Viatrovych on “the long road to freedom”
This post takes a slightly different form than most on this blog, as it both summarizes and comments on an article not found (yet) in English translation.
Volovymyr Viatrovych’s “The Long Road to Freedom” — an article which, in its title, is intended to echo Nelson Mandela’s autobiography — is one of the most interesting and detailed analyses I’ve read of the Ukrainian Maidan protest movement. Viatrovych himself is a very well positioned observer — a leader of the Maidan’s Civic Sector, which remains one of the most pluralistic and broadly based of the visible groupings in the Maidan movement.
The article presents a summary and evaluation of both the nonviolent revolution represented by the Maidan in all its variants, and the “violent turn” represented by the street actions of January 19th and some of those that have followed.
He begins from the premise that the Yanukovych regime cannot fall unless three prerequisites are met: (1) the revolution spreads to encompass a maximally broad spectrum of Ukrainian society; (2) a part of the pro-government elite and armed forces shift their allegiance to the opposition; and (3) the world community supports the movement, if only morally.
By these criteria, Viatrovych judges the nonviolent revolution to have been partially successful, and the “violent turn” to have been largely unsuccessful.
He argues that one of the greatest accomplishments of the Maidan up until January 19 was the political “self-subjectification” of the Maidan and of all who participated and identified with it — which, while hardly a majority, was quite a large segment of the Ukrainian population.
Since January 19, however, the protests have become radicalized and the gap has grown between the more radical and committed protestors — those who now have nothing to lose and are willing to “go all the way” — and the opposition at large. Across the country and in the world press, the movement has become identified more closely with its most radical elements, which has not been fruitful for the accomplishment of the first, second, or third prerequisites. In his assessment, the turn toward violence has achieved few victories, even if for many the nonviolent alternative had proven inadequate to the task.
On the other hand, the broader nonviolent movement — with its “Occupy” style takeovers of public space, its demonstrations, blockades, self-defense units, boycotts, and the like — has had a much more successful overall record. Its greatest success, in Viatrovych’s estimation, has been the Maidan itself at the heart of Kyiv. Efforts to expand beyond that space have not been particularly successful in Kyiv, while efforts to expand it by multiplying the occupations across the country have had mixed results: total success in some regional centers, only temporary and fleeting success in others, and failure in the remaining ones.
Viatrovych judges the most successful tactic — the real “know-how,” as he calls it, “of this revolution” — to have been the Automaidan, with its automobile caravans (ranging from tens to hundreds) blockading the transport of army vehicles, picketing government figures’ ex-urban properties, and otherwise protecting protestors and protest camps. The Automaidan has been a part of a larger set of self-defense activities that have been mostly successfully in physically and legally protecting the protests. He also judges the boycotts of the businesses of pro-government deputies to have been markedly successful.
On the other hand, the creation, starting in Kyiv and spreading elsewhere, of a People’s Council — one that would create a parallel governance structure that could gradually take over government functions across the country — has not panned out. Too many of the People’s Deputies involved in this effort simply returned to their routine parliamentary roles when talks between the government and opposition took a turn back toward Parliament, and there has been little serious coordination with People’s Councils created elsewhere around the country.
With such a diversity of strategies and tactics, Viatrovych asks, why then are we not celebrating victory yet? His answer is that none of the tactics was fully implemented, and that these have lacked the kind of unification, depth of organization, and follow-through required by a successful mass and revolutionary movement.
Nonetheless, he remains a believer in nonviolent revolution insofar as it is deeper and ultimately more effective, even if it takes much longer to implement. “The problem in Ukraine,” he concludes,
“is not only the concrete representatives of a lawless government, the removal of whom would decide everything. We need to change the entire system, so that it could not give birth to any new yanukovyches or zakharchenkos. The element of the system that needs most to change is us, ourselves. The long nonviolent struggle changes not only its rulers, but the people themselves, who learn both a new answerability and solidarity.
“The removal of the Yanukovych regime should be not the end, but the beginning, of the revolution. Only in its wake can we reform the system in ways that will change society at its core. As other world revolutions have shown, the path to such reform is much less likely to emerge from violent conflict than it is through mass, nonviolent resistance.”
* * * * *
I’m not sure I’m convinced by Viatrovych’s depiction of such a stark dichotomy between the street radicals and the opposition as a whole. Ukraine’s activists remain diverse, and the Hrushevskoho radicals (from Pravyi Sektor, Spilna Sprava, et al) are neither the same people nor working from the same playbook as those in other cities (such as the anarchists who are much more visible in Kharkiv, or more pluralistic groups elsewhere).
Some of this discussion reminds me of the debates over the role of the anarchist Black Block at the WTO protests in Seattle in 1999. While I might disagree with their violent tactics — or “symbolically violent” tactics, since they were directed against property, not people — I’ve been convinced by analyses that conclude that their actions nevertheless helped secure wider media coverage for the protests, and that they ultimately helped establish the global viability of an anti-neoliberal capitalist “alter-globalization” movement. That the movement has not continued to grow (in part due to 9-11) is another matter; but for a while it was visible and significant on the world stage. (And its links to Occupy Wall Street are undeniable.)
While I agree that Ukraine’s revolution will succeed to the extent that it fulfills the three criteria Viatrovych outlines, I believe that it’s not so much the violent turn itself — a turn many across the country could understand following some recent actions of the Yanukovych regime — as it is the symbols by which it identifies itself that is a greater threat. To my mind, it’s the visibility of right-wing nationalism, and the imbalance between the right and left wing radicals (which I’ve written about before), that threatens the movement.
(This is somewhat consistent with the argument made a few days ago in the Washington Post by Keith Darden and Lucan Way, though I find their characterization of the protest movement to be somewhat shallow and oversimplified. See the lively debate in the comments to that article.)
Others disagree with this assessment and judge those symbols to be malleable — they can take on a new meaning out of struggle. But, as Viatrovych notes (and Darden and Way demonstrate), world opinion has already become less supportive because of the post-January 19 claims that it is “right-wing,” “neo-fascist,” and so on. (See previous posts on this blog for more on that topic.)
I don’t believe it’s necessarily desirable or even possible for radicals at both ends of the political spectrum to unite. But where radicalism seems inevitable — as the events preceding January 19 might had convinced many — it is worth the effort to forge a new and common subjectivity, a “self-subjectification” that would transcend the symbols of right or left (which in Ukraine are rather distinctive), and unify its participants into a new, civic and pluralistic, Maidan-based all-Ukrainian solidarity. That, I think, is consistent with Viatrovych’s arguments.
On the other hand, if the right-wing radicals succeed in alienating both their counterparts on the left and the vastly larger mainstream, then I think it will be game over, at least for now.