The following is a guest post by University of Manchester political scientist Olga Onuch, who has been carrying out a wide-ranging research program on protest mobilization and political participation in Ukraine, including a continuous on-site survey (the Ukrainian Protest Participant Survey), interviews and focus groups discussions with protesters, activist leaders and politicians, and most recently a new three wave Electoral Survey in Ukraine along with Henry Hale, Timothy Colton, and Nadiya Kravets.
One year ago this week (Nov. 21, 2013), the EuroMaidan protests began in Ukraine, with a few hundred people taking over the central square in Kiev. Since then, Ukrainians have withstood: mass-violence used against the protesters; a regime change and two national elections; the annexation of Crimea; a conflict in a significant portion of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts (the Donbass region); and a serious and on-going economic crisis. And yet, when confronted with these difficulties, most protesters were able to remain peaceful, went home instead of pursuing further instability, and the divided politico-economic elite was able to coordinate enough to hold two relatively successful elections in the space of six months. Although the conflict in the Donbas is not over, if nothing else, Ukrainians have demonstrated that they are a resourceful young democracy capable of withstanding several simultaneous crises. But this does not mean that we understand all or even most of the phenomena that unfolded.
The past year’s events – and subsequent research into their causes and consequences – have yielded numerous lessons, many of which were not originally apparent nor widely reported on in the media’s coverage of these events:
- The EuroMaidan protesters were not only from central and western Ukraine, and were certainly not only Ukrainian speakers. Although data show that the majority were from central Ukraine, interview and focus group data also demonstrate that some of the most radical protesters were Russian speakers from the east.
- Before 2014, violent repertoires had not been typically employed by Ukrainian activists. The violent protest tactics we observed in 2014 are a significant departure from a non-violent trend dating back to the dissidents of the 1960s and need further investigation.
- Protests did not only take place in Kiev, the capital of Ukraine. The truly ‘revolutionary’ aspect of the EuroMaidan was that from the very beginning protests were diffused throughout the whole of Ukraine including in the south and in the east of the country. Moreover, when protests turned violent the spread of direct action (i.e.: building takeovers) took place throughout central and eastern Ukraine. This may help explain why the conflict in the Donbas has not in-fact spread to other parts of eastern Ukraine.
- Social media (Facebook, Twitter, VKontakte etc.) was an important tool in the #EuroMaidan mobilization process. It sped up the pace at which information travels and aided in participant coordination. Recent analyses by researchers at the SMaPP Lab at NYU are helping us to better understand how these tools were used. But at the same time, social media was not exclusively a tool of the opposition: it also exposed activists to repression and facilitated the spread of false anti-protester propaganda.
- Importantly, when the EuroMaidan protesters left the streets and went home, they did not stop being engaged. Furthermore, their engagement spread to the eastern and southern parts of the country. Based on interviews it is clear that civic and neighborhood organizations have continued their work and have become institutionalized as an increasingly strong and coordinated civil society sector. They provide aid to the military, act as watchdogs of the government, and have set up professionalized networks and civil assemblies, all allowing ‘ordinary’ Ukrainians to contribute to the reform process.
- There is a problem with the way western academics understand what Ukrainians call ‘small n’ (“nationalism”) and ‘large N’ (“Nationalism”). Focus group and survey data show that Ukrainians understand and use the terms ‘patriotic’ (small n) and ‘nationalist’ (large N) interchangeably. Moreover, our survey data is also pointing out that civic identity remains very strong in Ukraine and that regional, rather than ethno-linguistic, identities are central to understanding political preferences. We also find that ethnically Russian, Jewish and Polish public figures have appropriated phrases such as ‘Slava Ukraini’ [Glory to Ukraine] and ‘Zhydo Banderivets’ [Jewish Banderite*], previously understood by foreigners as markers of nationalist ideology. Thus, earlier reports about what is and should be considered as ‘nationalist’ symbols or rhetoric may in-fact be misleading or misunderstood in the Ukrainian context.
- The rush to identify the Right Sector, and other right wing groups, as the central force behind the latter stages of the EuroMaidan has unfortunately resulted in analysts not only misinterpreting the ideology of the typical protester, but also the broader political mood in Ukraine. Most importantly, these much discussed right-wing groups have not been able to win over many voters, and recent parliamentary election results point out that such groups have actually even lost much of their own electoral support.
There are two remaining central uncertainties in Ukraine: (1) Whether and how Russia will continue to fuel the conflict in the east and to what end, and (2) How the newly elected parliament and president (Oct. 26) will be able to incorporate the diverse electoral groups in Ukraine. Although it is true that Ukraine is a country where regional identities remain strong, our data is suggesting that civic identity is even stronger. While the road ahead is surely not easy, Ukrainians continue to surprise and demonstrate their democratic resilience, even if the road seems longer than ever.
[*Note: Banderites are followers of Stepan Bandera, a Ukrainian nationalist assassinated in 1959.]