A muddy Ukrainian spring?

With the crisis escalating daily, in an article written before Yanukovych fled, Dave Green, Erith and Thamesmead CLP, looks behind the protests.

IN LATE 2013 a new social movement – Euromaidan – seemed to arise out of nowhere. The immediate cause was the Government’s unexpected reversal on EU integration, which brought to the surface long-simmering popular grievances. Joining forces with disaffected elements of the political and economic elite, protesters pressed for the resignation of President Yanukovych.

The large, mostly peaceful demonstrations turned violent in mid-January 2014. So far, the unrest has brought down the government of the ruling Party of Regions and now threatens to topple Yanukovych. It has greatly increased the risk of a financial crisis and has taken Ukraine to the brink of serious civil strife.

UkraineThe rallies, which peaked with attendances of 300,000-500,000 people, have been larger, and more enduring, even than those of the so-called Orange Revolution of 2004-05. They were triggered by the failure of the president to sign the long-planned EU agreement, but bolstered by a sneak attack by a special police unit on protesters in the dead of night. The president’s abrupt about-face on EU integration – which his party had been pushing for since at least 2008 – was prompted by the threat of economic punishment from Russia, aimed at damaging Yanukovych’s support base in the industrial east of the country. The Russian leader, Vladimir Putin, wants Ukraine to join his rival Eurasian Union, rather than pursue closer EU ties.

The outbreak of violence in January 2014 followed the passage through Parliament of repressive laws designed to clear by force the demonstrators’ camps on Independence Square – known as Maidan – in the centre of the capital, Kiev. The measures criminalised the tents and stages in public places; offered immunity to state security personnel for any crimes committed when policing the demonstrations; made it illegal to gather information on police and judges; and laid groundwork for control and censorship of the Internet. This led to street battles between ranks of heavily armoured riot police and demonstrators.

Two features of the protests have perplexed some western onlookers: the demonstrators’ militantly pro-EU position and the prominent role played by some far right groups.

The appeal of the EU to Ukrainian demonstrators is explained by its imagined contrast to their own society. Pervasive corruption stems from the gradual fusion of a weak state with the rapidly expanding networks of big business, often linked to organised crime, following the breakdown of the Soviet Union in 1991. Under Yanukovych, in power since 2010, shady practices have been extended and refined. Most obviously, the bulk of state contracts, privatisations and subsidies have gone to the vast business networks of the president’s two main backers and to his eldest son.

The promise of a more rule-bound state, which the development of closer EU ties represents, provided a unifying ideal for the protesters. Hence the apparent cautiousness of political demands: for a fresh presidential election and a return of key powers to the legislature. Hence also their stress on turning towards western Europe, and away from Russia, as a means of securing basic civic rights.

A second feature that has drawn the attention of the western press is the conspicuous role played by far-right groups in an otherwise moderate anti-corruption movement. The inaptly named Svoboda (Freedom), for example, the third largest opposition party in Parliament, espouses an extreme version of Ukrainian nationalism, with anti-Semitic and anti-Russian inflections. Such far right groups played an especially prominent role in the fighting with police and in the occupation of government buildings, both in Kiev and in provincial cities. But in a context where the Government has already used paramilitary-style tactics to try to crush the protests, and unleashed against them gangs of paid vigilantes, these groups have been viewed as necessary for protection, even by those in Euromaidan – the majority – who do not share their outlook.

In fact, support for Svoboda has fallen from 10% in the legislative election of October 2012 to below 6% in the latest opinion polls. Nonetheless, the importance of these groups could increase if the Government pursues a full-scale crackdown, which many suspect is scheduled once Russia’s Sochi Olympics are over. This presents a clear danger to the realisation of the core democratic demands of Euromaidan – not least as it would hobble any attempts to broaden the appeal of the Euromaidan movement in the Russian-speaking east and south of the country, where its support has been weakest so far.

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