No matter how composed you think you are you can’t help but feel a bit shaken by the events of the last three days in Kyiv. Twenty years of living in Ukraine have long ago lulled me into a sense of ‘protest as festival’ perception of the way socio-political discontent manifests itself in Kyiv. In particular the peaceful nature of the Orange Revolution turned this ‘success’ into an iconic self-image of the way Ukrainians perceived the symmetry of their anti-government protests and the way such events were ’expected’ to play themselves out.
This illusion was brutally shattered for everyone by the events of Friday and Sunday night. Ukrainians are now waking up to the reality that both they as a people and their criminal regime may be closer to the ‘Tahir square’ model of political protest than they care to believe. My feeling is that this reality check and reversion to the ‘world mean’ is extremely disturbing for the average Ukrainian and the implications of what this might bring for him/her.
Whether the vast majority of protesters on the Maidan choose to recognize it or not but they, and their triumverate of leaders, have actually been been placed on notice that this time their peaceful model of regime change had better succeed, or else. The option of a peaceful resolution of the current stalemate is still on the table but it demands a well structured collapse of the existing political order and a stable withdrawal of key players in the political elite from the levers of power. It also needs to provide a plan for an orderly safe departure for themselves, their families and their assets to countries (un)known. There are no half way measures to a revolution. To believe otherwise is delusional. To believe this will happen is becoming equally delusional as well. Today a colleague of mine, who is close to such issues, informed me that a fully armed battle regiment of Berkut arrived today in Kyiv from Zhytomyr. The Berkut on the streets of Kyiv for the last week have not been deployed with any firearms. Tensions may mount and mistakes and miscalculations on both sides could prove lethal.
Whether intended or not the blood and violence of the last few days was an acid test for both sides and an opportunity to gauge how much both sides are prepared to dish out and absorb. The Maidan today is the most vulnerable. Its strength is ephemeral and its stored up energy risks being quickly depleted if the ultimatums on the Maidan are deflated and transformed into negotiations at the table. Each concession to negotiate will only serve to restore the moral legitimacy of the regime and they in turn will be sure to drag this process out for as long as possible till the residual energy of the Maidan is totally spent. This is a serious risk with each passing hour. Only an effective general strike can serve to re-energize the Maidan and keep up the pressure on the regime on a daily basis. To the extent that such a strike is a work in progress its still premature to make an assessment of the effectiveness of these tactics. Time and weather play against the Maidan. Paralysis, defections and a depleting Treasury play against the regime.
In parallel to these events the country needs to also confront another disturbing homegrown reality. For far too long the mainstream press and liberal reform thinkers have dismissed the extreme radical nationalist right with contemptuous disregard as as a creature of someone’s ego driven mania which can be bought and sold for political purposes. This it has been for sure. However that is not to say that they haven’t evolved and will/are developing a sustainable life of their own on the margins of society. Their absolute numbers (several hundred) and the scale of violence they were prepared to inflict and endure came as a shock to everyone at Sunday’s peaceful protest. What initially began as fringe co-participation on the periphery of Sunday’s march quickly turned into a hijacking of the day’s protest as witness the reports in the international media. Did the organizers of yesterday’s peaceful protest not recognize this? Anticipate this? Prepare for this? Obviously not as they took no preventative steps to suppress it although, to their credit, several opposition leaders played a visible role in trying to quell it once it began. The continued denial of the potential of the extreme radical nationalist right to destabilize peaceful protest, whether self driven or by request, can not and should not be ignored. The signals were there for many years, especially at annual Pokrova commemorations, – and their numbers continue to grow.
This is an ominous development as these extremists could still inadvertently play a significant part in the way the current political stalemate plays itself out. There is no confirmation that they have completely disappeared from Kyiv and that they won’t put in another appearance before this crisis is over. Moreover the nature of their ideas and the similarity of tactics suggests that there is an uneasy crossover between them and the established Svoboda party which espouses many of the same ideas. For us on the periphery the distinctions often seem blurred and unrecognizable. One can be forgiven for thinking that it is inconceivable that the two camps are not in communication with each other, either directly or indirectly.
In the longterm, a potential failure of the current Maidan risks further alienation of the young and disaffected in the western regions of Ukraine. Rather than scaring them away, the blood and violence of the last weekend will only serve to reinforce the conviction for some that violent revolution is the only viable method to remove post-soviet elites and their collaborators from power. Misguided as some may say this to be, to ignore them may be worse, as the recipe for this scenario was already experimented with in Europe in the mid-twentieth century. In the interim one senses that Ukraine will drift closer to the Balkan-Mediterranean camp of EU countries which have a substantial right-wing dimension to their socio-political life. The reasons are largely the same, a perception that their mainstream opposition leaders are incompetent or ineffective.
The writer is a resident of Kyiv.