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Ukraine’s Metamorphosis, Protest by Protest

Whether spurred by taxes, police brutality, or EU integration, the country’s recent upheavals have all been about one thing.

by Aliona Kachkan 24 March 2014

The world has just witnessed Ukraine's second major political upheaval in a decade, with protesters carrying the day both times. Russia’s offended, proprietary response only underscores what is perhaps the primary goal of those demonstrations and several smaller ones that have taken place in the past few years: to move the country from the "post-Soviet" to the "European" column. For that, people have come into the street, time and again, to defend small businesses, tame the corrupt police, demand fair elections, and contain Russia's influence. 

 

Here is a rundown of five recent uprisings, how they turned out, and why.

 

The Orange Revolution saw hundreds of thousands of people demanding fair presidential elections after the rigged balloting of November 2004 nearly brought Viktor Yanukovych to power. The country’s political opposition, then led by Viktor Yushchenko, enjoyed its peak of popularity during the peaceful demonstrations, which lasted until a Supreme Court decision ordered a second run-off that saw Yushchenko the victor.

 

Unlike the most recent crisis, the Orange Revolution found a legal solution, notes Serhiy Kudelia, a political scientist at Baylor University. It was the Supreme Court, not riot police, that broke the stalemate between outgoing President Leonid Kuchma and his hand-picked successor, Yanukovych, on the one side and challenger Yushchenko on the other.

 

Those heady days for Ukraine’s aspiring democrats did not last. Thanks to a national sense of rudderlessness, constant bickering between onetime allies Yushchenko and his prime minister, Yulia Tymoshenko, and the persistence of corruption, Yushchenko’s government was widely reviled when he left office in 2010, paving the way for a Yanukovych comeback.

 

But in his four years in office, Yanukovych dealt with repeated protests. The three most prominent – against a new tax law in 2010, a new language law in 2012, and police abuse in 2013 – were “reactions to attempts by Yanukovych  to build an authoritarian regime,” according to Olexiy Haran, a political scientist at the respected Kyiv-Mohyla Academy. In the period that the protests took place, Ukraine slid from the “free” to “partly free” category in watchdog Freedom House’s annual global index of civil liberties.

 

TAX MAIDAN

 

Like the protests just concluded, or the Orange Revolution, the 2010 demonstrations that have come to be known as Tax Maidan started in November.

 

Tens of thousands of business people in Kyiv and other cities protested a bill the government said was aimed at stamping out tax avoidance. But protesters said it complicated life for small- and medium-size businesses while offering a tax holiday to light industry, shipbuilding, aircraft construction, and hotels.

 

Among other provisions, it limited who could use a simplified tax procedure and allowed financial police and tax inspectors to conduct more checks on businesses. It was an arrangement that practically invited corruption and placed an undue burden on small and medium businesses, critics said.

 

Ukraine is not an easy place to run a business. It ranks 155th of 178 countries on the Index of Economic Freedom compiled annually by The Wall Street Journal and the Heritage Foundation think tank, sharing the “repressed” category with the likes of Uzbekistan, Eritrea, Iran, and North Korea. Businesses in Ukraine “are vulnerable to political interference,” according to the index, which notes that “corruption further undermines the fragile rule of law.” 

 

Ukraine sits at 112th of the 189 countries listed in the World Bank’s annual survey on the ease of doing business, scoring especially poorly in access to electricity, the tax burden, and protection for investors.

 

For more than two weeks, protesters camped out on the square. With echoes of the push and pull that played out this time around, Yanukovych backed away from some parts of the measure, removing limits on the use of the simplified tax procedure and reining in the new powers of the tax authorities.

 

The main entrepreneurs union called on people to leave the square, but as in the recent demonstrations, protesters’ demands had broadened from repeal of the law to the resignation of the government and new parliamentary elections.

 

Most people went home, but the dozens who remained were finally chased off by Interior Ministry police in early December after a court ordered them to make way for the installation of a Christmas tree – a tactic used unsuccessfully by the authorities during the EuroMaidan protests.

 

After the protests, some of the tax activists were arrested and others sought political asylum elsewhere in Europe.

 

LANGUAGE GAMES

 

In summer 2012 Ukraine’s parliament passed a law giving Russian the status of a regional language, allowing its official use in schools, courts, and other institutions in the east and south. Nearly half of the population in those regions considers Russian its native language, and the question of language has always been sensitive in Ukraine. With the law’s passage, some feared the eclipse of Ukrainian in those regions, fueled by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s avowed desire to keep Ukraine in his country’s orbit. 

 

The law was proposed by a lawmaker from Yanukovych’s Party of the Regions as the parliamentary elections campaign got under way, in a transparent attempt to woo Russophone voters. While the split between Russian- and Ukrainian-speakers does exist in Ukraine, it has rarely led to conflict unless politicians decide to stir the pot.

 

Hundreds of opponents of the law gathered in the center of Kyiv and other cities across Ukraine, including Ukrainian-speaking ones in the west such as Lviv, Khmelnytskyi, Ivano-Frankivsk, Ternopil, Uzhhorod, and Lutsk, and predominantly Russian-speaking cities in the east and south, such as Poltava, Dnepropetrovsk, and Kherson. Some protesters launched a hunger strike.

 

Police with teargas canisters dispersed the crowds. That moderate force could help explain why the movement petered out, unlike the mass of support that developed for the EuroMaidan protesters after riot police launched a brutal assault on them on 30 November.

 

“The language maidan and tax maidan didn’t grow because there wasn’t such a terrible attempt to suppress people,” Kudelia said. “They were suppressed in a way. For example, people who declared a hunger strike decided to stop after appeals from politicians. But there were no such scenes of violence and there was no blood.”

 

VRADIYIVKA

 

Dwarfing the tax and language protests, and even the Orange Revolution, in ugliness, the Vradiyivka protests were named after the southern village where last year a 29-year-old woman was raped and beaten.

 

The victim accused three men – police officers Dmytro Polishchuk and Yevhen Dryzhak and taxi driver Mykhailo Rabinenko – of the crime. Polishchuk and Rabinenko were arrested immediately after the evidence given by the victim, but Dryzhak remained free on the strength of an alibi provided by the local police chief, who said he had been in the police station at the time of the crime.

 

Around 1,000 angry residents of Vradiyivka stormed the police station, and some organized a march to Kyiv nearly 240 miles away. The Vradiyivka case grew into a movement against police corruption, sparking demonstrations across Ukraine.

 

While Kudelia notes that Ukrainians tend to organize more at the local level that at the national level, thanks to the country’s system of local councils, storming a police station was unprecedented. Ukraine is still a relatively rural, impoverished society, and those in the countryside often live a precarious existence. They tend to be unwilling or unable to confront authorities.

 

The police officers were brought to trial and convicted of assault in the course of a robbery, grievous bodily harm, and rape. They received 15-year sentences. The taxi driver received 11 years in prison on lesser charges. The local police chief was sentenced to five years for abuse of authority. 

 

The Vradiyivka demonstrations continued but dwindled after the trial, ending only when they were dispersed by police in Kyiv. For all its fury, one activist told a Ukrainian news agency that authorities had been able to ignore the protest because it simply was not big enough.

 

But it was the calm before the storm.

 

EVOLUTION OF THE MAIDAN

 

As the world knows by now, what started last year as a pro-EU protest with thousands of people in the center of Kyiv transformed into a mass uprising against the regime of Yanukovych and his coterie, usually referred to in Ukraine as “the Family.”

 

“Today all of Ukraine is Vradiyivka; all across Ukraine is lawlessness by the security forces and government officials, corruption, and the ‘squeeze’ on business, the connection of criminals and the authorities,” wrote journalist Natalya Ligacheva last month on Telekritika, a website that Ligacheva directs and that monitors Ukraine’s media environment. Those on the square, she said, “now are fighting for all citizens, for their violated rights.”

 

It took protesters three months to topple the Yanukovych regime, with the authorities consistently using enough force to mobilize more protesters, yet not enough to affect a total “cleanup” as would have been done in Russia or Belarus. The riot police’s assault on a student camp on the night of 30 November was a major trigger.

 

“It caused the main demands to change from euro-integration to regime change, as it violated all sense of justice,” said Haran, the political scientist. He said the three prior Yanukovych-era protests had not taken hold because many did not feel directly affected by them. But with EuroMaidan, he said, “Everyone saw the events in the center of Kyiv, and that’s why they went on the streets in such massive numbers.” 

 

Crucially, EuroMaidan was a movement of people and civil society, despite the involvement of opposition politicians.

 

Those on the Maidan were more or less leaderless. They managed to organize not only a protest camp, but as some activists called it, “a free state,” where thousands volunteered as guards and defense forces, cooks, doctors, and lawyers. Despite the 21 February agreement between Yanukovych and opposition leaders, backed by the EU and United States, the protesters stayed put until the president was gone. Even the appearance, later, of the newly freed Tymoshenko seemed off-key in a protest dedicated to wiping away Ukraine’s encrusted, corrupt old order.

 

And it was not just Kyiv and western Ukraine demonstrating. On 22 February, Kharkiv, the eastern city and former Ukrainian capital that had been quiet for the previous three months, saw its own EuroMaidan protest. At the same time, statues of Vladimir Lenin were toppled in cities across Ukraine.

 

It turns out, of course, that this was the easy part. Statues, like corrupt presidents and the Berlin Wall, can be pulled down. The Soviet legacy – of which the current Russian propaganda about the Kyiv protesters and its takeover of Crimea is arguably a part – is harder to dismantle.

 

Andreas Umland, a Russia and Ukraine expert at Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, said Ukraine is not likely to benefit from the tutelage of the EU to the extent that Central and Eastern European countries did as it tries to transition to democracy. The country’s civil society, therefore, will need more time and commitment from Ukrainians to break with the existing totalitarian legacy, he said.

 

For Ukraine, moving from the “post-Soviet” to the “Europe” column will require an overhaul of virtually every major institution and will heavily depend on international involvement and actions.

 

We’re likely to see more people in the street before that work is done.

Aliona Kachkan is a former TOL editorial intern.

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