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What does Ukraine’s #Euromaidan teach us about protest?

Ukrainians attended a mass meeting on Independence Square in Kiev on Wednesday. (EPA/Maxim Shipenkov)

Joshua Tucker: The following is a guest post by Oxford University political scientists Olga Onuch and Gwendolyn Sasse. They provide a very thorough overview of of the evolution of the #Euromaidan protests in Ukraine, as well as what these events can teach us about political protest more generally. A full list of guest posts from The Monkey Cage’s coverage of ongoing events in Ukraine can be found at the end of this post. 


Last week the Ukrainian protest movement known as EuroMaidan spiraled out of control and descended into violence. On Feb. 18, Berkut (riot police) used severe tactics to repress protesters. The violent storming of the Maidan protest camp in Kiev, left about 90 dead (many under the age of 25) and over 600 injured (from both sides of the barricades, but mostly protesters). Analysts and journalists have struggled to understand the protest cycle as it turned to violence and the rapid succession of events since.

Protests that involve “ordinary” citizens are rare and confusing events, in particular if they last for a long time like the Ukrainian protests that began in November. Protests evolve all the time, and one stage in the process critically shapes the next stage. The issues and events that trigger a protest may not be the same as the ones that sustain a protest movement or make it tip into violence. The Ukrainian protest cycle since November provides us with important insights into the often misunderstood dynamics of popular mobilization. It follows a number of patterns known from other cases of mobilization, but it also highlights some underexplored aspects and provides important correctives, not least to accounts of protests given by journalists and analysts “in the heat of the moment.” It also breaks with the model of “electoral revolutions” centered on rigged elections in “competitive authoritarian” regimes. Triggered by now-ousted Ukraine leader Viktor Yanukovych’s decision not to sign an Association Agreement with the European Union, the current protests started with a more intangible conglomerate of popular aspirations rather than a concrete event like an election that can be re-run. As a result, the nature of the demands stayed in flux and coalesced around the dismissal of the president without, however, fusing into a clear political alternative with majority support among the protesters and the political opposition.

Four aspects in particular make the Ukrainian protests interesting for the wider study of protest:

1) The profile of the protesters at different stages of the protest cycle (different types of protesters drifting in and out of the protests and the formation of a hard core sustaining the protest but remaining divided in itself with right-wing extremists involved in the violent incidents but not controlling the protests)

2) The prolonged disconnect between the protesters and the regime on the one hand and between the protesters and the political opposition in parliament on the other hand

3) The occurrence of (small-scale) protests in favor of the EuroMaidan in the most unlikely places for opposition mobilization in eastern cities of Ukraine

4) The important but ultimately subsidiary role of external actors in framing and catalyzing events

Political scientist Sidney Tarrow’s work on protest cycles (also known as cycles of contention or waves of collective action) provides a useful framework for understanding the political dynamics surrounding the EuroMaidan. According to Tarrow, the cycle begins with a rapid diffusion of mobilization as existing social movement organizations (SMOs) create political opportunities for “ordinary citizens to join in. This is followed by innovation and expansion in the forms of contention, as well as shifts in the collective action frames and the protest discourse. A further phase sees a coexistence of organized and unorganized civic engagement leading up to a period of heightened interaction between the party in power and the party in opposition. At each stage, the use of violent repertoires by activists or the party in power shifts the rules of the game.

Breaking down the EuroMaidan protest cycle into phases of mobilization and referencing who participated when and how (based on on-site surveys and rapid interviews collected as part of the Ukrainian Protest Project at the University of Oxford and NaUkMa, which was described in this Monkey Cage post in January) allows us to better contextualize the turn to violence.

The EuroMaidan Protest Cycle

Nov. 21-30: creating political opportunities for “ordinary” citizens to join in: Mobilization started on Nov. 21, after Yanukovych announced that he would not sign the Association Agreement with the EU. Between Nov. 21-23 local journalists, activists and students coordinated small protest events in Kiev’s Independence Square (Maidan Nezalezhnosty). Journalists and activists used online social media to inform and motivate citizens, and the #EuroMaidan was created. Yet it was not until political opposition leaders Vitali Klitchko, Arseniy Yatseniuk and Oleh Tiahnybok jointly coordinated a pro-EU march on Nov. 24 in Kiev (on the anniversary of the Great Famine and the Orange Revolution) that “ordinary” citizens joined the protests, which quickly grew to 100,000 to 250,000 people.  By now the central demands were “a better way of life” associated with “a European future for Ukraine.” “Ukraine is Europe” became the main slogan. The protesters split into two groups, one led by nonpartisan SMOs convening in the Maidan and the other led by political opposition groups in Evropeiska Ploshcha (European Square). Smaller but substantial protests took place in regional city centers across central and western Ukraine. The following week the protests shrank in size (2,000 to 35,000 in Kiev). As we see from our survey of protest participants, they were maintained by activists (with experience and networks from 2001 and 2004) and students, with some participation by other groups, such as middle-aged young professionals. The protests remained peaceful, included live concerts, and activists continued to reject partisan attempts at “co-optation.”

Nov. 30 – Jan. 16: shift in collective action frames and protest language: On Nov. 30, a small group of protesters (mostly students and journalists) were brutally beaten in a first raid by Berkut. This assault on unarmed peaceful protesters (including foreign journalists and women), went viral on social media outlets and galvanized the protesters. In rapid interviews protesters said that the protests were “not about Europe anymore,” but about “saving Ukrainian democracy” (Data: Ukrainian Protest Project). On Dec. 1, after a coordinated effort by opposition parties and the Civic Sector SMO, 500,000 to 800,000 people joined the protests in Kiev. Our surveys show that protesters were now made up of a cross-cleavage coalition of citizens. They represented three age groups (under 30, 30 to 55, and 55-plus), at least two religious cleavages (Catholic and Orthodox), and they included large numbers of Russophones (30 percent) and participants who had previously voted for Yanukovych (19 percent) and the Party of Regions (15 to 19 percent) (Data: Ukrainian Protest Project). Large protests were held in all western and central regional city centers, and hundreds of protesters (up to 2,000) gathered in Crimea, Odessa, Kharkiv, Kirovohrad, Sumy, Dnipropetrovsk, Donetsk, Zaporizhzhya and Poltava. Regime repression had provided activists with new frames and mobilization tools that facilitated mass mobilization.

From Nov. 30 onwards, activists explained in interviews that they were struggling to control (young male) protesters escalating violent and nationalist rhetoric.  Several key leaders of the Civic Sector expressed their concerns about having to collaborate with the extremist Pravyi Sektor (Right Sector) and the right-wing party Svoboda (authors’ interviews with Civic Sector members). These groups began coordinating teams of 100 to 200 armed individuals who walked around the city center wearing hard hats, holding bats and chanting nationalist slogans. Protests continued throughout the next month, with nightly gatherings in city centers. As our survey shows, each violent encounter between protesters and militia made the protests shrink in size, with women dropping out at a faster rate than men (data: Ukrainian Protest Project). In rapid interviews conducted at the end of December, protesters complained that the opposition was unable to achieve anything, and described a sense of growing desperation.

Jan. 16-27: innovation and expansion in the forms of contention: On Jan. 16, the regime and its Party of Regions parliamentarians voted in anti-protest laws that made all protest illegal. Protesters reacted by building barricades in the Maidan. On Jan. 19, the Berkut attacked the protesters at night. Between Jan. 19 and Jan. 24, at least three people died as a direct result of police action, and many were injured. This second wave of repression changed the composition of protest participants: They now included a strong majority of young males, and right-wing groups gained a foothold (authors’ interview with unnamed activist). The expansion to extreme violent repertoires, such as Molotov cocktails and the increasing use of nationalist symbols, marked a sharp break in Ukraine’s protest history from the Soviet dissidents through the transition period. The new forms of contention polarized Ukrainian citizens and encouraged the regime to employ so-called anti-terrorist measures. Radicalized protesters occupied government buildings in Kiev and other cities, including in some eastern regions. Facing increasing internal pressures from Party of Regions financiers, Prime Minister Mykola Azarov stepped down and offered the post to opposition leader Yatseniuk. The opposition declined the offer and demanded that Yanukovych resign. In an attempt to quell the diffusion of protests, the wave of repression subsided. The protests, continued; by this time Pravyi Sektor, the Svoboda Samo Oborona (Self-Defense) and retired Afghanistan veterans controlled most of the  front lines, leading to a further radicalization in the protest repertoires.

Jan. 27 -Feb. 20: coexistence of organized and unorganized civic engagement: Unhappy with what protesters described as the “opposition leaders’ inability and ineffectiveness to achieve the EuroMaidan’s aims,” the official opposition protest events were combined with autonomous citizen initiatives (see below for a list of Kiev-based Self-Defense Patrol Groups). Throughout the country (mostly in the center-west), citizens coordinated their own peaceful and direct-action protest events (such as defending medical clinics and donating items). Activists complained in interviews that they or the opposition could not control the protest movement. Hard-core protesters explained that they had “nothing left to lose,” and members of the Pravyi Sektor stated that they were “prepared to die as heroes for their country.” The baseline claim uniting all protesters was the removal of Yanukovych from power. When on Feb. 18 Berkut and special operations Alpha militia started another raid on protesters, this time using live ammunition, grenades and snipers, the worst-case scenario of a large-scale “civil war” (pitting the regime against the protesters) seemed inevitable to the activists and protest participants interviewed. The protesters felt that now they were “fighting for the fate [dolya] of their country.”

Facebook pages of People’s Defense Patrols in the districts of Kiev:

Holosiivskii district

Darnytsia district

Desnianskii district

People’s Defense Patrol of Dniprovskii district

People’s Defense Patrol of Obolon district

People’s Defense Patrol of Pecherskii district

Pecherskii district “Dozor”

Guard unit of Sviatoshynskii disctrict

Shevchenkivskii district “Dozor”

Feb. 20-22: heightened interaction between the party in power and opposition: The violence triggered two significant developments: the imposition of sanctions by the United States and European Union on individuals tied to the regime followed by an EU-brokered political agreement, and a rapidly increasing number of defections from the regime by oligarchs, Party of Regions parliamentarians and ministers, and the chiefs of the army and police forces. The political agreement of Feb. 21 proved too little too late. The protesters could not accept anything short of the president’s resignation. As the protesters booed the opposition party leaders as they spoke in the Maidan, the leaders of the Pravyi Sektor and Samo Oborona announced that they were giving Yanukovych an ultimatum to resign by 11 a.m. Saturday, Feb. 22. Yanukovych fled the capital before protesters took over the presidential administration and his private residence.

Feb. 22 – ongoing: rule by an uneasy alliance between the opposition and protesters: The direct interaction between the opposition, the protesters and the regime has ended. The whereabouts of Yanukovych are uncertain; the opposition and some defectors dominate parliament, which is trying to assert control over the events; police and security have abandoned their positions; regional elites from the east and south are gathered in Kharkiv talking about autonomy; and protesters remain in Kiev, as well as central and western cities, and have moved to eastern regions to keep up the momentum. Activists have begun investigations into the previous regime and have begun archiving incriminating documents found on Yanukovych’s property.  In interviews the current protesters have expressed a sense of dissatisfaction and fear that the opposition in parliament will fail to represent them appropriately.


The Ukrainian protest cycle has followed the general pattern outlined by Sidney Tarrow. But it also points to two important dynamics that are not sufficiently captured by this model: the diversity of the protesters and fluidity with which they join and leave different stages of the protest and the significant disconnect between the protesters as a whole and the political opposition. The former cautions us against singling out any one type of protest actor as a causal force behind the events, while the latter makes it likely that instability and incidents of violence will continue.

Here’s the complete list of our recent posts on Ukraine:

Why Ukraine’s Yanukovych fell but so many analysts (including me) predicted he would survive

What you need to know about Ukraine

How social media spreads protest tactics from Ukraine to Egypt

Who are the protesters in Ukraine?

The (Ukrainian) negotiations will be tweeted!

Social networks and social media in Ukrainian “Euromaidan” protests

What you need to know about the causes of the Ukrainian protests

Why are people protesting in Ukraine? Providing historical context

How Ukrainian protestors are using Twitter and Facebook

As police raid protests in Ukraine, protesters turn to Twitter and Facebook

Six reasons to be cautious about likelihood of opposition success in Ukraine

Three reasons why protests in Ukraine could end up helping Yanukovych

Additional commentary from the NYU Social Media and Political Participation(SMaPP) lab not at The Monkey Cage: Tweeting the Revolution: Social Media Use and the #Euromaidan Protests