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The Funny Business of Ukrainian Political Rallies

If Ukrainians are so apathetic and disillusioned, where are all those demonstrators coming from?

by Yegor Vasylyev 9 February 2012

KYIV | Lena, 14, stands at the roadside waving a green flag. As she shivers in clothes that are no match for the Kyiv winter, cars pass by, their drivers paying little attention to her or her flag.

 

Lena lives in Troeshina, a suburb of Kyiv notorious for crime and drug abuse. To name the political party she has come to the city center to support, she needs a quick glance at her flag. Her friends are also here, she points out: some are waving the same flag as hers, while others have gone for different colors.

 

The Front for Change's flags dominate the scene at the 22 January rally. Photo from the party's website.

 

The line of “flag-bearers” stretches for more than a mile along both sides of Volodymyrska Street, all the way to St. Sophia Square, where in half an hour opposition parties will host a rally. It is Ukraine’s Day of Unity and Freedom, 22 January, and their leaders have pledged to sign a declaration to coordinate their efforts in preparation for parliamentary elections later this year.

 

Not everyone along the line is as young as Lena. One woman says she is 66, and all ages in between look to be represented.

 

Meanwhile, the square fills up. Groups of people approach, led by agitated young men talking on phones and gesticulating animatedly. Their followers look very much alike in their black knit hats and black winter coats. Some have bruised or swollen faces.

 

Each with what looks like a fishing rod in hand, to a stranger they could be a group of avid fishermen getting together to spend Sunday afternoon at their favorite pastime. But soon, as each dips the pole into a bag and snags a flag, it becomes clear that these are rods for flags and their bearers are here for an elaborate pantomime of political expression. 

 

Footage on YouTube the next day shows what eyewitnesses already knew and the rest of Ukraine would not be surprised to learn. Demonstrators interviewed are not able to name the holiday or the political parties or their leaders they gathered to support. On blogs and in other media, journalists, like Andriy Kovalov from Channel 5 TV, share pictures and reports of “protesters” waiting for hours after the rally to receive payment for their attendance.  

 

They had just wanted a decent evening out in a café, Lena explained the day before.

 

A HISTORY OF FAKERY

 

The phenomenon of fake protests is not new in Ukrainian politics. In the public mind, it is usually associated with Viktor Yushchenko’s presidency, from 2005 to 2010, when political confrontation turned chronic and the demand for protesters by all parties far exceeded the public’s desire to get involved. The success of the December 2004 Maidan protests that led to the rerun of elections and Yushchenko’s eventual triumph made politicians so eager to imitate them that the politicians’ oligarch sponsors readily bankrolled the efforts.

 

But it was during the political crisis in 2006, when no party won a majority in parliamentary elections, that fake protests became professionalized. For months, parties maneuvered to form coalitions and lead the government, even as Yushchenko and his Orange Revolution ally, Yulia Tymoshenko, had split. The political atmosphere became so poisoned that fisticuffs broke out in parliament when a coalition led by Viktor Yanukovych, who would later become president, tried to open a session of parliament.

 

That summer, a journalist for the Ukrainskaya Pravda website exposed both sides’ use of paid protesters. All it took was a quick call to a phone number in an online ad, in which he posed as a protester for hire. The next day, the reporter spent three hours in Parliament Square in the July heat to show his affiliation to one of the Orange parties. The same day, he received 30 hryvnas (about $4) for his political commitment. The next day, he stood on the same spot in the name of their opponents from the “blue” Party of Regions, albeit for a somewhat higher sum.

 

In January 2011, videos on the same website appeared to show a group of young men, including the son of a ruling Party of Regions lawmaker, handing out cash to the protesters’ supervisors in a café, and “protesters” at the party’s central office demanding pay for an all-day public show of joy at Kyiv’s central square on the one-year anniversary of Yanukovych’s election. The party neither demanded a retraction nor called for an investigation into the allegations.

 

The opposition is not to be outdone, however. Using a similar method, a journalist from the Ukrainskyi Tyzhden weekly stood on a central Kyiv square on 4 December 2011 holding the green flag of Arseniy Yatseniuk’s Front for Change party as speakers castigated the current government, which they called a criminal regime, for spreading rumors about protesters being hired for money. It was not that easy a shift, the reporter said: he received his 40 hryvnas only late in the evening and after significant hassles.

 

SPOTTING THE FAKERS

 

These Potemkin gatherings are a striking contrast to true civic protests, as on the Maidan in 2004 or, more recently, in Moscow and Budapest. Even pictures from the events are rather different – party flags dominate the view at the Kyiv gatherings, as almost every participant is required to hold one as part of his “job description.” There are far fewer flags in the Moscow and Budapest rallies, and they are mostly national ones. Instead, those scenes are abundant with banners or symbols, dreamed up by the protesters themselves. 

 

The crucial role of social networks in sharing information and calls to join the protests in Moscow is widely acknowledged and discussed. They play a crucial role in the Kyiv political gatherings as well, although of a different sort. Social networks are awash with job advertisements for “flag-bearers” and “ordinary protesters.” A job-seeker just needs to log into a certain profile on the most popular social network, Vkontakte, submit a phone number, and specify how many companions he or she can bring along.

 

Otherwise, the profile may specify a certain meeting point near the square, telling job-seekers to look for the person holding the Ukrainian flag.

 

No small thanks to chicanery of this sort, Ukrainian society is shot through with a profound distrust, and it finds a natural place in this milieu as well. The phony protest organizers themselves complained to Ukrainskyi Tyzhden that arranging crowd scenes for films is more reliable work: unlike the parties, film producers pay on time and in full. According to the magazine, some protesters even have blacklists of unreliable political operatives.

 

Meanwhile, the public becomes increasingly suspicious, trying to track who is behind the recent protests by veterans of the Chernobyl cleanup or Afghan war who have lost their government benefits. The theories go far, alleging even that competing factions of the ruling party might want to pursue their interests by secretly sponsoring the movements.

 

LEARNING YOUNG

 

In an autobiographical account, longtime Tymoshenko ally Oleksandr Turchynov recalls finding a way out of a tricky situation in his Komsomol youth.

 

As secretary of the Komsomol organization in Kryvyi Rih, an eastern industrial town, he once had the task of packing the local concert hall for a performance by a folk musician from Kazakhstan.

 

On his instructions, the best-behaved schoolchildren were brought to the hall from all over town. After taking a look at the hall, party officials flew into a rage – high-ranking guests from the Central Committee of Kazakhstan were to address the audience, and it must be an adult audience! Then Turchynov, with the help of the police, managed to block the exits to a local factory’s residence halls, where workers were enjoying their day off. The workers were then herded onto buses and taken to the hall.

 

Many years later, on the Day of Unity and Freedom, a column of demonstrators, led by Turchynov  starts its 15-minute march from St. Sophia Square to a monument to Taras Shevchenko, the revered 19th century poet and artist. But not all the protesters follow it to the end. Several groups in raincoats emblazoned with political logos can be seen in a park near the square. They stand in circles around the benches, drinking vodka, eating bread, and talking. The flags on the fishing rods are stuck in the snow. The scene resembles a camp of idle, leaderless soldiers.

 

As Ukraine heads for parliamentary elections in October, polls show dramatically low support for the president and his party even in their stronghold, the eastern Donbass region. At the same time, ratings for the opposition parties remain stagnant. Many are girding themselves for mass ballot fraud.

 

In this atmosphere, if real civic protests on a par with those of 2004 were to take place, it would be as much a surprise to the opposition as to the authorities.

Yegor Vasylyev is an independent political analyst in Kyiv.

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