by Volodymyr Lysenko
Nine years ago, when the pro-democratic Orange Revolution in Ukraine was victorious, Ukrainians had high hopes for positive change in all areas of their lives and brighter futures for their children. But, unfortunately, the new leaders of the country were unable to effectively coordinate their liberal efforts and failed to fulfill the main promises they made. Among those promises was modernization of the Soviet-style Ukrainian economy and legal prosecution of the major criminals who had amassed huge fortunes — worth of billions dollars — through raiding businesses and industries, as well as other illegal activities. Political lustration of the main figures of the previous non-democratic regime fell by the wayside. At the same time, Russia increased its pressure on the country in all sectors, and the global economic crisis of 2008-2009 wreaked further havoc on the Ukrainian economy. As a result of these adverse conditions, the Orange forces lost the 2010 national elections to the pro-Russian revanchists, led by Viktor Yanukovych, who had previously been defeated in the 2004 revolution.
After their return to power in 2010, the old-new authorities of Ukraine signed a treaty with Russia, prolonging the lease of the naval base in Crimea to Russia for the next 25 years. Major Russian investments were promised in return, but the general economic situation in Ukraine only continued to deteriorate. At the same time, according to Transparency International, corruption in Ukraine became enormous, putting it in the last place in Europe and positioning it 144th out of 177 countries surveyed globally — right between Guinea and Papua New Guinea. It is no surprise that during the last three and a half years of Yanukovych’s presidency, the fortunes of his family members and close friends rose multifold, reaching from hundreds of millions to tens of billions of dollars, while ordinary Ukrainians suffered more and more. It was only a matter of time before a new protest movement would emerge — only a trigger event was needed to set it off. Ironically, that trigger happened on the anniversary of the Orange Revolution.
Several months ago, in March 2013, Ukrainian authorities announced serious intentions to sign the Association Agreement with the European Union on Nov. 28. The people of Ukraine met this news with a great hope, since the Agreement would mean introduction of European standards in many areas of Ukrainian life. Under constant control from the EU structures, this would guarantee eventual improvement in the lives of ordinary people. But just one week before the ceremony, on Nov. 21, the Ukrainian government canceled the signing, mentioning that it would worsen relations with Russia. Suspension of the Agreement became the trigger for the major protest events in many places in Ukraine. The people, especially the younger generations, feel that the current authorities are stealing their future.
Despite an information blockade of the leading Ukrainian mass media (which is controlled by structures close to the authorities), protesters have been using various offline and online tools, including, but not limited to, blogs, Twitter and Facebook to spread the word. They were able to increase their numbers on the streets of Kyiv from several hundred in the evening of Thursday, Nov. 21, to a couple hundred thousand at the rally on Sunday, Nov. 24. Around the clock peaceful protests in the center of Kyiv continued, but the authorities provided little positive feedback to them, assuming that the people would not be committed, would soon tire, that their numbers would decrease, and — if the remaining several hundred protesters would be dispersed — it would not induce bigger protests. They miscalculated.
At 4 a.m. on Nov. 30, riot police carried out a brutal crackdown on the remaining protesters. Alternative media sources broadcasted horrible videos of the action, recorded by regular and citizen journalists, and distributed worldwide. More and more citizens began to realize that the incumbent authorities would do anything to stay in power, and that the next victim of their despotism could be anyone. If before Nov. 29 some people still hoped for a miracle and that Yanukovych would sign the EU Association Agreement, now all those expectations dissolved. The very next day, Sunday, Dec. 1, a powerful protest rally of around 700,000 covered the center of Kyiv. This time, the protesters decided to establish a permanent tent city on Independence Square, similar to what was done during the Orange Revolution, and to send groups of activists to picket the main government buildings nearby — the Presidential Administration, Cabinet of Ministers and Parliament.
But while such tactics worked smoothly during the Orange Revolution when the authorities were relatively weak and the outgoing president did not have much reasons to resist the people’s pressure, this time the protesters face a regime in its first presidential term, still hoping to be re-elected in 2015. This regime believes that everything is still under its control — most significantly, the riot police, internal troops and secret service. Accordingly, on Tuesday, Dec. 3, the pro-Yanukovych majority in the parliament rejected even the opposition’s smallest demand — dismissal of the Cabinet of Ministers. Moreover, that day Yanukovych demonstratively left the country to visit China and Russia. In the meantime, the authorities arrested several activists and threatened others. Finally, on Friday, Dec. 6, Yanukovych met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Sochi, where he allegedly agreed that Ukraine would join the Russia-led Customs Union. Such a treaty would seriously impede the people’s aspiration to commit to the EU Association Agreement.
Correspondingly, opposition leaders immediately condemned destructiveness of Yanukovych’s actions and called for a larger protest rally on Sunday, Dec. 8. Even more protesters gathered in the capital, reaching up to one million people. Some sources state that even the Orange Revolution’s rallies never reached such magnitude. This time the protesters modified the old Orange Revolution’s tactics by installing permanent tent cities, barricades and fences not only on the Independence Square, but also at all the main administrative buildings in Kyiv to securely block them. They promise steady expansion of the blockade if the regime will not yield to their demands.
It appears that the opposition has enough resources to continue the peaceful pressure and blocking of critical infrastructures of the regime — communication, mass media, transportation, coordination and management – and force concessions from the government including the surrender/defection of key figures. Once triumphant, the opposition needs to avoid the mistakes of the Orange Revolution leaders. It should continue acting together toward fulfilling some of the main conditions for long-term success: political lustrations of the leading actors of the non-democratic regime, legal prosecution of its criminal sponsors/beneficiaries, and, most importantly, deep structural modernization of the Ukrainian economy and governance. Only in such a way will democracy in Ukraine become truly consolidated, self-sustainable and irreversible.
Dr. Volodymy Lysenko is a research scientist and lecturer at the UW Information School and Ellison Center faculty member. He will be teaching JSIS 489C/JSIS 589 “Cyber- and information security in Russia and the post-Soviet space” in the winter quarter.