by Carol Skalnik Leff and Peter Chereson
The Euromaidan protests that have rocked Ukraine since November 2013 have been extremely complex and polarizing. In broad outlines, the episodic violence directed against them by the Yanukovych regime comports with the recent theoretical inquiries into the relationship between regime type and violence. These theories have moved away from a linear understanding of the propensity of different regime types to resort to violent repression, and instead argue for inverted U-shaped configuration (Fein’s “Murder in the Middle” range of regime types) or strategically- driven threshold models (such as Pierkalla’s). Ukraine’s regime has occupied that treacherous middle ground, ranked as partly free (Freedom House), as one of Levitsky and Way’s early competitive authoritarian cases, and as a low-grade democracy in Polity IV. Below, we think about several features of the sustained Ukrainian protest cycle and the government response, bearing in mind that the repressive strategy failed miserably, as the departure of incumbent President Yanukovych from power was directly catalyzed by the forcible crackdown of mid-February, which sent erstwhile allies fleeing and parliament acting to remove him.
First, in a pattern that is familiar in other protests, repressive violence—or clear signals of its imminence—can be shown to have sparked major upsurges of protest on the Maidan and to have broadened the protest agenda. The initial protests launched last November 21 specifically targeted the Yanukovych government’s eleventh hour decision not to sign an EU association agreement, and attracted huge crowds. As they began to taper off, the government attempted to clear the square on November 30, in what seems to have been a fatal blunder. Not only did clashes with the police multiply the crowds and entrench them, but they also expanded the protest agenda to include an indictment of the Yanukovych regime as corrupt and inefficient and demanded its removal from office. By December 2013, polling of the protesters showed 70% saying they were in the streets in anger over the crackdown, markedly higher than the 53% who listed the EU agreement as their impetus to protest. The January 2014 passage of Putinesque anti-protest laws signaled a further crackdown and an additional surge of protest strength. The quick repeal of the laws satisfied no one. Ultimately, the repression strategy failed.
Second, a distinctive feature of the protest cycle has been its heavy institutionalization, less in terms of ongoing political organization than in the infrastructure of the protest operation itself: sleeping arrangements in tents and nearby buildings, food preparation, a Euromaidan website in Ukrainian and English, security forces (most vividly the Automaidan car convoys) and even ongoing educational and cultural activities—history and economics, painting and poetry, and concerts. These infrastructural underpinnings proved highly significant in fortifying the protesters in the Euromaidan space and helped undermine any regime strategy of simply waiting it out. Indeed, the government’s stop-go pattern of repression and efforts at conciliation were unsuccessful in part because the Maidan protesters had dug in for the long haul, and were willing neither to retreat in the face of violence nor to accept compromise measures that their “leaders” brought back from parleys with the government.
A third characteristic of the protest cycle was a certain ambiguity surrounding the repressive violence. In June 1989, no one could doubt that the clearing of Tiananmen Square was a government operation. But there was greater murkiness surrounding two patterns of violence in the Ukrainian case that raised the highest level of indignation: the periodic abduction of protestors (including that of a released Automaidan leader who suggested his captors were from Russia), and the snipers active in the final week of the Yanukovych presidency. The snipers were responsible for the majority of the 100 deaths that week. Three very different types of culprits were invoked as snipers. The protesters were largely convinced that it was the Berkut—government special forces—firing from above on the crowd; Putin next door implicated the nationalist fringe of the protest in line with the script that neo-Nazis dominated the protests—Putin’s scenario was that the snipers were provocateurs courting police violence to garner international sympathy. The post-Yanukovych government officials in turn darkly pointed to outside forces—in fact to Russian special forces, engaged in destabilizing Ukraine. Thus, Interior Minister Avakov blamed a “third force… and this force was not Ukrainian.”
It is probably worth further thinking about how and when governments decide to either to claim ownership of their repressive acts and when they find it desirable to try to obscure the origins of violence. What is important about this kind of ambiguity is the space it affords for alternative framings, if, as in Ukraine, the public is already divided and has responded in polls with clear divisions over support for the protests. But further, it plays into the international dimensions of the confrontation, a final dimension of the protests worth consideration.
From the outset, the Maidan protests played out in an international arena, not only because the trigger was Yanukovych’s decision to forego the EU Association Agreement, but because the subsequent protests themselves evoked the democracy script in the West and Putin’s western incursion script in the East. Russian accounts generally contrasted quite sharply with Western sources in their portrayal of protests’ goals, actions, and demands. Russian state-owned television and some newspapers portrayed protests as a product of Western infiltration dominated by nationalist, neo-fascist extremists (generalizing from the protest participation of Oleh Tyahnybok and his nationalist Svoboda party)intent on creating anarchyand even civil war, and threatening the country’s large Russian-speaking minority. Western media, generally more sympathetic towards protesters, situated the topic within an East-West framework reminiscent of the Cold War, portraying Ukraine as caught between the two spheres of influence. How these constructs (which included significant signaling by the Russian and Western governments) played into the calculations of the Ukrainian actors is relevant to the general issue of a regime’s external “audience costs” of using violent repression. We know that activists on the Maidan were conscious of assuring that their cause was understood in the West because of a phenomenon that is increasingly standard in major protests globally: the use of English-language placards and in the Ukrainian case, PR Maidan, the protest’s English language web news site, as well as the “I am a Ukrainian” YouTube video that went viral in February. From the government side, we may eventually know whether the unclear identity of sniper forces who used violence on the Maidan was a strategy to obscure responsibility from the Ukrainian population, or from the outer world as well (or indeed whether darker conspiracy theories have any validity).
The Maidan protests of 2013-2014 are striking in that they follow on the legacy of the Orange Revolution of 2005, a protest cycle that won its immediate purpose of re-running a fraudulent election without violence on either side. Students of the post-Soviet Color Revolutions will soon be engaged in comparative work that explores the linkages of these two moments of contentious politics, and the regime calculations that account for the variation in strategy and outcomes. (For ongoing scholarly commentary on the Ukrainian events, see the Washington Post blog site “Monkey Cage.”)