During the last decade alone, Ukrainians have successfully risen up against authorities’ actions twice and actually achieved two regime changes.
The massive 2004 Orange Revolution protests, which stopped Viktor Yanukovych from taking the presidency in a rigged election, were a kind of starting point for the 2013 EuroMaidan Revolution, which toppled the same Yanukovych as president on Feb. 21.
It can thus hardly be contested that Ukraine is a leader in terms of protest activity among its post-Soviet neighbors Belarus and Russia, where the authoritarian regimes of Alexander Lukashenko and Vladimir Putin remain unchanged since the 1990s.
Each time on Maidan (Kyiv’s Independence Square), the authorities made inadmissible mistakes, from ignoring the protesters in November to killing the insurgents in February.
Those steps activated even the most passive Ukrainians.
Besides, our neighbors are less ready for resolute actions whereas 43 percent of Ukrainians are not afraid of strikes and boycotts, and 14 percent even agree to resort to the seizure of state buildings.
The polls clearly show that the willingness to protest is much higher in Ukraine than in neighboring Belarus and Russia. The interesting question is: why is the readiness for mass actions higher among Ukrainians, and what lies behind the data?
Lower wages than neighbors, higher corruption
The average wage level in Ukraine is one of the lowest in the former USSR. For example, our citizens earn $380 monthly on average as of late 2013, while the figure is $506 for Belarus and $800 for Russia.
If you ask a Belarusian or a Russian why he did not rise against the dictatorship in his country, you will hear that such steps entail too many risks but give too little hope.
Due to higher living standards, the cost-benefit balance – i.e. ‘what can I gain by protesting against authorities’ - looks different to Belarusians and Russians than to Ukrainians.
“Putin builds the state according to the following principle: there must be absolutely adequate amounts of money available,” says leading Russian journalist and commentator Konstantin von Eggert. “He ensures the population stability - while they in turn are afraid that any protest activity would risk losing them this stability.”
To compare, the financial situation of most residents of western Ukraine is almost below the poverty line. For example, average monthly wage in Ternopil is 1,500-2,000 hryvnias not even enough to buy a winter coat.
Economic hardship is not the only thing that negatively distinguishes us from our neighbors. Currently, Ukraine ranks 144th among 177 countries on the world corruption charts whereas Belarus is “only” 123 and Russia 127 (annual anti-corruption list by Transparency International).
Practice and history demonstrate that even the mightiest authoritarian regimes have to consider public moods to be able to control the situation.
The series of political mistakes made by the then-Ukrainian authorities between November 2013 and February 2014 radicalized the protests and protesters, demonstrating that the Yanukovych regime, deposed on Feb. 21, in fact was one of the most striking examples of “under tyranny.”
The crackdown on the peaceful action of the EuroMaidan on Nov. 30, the lack of willingness to dismiss his Interior Minister Vitaliy Zakharchenko and, until Jan. 28, ex-Prime Minister Mykola Azarov, the dictatorship-like laws of Jan. 16, and the murder of protesters – all of these together demonstrated that Yanukovych had an inadequate perception of reality.
Polls conducted by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology indicate that 49 percent of Ukrainians deem Yanukovych, responsible for the escalation of the conflict in Ukraine. At the same time, 34 percent place the responsibility upon the now former opposition, 18 percent blames the European Union and the United States, and only 7 percent the Russian Federation.
When explaining what made them come to the Maidan, Ukrainians do not point to the failure of the summit in Vilnius, Lithuania, where Yanukovych turned down the EU offer of an association agreement.
The key catalyst to protest for most people was not the destruction of the “Eurodream” but instead the beating of students on Nov. 30. Some 70 percent of the protesters went to rallies for that reason, according to polls conducted by the Ilko Kucheriv Foundation for Democratic Initiatives.
And while the anti-democratic regimes in Russia and Belarus are consistent and resolute, Yanukovych team’s “under tyranny” did not frighten the society “adequately,” it only irritated it.
According to a sociological survey by the Razumkov Center, Ukrainians’ civic activity has grown between 2008 and 2013: in 2013, 26 percent of them said they would act if their activity were of concrete benefit to society. Back in 2008, that number was only 15 percent.
‘Maidan in our minds’
It seems on the face of it that the Ukrainian uprising was provoked solely by economic and political hardships. But if you look closer at the uniqueness of the Maidan protest form, it becomes apparent that some reasons lie much deeper, in values and world outlook specific to the Ukrainians.
Asked why he has been actively involved in the EuroMaidan Revolution for three months in a row, activist Andrii from Odesa answers with a question: “But how could I act any differently?” He was only 13 during the 2004 Orange Revolution, and it was back then he realized that fighting for one’s rights is not only allowed but necessary.
“I was very much inspired by the fact that people had their own opinion they wanted to uphold and were not afraid of doing so. A hope arose in me,” the Euromaidan activist recalls.
Thus, students and conscious young people born in independent Ukraine became the driving force behind the November 2013 protests. And, whereas their parents sought stability to a greater extent, they on the other hand demand observance of their civil rights.
“Maidan is in their minds. Those who were standing on the Maidan nine years ago now had 2014 style training,” points out Ukrainian journalist Serhii Rakhmanin. “They felt they had been deceived and their victory stolen, they wanted to regain their victory. These people are not geared to obey a leader any more, they are capable of assuming responsibility themselves.”
Prior to 2004, having enough money was the most important thing for a Ukrainian state leader in order to secure people’s support: after 2004, the leader needed to be charismatic. However, since 2014, Ukrainians demand accountability, responsibility and transparency from their leaders.
Besides, the long history of western Ukraine as part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire cultivated in some Ukrainians a respect for western values and an aspiration for democracy. Figures provided by the Levada Center show that residents of western Ukrainian regions are much more in tune with the liberal values which drove the Maidan.
As Taras Kuzio, senior research fellow at the Ukrainian studies department for the University of Toronto, points out: “EuroMaidan resulted from the suppression of three ‘pillars’ of the Ukrainian state since 1991: democratization, Ukrainian national identity and European integration.”
On Nov. 28, Ukrainians were impudently deprived of the hope that they had cherished for 22 years of independence and several centuries before that. The driving force of Ukrainian political life has always consisted of a fear that new leaders must get rid of as soon as possible. Otherwise, society will again show how much it has outgrown its leaders, and a Maidan of minds’ will once again surface.
Mariya Sheliya is a freelance journalist in Odessa. In 2013, Sheliya graduated from I.I. Mechnikov Odessa National University. She has been writing for Gazeta and the information agency Reporter. She is interested in music and international relations.
The question of Ukraine’s relations with the European Union and Russia is, of course, most of all a question for the young and for future generations. Therefore, during 2013-14, the media project www.mymedia.org.ua, in collaboration with the Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv, and financially supported by the Danish Foreign Ministry (Danida) are running a number of journalism workshops on how to cover these issues. The participants are young journalists from all over Ukraine. On pages 10-15, www.mymedia.org.ua – in partnership with the Kyiv Post – brings five of the best pieces, demonstrating the variety in focus and styles of the country’s young journalists, and, not least, their budding talent for grasping complex issues.