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Maidan and Civil Protests
The Ukrainian Agora: Civic Activists and Politicians on Maidan
This paper focuses on the role of opposition leaders during Euromaidan, specifically on the way they managed protesters, most notably during evening meetings on Maidan. By opposition leaders, we consider the leaders of the three opposition parties represented in the Rada: Arseniy Yatsenyuk (Batkivshchyna), Oleh Tyahnybok (Svoboda) and Vitali Klitschko (Udar). Some observers and activists argue that they simply tried to control the protest, and that was indeed sometimes the case. But the revolutionary process was so unpredictable that they had to regularly adapt their strategy. Maidan was an innovative place, where many methods were tested: new ways of living, of thinking, of behaving, and indeed, doing politics. This research is based on my own observations of the protests in mid-January 2014 after the violent clashes that took place on Hrushevsky Street. At this time, opposition leaders faced mistrust from the protesters and had to find a means of legitimizing their political involvement in the protests. Because of great unpredictability, they changed the way they addressed the crowd in order to maintain their political legitimacy, and in return, to legitimize Maidan as a political actor. More generally, some of the challenges they faced at that specific moment could help explain their political management of Maidan both during the revolution and afterwards. Specifically, the challenges of unifying and personalizing Maidan offered a means of mutual legitimization between opposition leaders and protesters.
1. Unifying Maidan
Fragmentation characterized the protest from the beginning. First, observers and actors differentiated between the political and civic aspects of the protest. But this distinction is in fact simplistic. Political aspects could be reduced to opposition leaders and parties. Some political parties not represented in Parliament played their own roles, such as DemAlliance or Spilna Sprava. Yuriy Lutsenko, moreover, was a regular political speaker on the stage even though he did not represent a specific political force and was not a member of parliament. The so-called civic segments gathered people from different fields of activity (media, art, accommodation, food distribution, etc.) and from different spheres (individuals, informal groups, established NGO’s, etc.). The Self-Defense of Maidan, which was created in early December and headed by Andriy Parubiy, had a specific role that was civic as well as political. Finally, from mid—January paramilitary groups began violent actions on Hrushevsky Street, and could have pursued a specific political agenda. Facing multiple groups and sets of actions, one of the challenges facing opposition leaders was to unify the protests by using two methods: centralization of claims, and integration of space.
1.1 Centralizing decisions
Opposition leaders tried to centralize initiatives, claims, and decisions. First, they created different organizations to manage the protest, which they usually led. The Headquarter of the National Resistance (HNR) created on December 1st and the Council of the All-Ukrainian Union “Maidan” created on December 22nd consisted mainly of opposition members of parliament as well as the kommandatura of the Headquarter. Some civic activists criticized what they saw as a way of controlling the protest, since they had themselves created the Civic Council of Maidan to coordinate their activities without the opposition’s involvement.
Second, opposition leaders used the same organizational and technical tools as during the Orange revolution, although Maidan had its own patterns. The stage, the screens and evening speeches were the primary fora for opposition leaders to address protesters. But because opposition leaders did not control the agenda of protest the way they did during the Orange Revolution, they had to adjust regularly the use of those tools since the protest movement was lasting longer, and protesters blamed leaders for their weakness. The mistrust against the incumbents often included opposition leaders whom the protesters regularly booed.
Opposition leaders used the stage to unify Maidan. First of all, the stage created a central venue from which initiatives and decisions could be dispatched. It could play the role of concentration of power when needed, but also the role of political, religious, and cultural pluralism--notably during the day, when its main task was to stimulate collective action. Some civic and political activists noticed the way the access to the stage was controlled to supervise freedom of expression. The stage created a center of command to aggregate initiatives and dispatch orders. On January 24th, when the decision to continue the fight against the regime was taken, Arseniy Yatsenyuk gave the order from the stage to Andriy Parubiy to expand Maidan to Institutskaya street and to build a barricade. Several minutes later, Self-Defense columns of volunteers appeared on the square, and went quickly to build the barricade. The stage and its surroundings attempted to represent the core of the protest. That became more obvious when it was under direct attacks starting on February18th.
The stage was also the main way opposition leaders expressed their claims and tried to share them with protesters even though they were challenged by groups, and individuals in this task.
1.2. Space integration
Maidan as a territory changed its shape several times during the revolution. After January 19th, protesters’ attitude towards the phenomenon called “Hrushevsky,” in reference to violent actions that took place on this street, was ambivalent. Both opposition leaders and a majority of protesters were in favor of peaceful actions. The onsite killing of three people as well as of other people outside the camp persuaded some protesters that violent actions were needed to protect Maidan. On January 24th, late at night after a third round of negotiations with Yanukovych, Yatsenyuk declared that, in accordance to the protesters’ decision to continue the fight against the regime, “Hrushevsky is becoming part of the territory of Maidan,” and he announced the expansion of the territory. This decision was a way for opposition leaders to legitimize their role, since they were criticized for failure to stop violence on the ground. They tried to produce a coherent management of the Maidan space.
2. Personalizing Maidan
The heart of the movement and a territory, Maidan was, above all, a human community. In unifying Maidan, opposition leaders were also willing to shape Maidan as a collective body that might act as a disciplined community, but also as a political actor. This process, which I call personalizing Maidan, became more relevant when the violence increased, and when negotiations with the authorities started. The violence at Hrushevsky Street questioned opposition leaders’ ability to act as leaders and as mediators with the incumbent elites. They had to use different tools, two of which are sharing decision-making and disciplining behaviors.
2.1. Sharing decision-making and accountability
From mid-January, opposition leaders did not act only as members of parliament, but also as representatives of the Ukrainian people. They created new structures, which were not really effective, but which shifted power from the Parliament to the Popular Council. This new institution gathered opposition parliamentarians, since the Parliament was declared illegitimate after voting anti-protest laws on January16th. They also created a Shadow Cabinet called the Popular Government for defending the interests of the Ukrainian people.
At the same time, evening meetings, as the primary mode of relating between opposition leaders and protesters, became decisive. Opposition leaders’ legitimacy became more dependent on their ability to manage Maidan as a political actor. The stage implied a face-to-face configuration, where speakers dominate the audience: protesters were expected to be passive or, at most, reactive, rarely involved in the decision-making process. This configuration did not suit the perception of Maidan as an agora, a place where all citizens decide together. Although protesters took decisions regarding day-to-day life on the camp, politicians made the primary political decisions. When violence began on Hrushevsky Street, which increased unpredictability, the trust towards opposition leaders was low. Opposition leaders now shared decision-making with protesters; Maidan became a political agora. Tyahnybok’s speech on January 24th serves as an illustration of this.
After listening for about ten minutes, protesters whistled at Tyahnybok, who was summarizing the negotiations with Yanukovych. He decided to whistle with the crowd, as if to share discontent, and asked the protesters to take a decision by improvising a vote. He gave protesters two options: allow opposition leaders to continue negotiations with Yanukovych in order to achieve the release of protesters in detention, or carry on the fight against the regime. Protesters chose the second option and Tyahnybok finished his speech calling for the crowd to go on and fight.
The decision taken by Maidan that evening did not prevent opposition leaders from continuing negotiations with Yanukovych the next day. The goal of those negotiations was the President's proposal that Yastenyuk and Klitschko form a new government. When opposition leaders returned to Maidan explaining their refusal, Yatsenyuk recalled the mandate given the day before: “You know why Yanukovych is discussing with us? It’s because you are here. In fact, you are discussing with Yanukovych. We are only your middlemen.” Opposition leaders gained their legitimacy from the protesters and wanted to share their political responsibility with them. They represented Maidan not only as a crowd of protesters, but also as a political decision-maker.
2.2. Disciplining behaviors and sharing emotions
After Hrushevsky Street, opposition leaders asked protesters for more cohesion and discipline on Maidan, because police actions, and potentially army intervention, threatened the protests. In his speech on January 22nd, Tyahnybok used the terms catholicity (sobornist), cohesion (zhurtovanist), solidarity (solidarnist), and asked people to reject disagreements: “Forget all images you might have from each other! Don’t take into account appeals to the clash between you and us! Side by side, that’s the only way we can win!” The reference to the Cossack Sich was also used: “Maidan is our Sich as it was in Zaporizhe when Cossacks lost their Sich that was exterminated and ruined. Our task is to protect Maidan.” On February 2nd Lutsenko asked protesters to sign up for the security details and protect the area: “Take your helmets, warm boots and baseball bats to prevent provocations and bloodshed."
After Hrushevsky was integrated into Maidan, opposition leaders insisted on discipline. On January 24th, Tyahnybok told the crowd that discipline was necessary to pursue the fight against the regime. Together with Yatsenyuk, he asked for “a quick respect of orders,” in order to avoid dissent. Opposition leaders had to legitimize their role as political leaders of the protests, and in doing so they legitimized Maidan as a political actor. A mutual legitimizing process between Maidan and opposition leaders was at stake. Maidan as a camp and as a fortress facilitated discipline and unity. Protected by barricades and members of the Self-Defense organization, it was a space demonstrating discipline and shared values with multiple expressions of solidarity between protesters. Because opposition leaders did not live among protesters, they had to prove their solidarity. The evening meetings offered a way of sharing sorrow, when the minute of silence was institutionalized on Maidan after the killings on Hrushevsky, and even more so after the mass shooting on February18-20, with public tribute to the fallen Heroes of Maidan.
Further research could study the relationship between opposition leaders and protesters after opposition leaders took power at the end of February 2014. Opposition leaders progressively left the square and a new process began. This process might be called the objectification of Maidan, and could be traced through two distinct paths: the way Maidan became a political slogan, and the way Maidan is memorialized.
Alexandra Goujon (PhD, SciencesPo 2001) is an associate professor of political science at the university of Dijon (France). Her academic work focuses on contentious politics, regime change, and politics of memory in Ukraine and Belarus. She published a book entitled Révolutions politiques et identitaires en Ukraine et en Biélorussie (1988-2008) (Paris, Editions Belin, 2009).