat to those who would have Ukraine’s ongoing social revolution fail and therefore it is their prime target. Formally, the NOM is a unifying body that is supposed to represent the voice of those protestors still camped on Kyiv’s Independence Square, and to coordinate their demands and activities with Ukraine’s numerous real civil society organizations and opposition political parties. Coordinating and unifying such diverse groups is very difficult indeed. Substantively however, the NOM has a much more important function: to organize those who feel the need to express their new Ukrainian identity; to feel pride in being Ukrainian; to enjoin others in a common expression of dignified citizenship. For the moment, the Ukrainian state cannot be the focal point of such identity expression because it is led by an individual whose own values are antithetical to the new Ukrainian “I/We”.

For the moment the Maidan is Ukraine. And this temporary condition will (un)fortunately continue until mid-2015 when the revolution will be come fully legitimized and final. That means 2014 will be difficult: hopefully peaceful, full of protests and hard work harassing Ukraine’s regime. But on the bright side, we have a whole year to spread Ukraine’s revolution to every heart and mind throughout the country! A Happy New Year it will be!

God help us

Mychailo Wynnyckyj PhD

Kyiv-Mohyla Academy

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