Every violent suppression of dissent is violence against the humanity that is being born. The world to come is at stake in these encounters.
That’s what I tweeted last night while watching what looked like the squashing of a revolution, when riot police appeared by the thousands and began moving in on the territory held by Ukrainian protesters in downtown Kyiv (Kiev, pronounced “kay-eev” in Ukrainian). Watching these events on the multiple live video feeds available to a global audience was transfixing. Together with the constant stream of commentary in social media — I followed Facebook, Twitter, and the feeds on the streaming TV sites, but there were other options available — made it seem like a genuinely global insurrectionary event.
The following are some reflections on this experience, contextualized within global geopolitics, Ukrainian politics, the ecology of media, and the recent history of analogous events elsewhere (such as those I have blogged about earlier in Iran and Egypt).
Context 1: Europe, geopolitics, & authority
So how do we make sense of the difference between this standoff pitting EU supporters against riot police with the standoffs pitting EU protestors against riot police in places like Greece, Spain, and other internal peripheries of the European Union? The faces, the maneuvers, the weapons — shields and truncheons versus hardhats, flowers, megaphones, and makeshift barricades — all look pretty similar (if more visibly nonviolent here, on the whole), but the discursive polarities — pro-Europe versus anti-Europe — appear reversed.
Narrative 1 — the anti-authoritarian narrative — says that it’s all the same thing, and that is what most Ukrainian protestors will tell you. They are not protesting for the EU, or for any particular economic policy, so much as they are protesting against authoritarianism, corruption, disregard for popular desires, and the crony capitalism of a coterie of billionnaire oligarchs clearly aligned with Russia, Ukraine’s centuries-old imperial overlord.
It’s only historical circumstance that has made Russia — at least under their ex-KGB chief president — the devil for many Ukrainians. Having not experienced any of the economic challenges of actual EU integration, Europe is seen by these Ukrainians as the side of the angels, much less for economic reasons than for political and broadly cultural reasons. Authoritarianism sucks (for these people), while democracy, pluralism, an open media, and a kind of national dignity — seen as much likelier in Greater Europe than in a Greater Russia — are objects of intense desire. They had been held out as possibilities for months and then whisked away at the last minute, with every indication that it was under pressure from Russia.
Narrative 2 — the cabal narrative — comes in at least two, more or less diametrically opposed, variations. In one of them, the protestors are dupes of one kind of another, supported and encouraged by Europe, the US, global capitalism, or some Jewish-masonic-homosexual cabal. These pictures of Russian Orthodox counter-protestors — with signs reading “No to integration with EuroSodom!”, “Revolution is the Devil’s tool,” and the timeless “Grant us, God, such a leader who would free us from the Jews” — tell the story well.
Such sentiments make up a growing part of Russian president Putin’s patriotic-authoritarian hegemonic bloc and of the message it has been spreading in neighboring states (like Ukraine) to re-establish a Russian-dominated Eurasian counterforce to the West. Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovich has been appealing to the same Russophone traditionalists in Ukraine’s south and east to prop up his own stumbling power base.
(That’s not to suggest there aren’t less than savory elements in Ukraine’s pro-Europe contingent. Some of them are organized around the nationalist Svoboda party, led by Oleh Tiahnybok, one of the three most prominent opposition politicians right now; while others are in the extra-parliamentary far right. Putin’s calling the demonstrations a “pogrom” was intended to resonate with less sanguine memories of past popular uprisings. But for the most part this is a revolution of dignity: for Ukrainian self-determination and against authoritarianism and corruption. To the extent that the right aligns with these views, it will necessarily be part of the movement; issues of pluralism and civil rights will remain to be worked out afterwards.)
On the other side, there are the conspiracy narratives that place Russia at the base of all sorts of moves to curtail Ukrainian sovereignty and bring the former Soviet republic back into the imperial fold.
If, as the saying goes, just because I’m paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get me, in the case of these cabals the paranoid narratives are to a large extent correct. Russia under Putin is clearly maneuvering — at least via the blackmail of economic sanctions, but there’s a long history of cloak-and-dagger and backroom strategies — to keep Ukraine tightly confined within a Russian orbit, both economically and culturally.
And vice versa: Ukrainian pro-western activists have their supporters in the west, and these — including George Soros’s Open Society Foundation, advisors from both U.S. political parties, Gene Sharp’s nonviolent revolution folks and other pro-democracy groups — have sometimes provided money and tools for their activism. Some of those lessons in nonviolent resistance continue to serve the activists well this time around.
Others, like western corporations and U.S. based religious groups, are simply identified with western influence, even if they have little direct clout with most protestors. And it’s undeniable that entry into the EU zone would lead to cultural changes, including more support for such western institutions as rights for gays and religious minorities, media freedoms (which also means the freedom of Hollywood to dominate movies screens), and the like. However you want to parse it, Europe really is the devil, if you believe in that particular devil.
Context 2: Ukraine’s oligarchs & the people
We’d seen all this before, of course, in the Orange Revolution of 2004. Then, pro-western protestors demonstrated across the country and brought down a president-elect who was widely seen as falsifying election results to stay in power.
Not even the villain has changed since then: the president today is the same Viktor Yanukovich, who staged a comeback following the collapse of the Orange Revolution coalition, which faltered after president Viktor Yushchenko’s falling out with his Orange ally, prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko. Yushchenko’s widely perceived ineptitude fragmented the pro-western bloc, and Yanukovich, upon his re-election, quickly moved to sideline and eventually jail Tymoshenko, his charismatic primary rival, on largely trumped-up corruption charges. She is currently two years into a seven-year sentence, and western pressure to release her has been an important part of talks for closer integration with the EU.
What has changed since 2004 is that things have gotten worse economically and the country is at risk of economic default.
As with political leaders in other divided countries, campaigning tends to be more colorful than actual governing, which typically results in a shift to the center. Geopolitically, for Ukraine, that center is found through playing the East and the West — Russia and Europe — against each other. Some contend that Yanukovich’s months-long creep toward Europe was intended only to get a better deal from Russia. But it’s equally possible to argue that his apparent slide back toward Russia is intended to raise the stakes for a better offer from Europe.
The protestors can be seen as part of this same chess match: when their opponent does one thing, they do the other. But on the streets, there’s a viscerality that betrays a depth of antagonism toward Yanukovich and the authoritarian policies he represents to many (particularly in the west and center of the country). Things had to get pretty bad for them to come out in sub-freezing temperatures. Now that they’re there, they’re in for the long haul.
It is difficult to overestimate* the degree to which Ukraine is an oligarchic system: more than a U.S.-style plutocracy, with money influencing politics in a range of subtle but powerful ways, Ukraine is ruled by a class of capital-owning clans. The leaders in this class are billionaires, most of them former nominal Communists (or Communist Youth leaders) who positioned themselves skillfully at the end of the Soviet era to carve up the country’s industries and capital among themselves. They have been joined by their children and friends, and, as one might imagine, they align themselves along a series of fractures and internecine squabbles that require a skillful manager to balance one group against another whilst keeping them all happy enough.
No Ukrainian president since Independence has ruled without the support of some, if not most, of the oligarchs. Yanukovich’s backers have included Rinat Akhmetov, Ukraine’s wealthiest man (47th on the Forbes list of billionnaires, down from 39th a year earlier), but he, Dmytro Firtash, Viktor Pinchuk (son-in-law of former president Kuchma), and others have reportedly abandoned Yanukovich. That’s why the protests have been so widely televised in Ukraine — many of these oligarchs control their own media empires — and why they have been effective.
Where do the pro-democracy and pro-EU activists fit in with all this? If the Orange Revolution taught Ukrainians anything, it is that political leaders cannot be trusted no matter which colors they are wearing. Change requires far more than a change at the top. For a while after the Orange debacle, many Ukrainians were simply disillusioned with their politicians, but it was just a matter of time before an opportunity would open up for hope to emerge once again.
The irony about yesterday’s round table meeting between President Yanukovich and his three predecessors did not escape most Ukrainians. While Yanukovich talked, as one journalist put it, Kuchma looked at his watch or slept, Yushchenko drew bees on paper, and Kravchuk looked bored. Commentator Yevhen Hlibovetskyi wrote:
All four are embodiments of the same error in a politician’s understanding of society. They take their power to be a status rewarded to them for their recognized or underrecognized talents, a status leading to an automatic recognition of their authority, wisdom and other virtues. The same goes for the 3+2 leaders of the opposition. All of the basic political forces follow this logic. Maidan is calling for a something different: power as answerability, power as service. These protests are a bell ringing not only for Yanukovich. The ground is falling out from under the feet of the whole political class. [my translation and emphasis]
It is this groundlessness that has always been both revolution’s greatest appeal and its gravest danger. That sense of not knowing what is to come next, and of the future being suddenly wide open.
But even if that ground were to open wide enough to swallow Yanukovich, and perhaps a few oligarchs with him, it is not yet wide enough to swallow oligarchy itself.
For one thing, it is not clear who can mediate between the power class and “the people,” who lack power. The demonstrations in Kyiv have featured opposition politicians as well as musicians (like Ruslana, one-time winner of the Eurovision Song Contest and later a member of parliament), priests and church leaders, academics, and others. None of the opposition politicians — save perhaps World Boxing champion Vitaliy Klichko — are thought to have the clout and personality that could win a presidential election.
With the most charismatic political personality (albeit a divisive one) — Yulia Tymoshenko — still in jail, it’s hard to see who will step into the political void to craft a solution that would bring oligarchs and activists on board some modified political vehicle. The country is likely to muddle through without much change at the top. (And arguably, it’s change in the middle — in the country’s balance between parliamentary and presidential governance — where the important things ought to happen.)
And the oligarchs will survive, handily. Without them the protest movement is likely as doomed as is Yanukovich. And if anyone is threatening all the oligarchs at once, it is the extremes — the far left and the far right — who are likely to remain marginal within either a European or a Greater Russian scenario. Abolishing oligarchy is not even on the books of what’s possible right now.
But that’s no reason not to work in that direction, one revolution at a time.
Context 3: Ecologies of images & mediation
But it’s at ground level — and at the level of mediated public culture — where the most interesting things may be happening now.
Watching Tim Pool’s Revolt in Kiev livestream last night — one of the streaming video feeds with ongoing English language commentary — felt to me a little like watching a sports match. The commentary there and elsewhere described what each side was doing: “now they appear to be taking apart the barricades using some large tools…” etc. At times the videographer lost his cell signal, or walked indoors for a bit of warm reprieve from the below-zero air.
And all the while there were layers of commentary being produced from viewers around the world, whose numbers were being tabulated as we went: so many thousands viewing now, so many million total views.
Several of the live streams can be found at http://ukrstream.tv/. Among the more widely watched were hromadske.tv, spilno.tv, aronets, radiosvoboda’s videotube, and gromtv.net. Twitter, Facebook, and other social media were alight with ongoing announcements under hashtags including #euromaidan, #kiev, and the like.
Social media have created a second layer to political action, a second nature to the first nature of urban resistance. The two natures need each other and multiply each other: without social media, the streets are silent, but without the streets, social media are ineffective and somehow wildly unreal.
Deciphering exactly how the world — those watching social media and participating (or so they feel) with their blogs and comments, as well as those working in and with traditional media — makes sense of all this will take some time. The dominant media frames still tend to be the traditional ones — democracy activists versus tyranny, or Ukraine being torn between East and West, and so on (I can’t avoid them either). And these are triggered easily: for instance, by all the images of civilians facing down rows of helmeted riot police, or by the toppling of Kyiv’s Lenin monument a few days ago.
On the latter event: let’s recall that other east European states felled their Lenins and Stalins more quickly than did Ukraine. Ukrainians, particularly in Kyiv, have been a notoriously tolerant bunch. But every revolution needs its symbolic victims. This time it was Ilyich.
Writer and political commentator Alexander Motyl has a piece explaining the felling of the monument to Lenin to those who still need an explanation. I won’t repeat his arguments. It’s sufficient to know that Leninist (and, more so, Stalinist) propaganda had only really managed to carry conviction (to this late date) for those most desperate to maintain the Soviet status quo: retirees, world war two vets, and others vulnerable to losing their social welfare privileges in a rapidly diminishing state.
Maintaining the social safety net is not anything that either side of the political elite cares much for, especially in trying economic times — though both sides have played up their promises when promises could get them elected. So these people cling to the symbols of a past that seemed more orderly, more predictable, more secure, and in some ways (and to some people) more humane.
Beyond them, though, most other Ukrainians now know enough about the Holodomor — Stalin’s artificially exacerbated famine that resulted in some 5 to 8 million excess deaths in 1932-33 — to lack much sympathy for the symbols of their Soviet past. Stalin’s eradication of the Ukrainian intelligentsia in the 1930s was savage: historians, writers, dramatists, filmmakers, and artists whose political views fell all across the spectrum ended up in labor camps in Siberia, or dead, in a historical episode Ukrainians call the “Executed Renaissance.”
Lenin wasn’t directly implicated in those things (he was dead by the time they began), so he stayed — at least in downtown Kyiv. But with a resurgent Russia seen as directing the moves of their corrupt president, many felt it was time for him to go.
It’s difficult to say what the activists are hoping for, aside from Yanukovich’s resignation. According to surveys, opposition demands include disciplining of those responsible for November 30 violence against demonstrators (supported by 70%), signing of the planned EU accord (53%), and a change of government (50%, though that was last week and it’s most probably higher now). That latter 50% figure leaves me wondering how many of the remaining half want so much more than a mere change of government that their wishes wouldn’t even register through a simple “yes” to that question.
A few days ago, 72% of the activists said they were ready to stay “till the end”, while 43% were ready to work toward a general strike. Now, following last night’s partially successful effort by the Berkut elite police units to take down some of the opposition barricades and clear out the Maidan (Independence Square), oppositionists have been calling for more people to join them and for preparations to begin for a national strike. Momentum appears to be suddenly with them.
All of that provides a bit of the context for making sense of why a “pro-European” movement would elicit such passions, and would come to be suppressed — with at least occasional violence — in a country that is torn between its European and its East Slavic identities.
Unlike the excitement I saw in the western media, including on the Left, during the Egyptian and Iranian “revolutions,” the West has seemed relatively unfazed by this revolt in Ukraine. Aside from John Kerry’s expression of “disgust” at the policy maneuvers yesterday, the U.S. has been relatively quiet throughout. Western media have taken it pretty much in stride.
Perhaps this is because we’ve seen it before and don’t think it will result in much. Or perhaps it is because the terms of the equation — Europe, Russia — don’t mean the same things they did in 2004, or in 1989. Europe is heavy with the torpor of economic uncertainty. It has already had Greece, Italy, and Spain (among others) to worry about, and the benefits of joining just do not seem that enticing to someone not in Eastern Europe.
Media activists get excited about these events because they are media events: without Facebook, Twitter, and all those live video streams, this Ukrainian revolution might not have gotten off the ground. Yet it’s important to acknowledge the (traditional) mass media coverage, in part because Ukrainian media tycoons are choosing to side against the president. And it’s important to remember that the media themselves would be useless without the takeover of public squares and buildings, the barricading of roads and entryways, and the courageous decisions being made by several hundred thousand Ukrainians demonstrating with their bodies.
The passions underlying these events are not that different from those that marked Egypt and Iran. And like in those cases, no matter what happens, the divisions among Ukrainians — cultural ones, religious ones, generational ones — will persist, and the class of those really in power will not cede their own benefits in any dramatic way. (On the marginally bright side, efforts to rein the oligarchs into a more European style economy will continue.)
Democratization requires both passionate revolts and painstaking groundwork and institution building. One of its benefits is the capacity to counter gross inequalities with sound policies, and that cannot be done when soundness of policy is something one can only dream of. In that sense, Yanukovich ought to go, yes, and when he does there will be some celebrations. But the hard work will lie ahead.
The more important point is that there will be a generation of Ukrainians who’d have experienced the power of self-organization — twice now, in fact — and that, coupled with the disillusionment that follows the political order’s taming of such moments, they may realize that it will take work for real change to take place — hard work beyond some fiery speeches, the toppling of a few statues, and the adrenaline rush of mass action.
If these protests, as Yevhen Hlibovetsky put it, are a bell ringing out a signal that “the ground is falling out from under the feet of the whole political class,” it’s in this bell-ringing quality that I find my own best hope for the aftermath of these protests.
One of the unusual things about this orange-ish revolution 2.0 is the widely reported phenomenon of church bells being rung for long periods — not only in largely Ukrainian Catholic, pro-western Lviv, but to some extent in downtown Kyiv, not a particularly churchy city (except in the architectural sense). Churches have opened their doors to protestors escaping the riot police. But this is politics, too: it is the Ukrainian Catholic and Ukrainian Orthodox churches, not the widespread (but Moscow-based) Russian Orthodox church, that are tolling bells in support of the protests.
This, among other signs, is an indication that the affective markers of the city are not tolling the bells of authority — they are, in fact, with the people.
When a few thousand protestors gathers to express their dissent, there may be a news event.
When the capital city of a country of 45 million revolts, there is an Event.
*originally this was incorrectly written “underestimate”
For photo credits: click on the photos for originating web pages.