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Mychailo Wynnyckyj | 14Feb2014 | to Keith Darden and Lucan Way

“Who are the protesters in Ukraine?”

Response to Washington Post article by Keith Darden and Lucan Way
February 14, 2014 at 9:21pm

“Who are the protesters in Ukraine?” -- a response from someone who has actually been (t)here.
Just as I was beginning to believe that the western press may have finally understood that Ukraine’s current street protests have little to do with so-called “radical-right-nationalism”, on 12 Feb. 2014, the Washington Post published an “authoritative” answer to the question “Who are the protesters in Ukraine” by two North American academics, Keith Darden and Lucan Way (http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/monkey-cage/wp/2014/02/12/who-are-the-protesters-in-ukraine/). Not surprisingly, given that their standpoint is 5000 miles away from Kyiv, the answer Darden and Way give to their own question is (mostly) wrong. The authors are careful to veil their skepticism of the real democratic substance of Ukraine’s protest movement with academically appropriate genuflects towards those who present evidence that contradicts their conclusions, but they nevertheless advance the following highly controversial points:
a)      Right-wing politicians are (apparently) disproportionately represented in the Ukrainian protest movement’s leadership. Specifically, the authors note the prominence of the Svoboda party on Maidan, and cite its use of (apparently) xenophobic and racist symbolism as reflecting the party’s (supposed) aspiration to achieve an ethnically pure Ukrainian state.
b)      It is unclear (in fact, doubtful, according to the authors) whether the EuroMaidan movement truly represents the democratic aspirations of the Ukrainian people, and whether average Ukrainians really support the protest movement. The fact that the “radical right” is apparently now leading the protest movement is cause for concern (for the authors) because history is littered with examples of revolutions whose leaders become dictators after gaining power, having previously called for greater democratization.
c)       It is unclear (again, for the authors -- doubtful) that a majority of Ukrainians support integration with the European Union -- particularly in the southern and eastern regions of the country where affinity with Russia has strong historical roots. According to the authors, Ukraine’s social cleavages are so deep that unified protest, even against a thoroughly corrupt, and incompetent authoritarian regime, such as that of Yanukovych, could not possibly coalesce: Maidan therefore represents only the western and central EU-supporting regions of the country. By implication, such a regionally skewed movement does not deserve the support of western governments.
The above theses certainly lend support to the portrayal of those who are protesting in Ukraine as radical right extremists. As a sociologist who spends much of his time speaking to demonstrators in Kyiv’s city center, I can say with some authority: Darden and Way’s portrayal of Ukraine’s protesters is wrong. It is certainly true that Svoboda party supporters are active on the Maidan, and that nationalists/patriots (what one calls them immediately indicates one’s political preferences -- such is reality in a revolutionary situation) were, and continue to be active, among those who condone the use of violence against the Yanukovych regime. Furthermore, it is a fact that the original name of Svoboda was the “Social Nationalist Party of Ukraine”, but Darden and Way’s sweeping claims that this political movement “employed neo-Nazi and SS symbols” and that “the party does not hide its glorification of the interwar fascist movement” ought to have been corroborated with at least some evidence.
Given that the Darden and Way article appeared as a blog on the Washington Post website, I feel it may be appropriate to frame my rebuttal in terms an American reader will readily understand. The authors have assumed that anyone ascribing to the following phrase should be unequivocally branded an extremist:
“Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government.”
Furthermore, Darden and Way object to the fact that those who subscribe to the core beliefs of the US Founding Fathers, do so in Ukraine while displaying portraits of Stepan Bandera -- the leader of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (an organization that propounded an independent Ukraine in the 1930’s, and countered both the Nazi and Soviet invading armies during World War II). Darden and Way would do well to avoid wholesale condemnation of portraits of historical figures. After all, images of American Presidents are printed on US dollar bills of all denominations, and almost every one of these men, at one time, was a slave owner. My point: the factual biographies of historical figures whose images become symbolic of a nation’s patriotism, in the process of becoming “canonized”, often become irrelevant to the nation that has adopted them as symbols. The function of such portraits is to become ‘semiotic glue’ for an imagined community whose real ideological goals may be very different from those current when these figures were alive. Bandera on Maidan is a classic example: for many of the protesters his portrait represents Ukrainian patriotism, and a real desire for political independence, but to equate this desire with belief in an exclusively ethnic conception of the Ukrainian nation is equivalent to saying that any American who takes pride in the portrayal of George Washington on the dollar bill, must also condone slavery. 
If the leadership of the protest movement is in fact xenophobic, and the demonstrators are in fact proponents of an exclusively ethnic conception of Ukraine, it is unclear why there are as many Russian speakers in evidence on Kyiv’s Independence Square as Ukrainian speakers (personal observation, supported by survey data -- http://www.dif.org.ua/ua/polls/2014_polls/vid-maidanu-taboru-do-maidan.htm). Furthermore, the ecumenical service held every Sunday on the stage of EuroMaidan during the mass rally (“viche”) regularly includes both Muslim and Jewish clerics. The Euro-Asian Jewish Congress (eajc.org) has repeatedly denounced false reports of anti-Semitism supposedly emanating from the EuroMaidan movement, instead blaming the Yanukovych regime for inflaming inter-confessional tensions -- including staged attacks on synagogues by government-sponsored thugs. The Maidan Self-Defense force recently announced the formation of a Jewish Regiment in addition to the already existent Crimean Tatar (Muslim) regiment; their participants stand side-by-side with “Right Sector” fighters on the barricades. All of this seems to belie the portrayal of the Maidan as promoting an integral nationalist / extremist program for post-revolutionary Ukraine.
However, the fact that Ukraine’s protesters demonstrate tolerance and inclusiveness now, may not reflect their true intentions. According to Darden and Way, history is riddled with examples of movements that are supposedly built on a democratic foundation, that then resort to authoritarianism after they succeed in gaining power. Such corrosion of revolutionary principles is usually triggered by the need to consolidate power, and suppress any potential counter-revolution. In Ukraine’s case, inherent regional, confessional, linguistic, and economic cleavages, increase the risk of such a degenerative non-democratic scenario. Certainly, the promise of European integration is insufficient as an incentive to maintain inclusive democracy given the patently inadequate level of support for Ukraine’s eventual EU membership currently in evidence.
This point is well taken: Ukraine is indeed a large country that boasts significant regional diversity (comparable to Germany in linguistic, religious and economic terms). It is for this reason that survey results consistently showing over 20% of the protesters camped on Kyiv’s Independence Square during the past 3 months as having originated from the eastern and southern regions of the country are seen as encouraging. However, there is little doubt that the protest movement’s primary support is concentrated in the western and central regions, just as the primary support for Yanukovych is in the eastern Donbas. If the promise of European integration is to become the “beacon” that unites Ukraine (as Oleh Hawrylyshyn has suggested), and allows the country to break free of its oligarchic capitalist trap, more Ukrainians must gain first hand experience of life in Europe (current data shows less than a quarter of Ukrainians have ever travelled abroad). In other words, instead of closing its doors to an apparently undemocratic Ukraine, the EU would do well to liberalize its visa regime (possibly even allow visa-free travel) for Ukrainians -- a policy that would certainly increase the number of active supporters of EU integration in Ukraine.
However, such a policy would require good will on the part of Western governments, and not merely kow-towing to Kremlin interests. It is interesting that Russian Foreign Minister S. Lavrov first began referring to protesters in Kyiv’s city center as “extremists” and “fascists” in January 2014 when the demonstrations clearly got out of hand. The term was immediately repeated by several western journalists, and now (most regrettably) by Western academics. Despite numerous calls for a more reasonable appraisal of the ideologies behind Ukraine’s protests, most prominently from both Western and Ukrainian academics who are actually on the ground, faulty appraisals from afar have continued.
Several observers have wondered if a targeted campaign aimed at discrediting the EuroMaidan movement may not be afoot, but more likely, the propagation of disinformation is not purposeful. In an effort to fit the uniqueness that is the EuroMaidan into inadequate accepted social science paradigms, and at the same time to remain nominally impartial, both academics and western journalists have grasped on the “nationalist” stereotype as one that is easily understood by uninformed readers.
A similar phenomenon occurred during the Cold War when left-wing sympathizers and apologists of the Soviet regime in the West came to be referred to as “useful idiots” by opponents of state socialism. Although this term was often (incorrectly) attributed to V. Lenin, its sense seems to provide a particularly salient description of proponents of the “nationalism-on-Maidan” hype: “useful idiot is a term for people perceived as propagandists for a cause whose goals they are not fully aware of, and who are used cynically by the leaders of the cause.” (Wikipedia)
Mychailo Wynnyckyj Ph.D.
Kyiv-Mohyla Academy
Kyiv, Ukraine -- 14.02.2014

Washington Post | 12Feb2014 | Keith Darden and Lucan Way

Who are the protesters in Ukraine?

Joshua Tucker: The following is a guest post from political scientists Keith Darden (American University) and Lucan Way (University of Toronto) addressing the question of who is  protesting in Ukraine, and how much support do the protesters actually have.  Their conclusion: Ukraine’s protests may not be driven by the far right, but they are not supported by a clear majority of Ukrainians … and neither is a turn toward Europe. You can find links to previous posts from The Monkey Cage on the ongoing political turmoil in Ukraine at the end of the post. 


For over two months, anti-government protesters have camped out in the center of Kiev, the capital of Ukraine.  Coverage in the media has presented vastly different images of who these protesters are and what they represent.   Recently, some commentators have depicted the protests as emblematic of a Europe-wide resurgence of chauvinistic nationalism.  They point to the presence of the Right Wing among the protest movement and the prominence of “ultra-nationalist” groups in the recent violence.

In stark contrast, others have seen the protesters as fighters for democracy expressing the views and interests of the broad Ukrainian public to join Europe and rid themselves of Russian subjugation.  Along these lines, the conflict in Ukraine has been viewed from a geopolitical perspective as a battle for and against efforts by the Kremlin to seize Ukraine, with critics of the protests seen as abetting such efforts or potentially even being on the Russian payroll.   Asserting that “the movement as a whole merely reflects the entire Ukrainian population, young and old,” influential supporters of the Maidan in the academy have concluded that nationalist forces represent a “minor segment” of the protests and therefore a focus on such radicals is “unwarranted and misleading.”

What then do the protesters represent? What is the role of the far right in the protests in Ukraine?  To what extent does the movement “reflect the entire Ukrainian population,” and how would we know?

Available research on the protesters and public opinion data from Ukraine suggest a reality that is more complicated than either of these competing narratives. First, there is no evidence that the majority of protesters over the past two months have been motivated primarily by radical nationalism or chauvinism.  Surveys of the protest participants conducted in early December and again at the end of January suggest that the main driver of the protests has been anger at President Viktor Yanukovych as well as a desire for Ukraine to enter the European Union (see also Olga Onuch’s prior post on The Monkey Cage). Notably, the most unifying factor seems to be opposition to Yanukovych’s efforts to crack down on protesters.  This is consistent with the ebb and flow in the size of the protest movement over the past months.  Initially quite small, the protests exploded after a violent crackdown on them at the end of November and then again in mid January after Yanukovych pushed through a series of draconian laws to limit protest and dissent.  None of the protest demands reflect an obvious chauvinist or nationalist agenda.

Yet, in Ukraine today, it is equally misleading to state that the nationalist right represents a “minor segment” of the current protests. The protest leadership (to the extent that it exists) consists of three opposition parties in parliament -- one of which, the Svoboda party, is clearly on the far right. Svoboda, which captured 38 seats and 10 percent of the vote in the last parliamentary elections, until 2004 called itself the Social Nationalist Party of Ukraine and employed neo-Nazi and SS symbols. While the party changed its name and symbols in 2004, Svoboda’s leader, Oleh Tyahnybok, continued to argue that the opposition should fight the “Muscovite-Jewish mafia running Ukraine” and praised the Ukrainian Insurgency Army (UPA) in World War II for fighting “against the Moskali [Muscovites], Germans, Zhydy [Jews] and other scum, who wanted to take away our Ukrainian state.”  The party does not hide its glorification of the interwar fascist movement, the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN).  In December they held a torchlight rally on the Maidan to honor the OUN leader, Stepan Bandera, and they regularly fly the red and black flag of the OUN, which has been banned as a racist symbol at soccer matches by FIFA.

The explicit harkening back to the songs, slogans, and symbols of the nationalist movement of the 1930s and 1940s -- with its aspiration to achieve an ethnically pure Ukrainian nation-state free of Russians, Jews, and Poles -- has been one of the most significant differences between these protests and the Orange Revolution of 2004. The right-wing groups have been particularly active among the organization of the protest movement on the ground, particularly as the number of protesters has dwindled over time and revealed a resilient right-wing core.  Svoboda’s deputies control the opposition-occupied Kiev city administration building, its flag is widely visible and a portrait of Bandera hangs in the central hall.

And Svoboda is just one of many signs of a strong far right presence in the organization and mobilization of the Maidan.  Andriy Parubiy, the “commandant” of the Maidan and the leader of the “self-defense” forces that guard the protest camp in the center of Kiev, was a co-founder of the Social Nationalist Party with Oleh Tyahnybok.  In recent weeks, the coalition of smaller right-wing organizations called “Right Sector” spearheaded the violent turn in the protests -- using stones, Molotov cocktails, pipes, and siege weaponry against police. While this group has not been welcomed into the protest leadership, it is clearly an important player on the ground and has reportedly been arming itself in the event that talks fail to achieve Yanukovych’s resignation. More generally, nationalist activists from Svoboda and these other groups have provided the opposition with its most “fearsome demonstrators” who according to the New York Times “led some of the more provocative efforts to occupy buildings and block government offices.”

Despite the strong right-wing presence, are the protests nonetheless pro-democracy? The answer to this might seem obviously yes -- given that they are directed against authoritarian behavior and an autocratic president. Yet recent work on mass mobilization has suggested that we need to be careful about assuming that politicians’ and analysts’ master narratives about “democratic revolutions” reflect the actual motivations of those on the street.  Princeton University Professor Mark Beissinger has shown that Ukrainian protesters in late 2004 had a “weak commitment to democratic ends” -- despite the fact that the protests were sparked by electoral fraud.   More recently, a December survey of the current protesters in Ukraine cited above shows that less than 20 percent were driven to protest by “violations of democracy or the threat of dictatorship.” More broadly, it is important not to assume that opposition to a non-democratic regime is the same as support for democracy.  History is littered with examples of opposition movements that governed in an authoritarian manner after they took power -- from the opponents of the Shah in Iran in 1978/1979 to the anti-Soviet nationalist movement in Armenia, which harassed opposition, and engaged in serious electoral fraud after taking power in 1990-1991; to the dictator Alexander Lukashenko, who started off as an opposition parliamentarian in Belarus in the early 1990s.

Moreover, the protests themselves are not particularly representative of the views of a broader Ukrainian polity.  The claims that “the movement as a whole merely reflects the entire Ukrainian population, young and old,” find very little support.  In this, as in virtually every area of political opinion, Ukrainians are pretty clearly divided. Surveys taken in the past two months in the country as a whole range both in quality and in results, but none show a significant majority of the population supporting the protest movement and several show a majority opposed.   Recent surveys provide suggestive findings that quite large majorities oppose the takeover of regional governments by the opposition.  The most reliable and most recent survey shows the population almost perfectly divided in its support for the protest: 48 percent in favor, 46 percent opposed.

The protesters’ inability to garner greater support is surprising given the fact that Yanukovych’s popularity is far below 50 percent (although he is still apparently the most popular political figure in the country).  One reason for this failure is that anti-Russian rhetoric and the iconography of western Ukrainian nationalism does not play well among the Ukrainian majority.  Almost half of Ukraine’s population resides in the South and East of the country, what was once called “New Russia” when it was settled in the 19th century by a very diverse population of migrants from within the Russian empire.  It is an area that has, for over 200 years, identified strongly with Russia, and nearly all of these Ukrainian citizens are alienated by anti-Russian rhetoric and symbols.  The anti-Russian forms of Ukrainian nationalism expressed on the Maidan are certainly not representative of the general view of Ukrainians.  Electoral support for these views and for the political parties who espouse them has always been limited.  Their presence and influence in the protest movement far outstrip their role in Ukrainian politics and their support barely extends geographically beyond a few Western provinces.

Relatedly, there is little evidence that a clear majority of Ukrainians support integration into the European Union -- despite the fact that the turn away from the European Union sparked the initial protests.  While different polls show varying levels of support for European integration (e.g. this recent one from SOCIS), most show around 40-45 percent support for European integration as compared to about 30 to 40 percent support for the Customs Union -- a plurality for Europe but hardly a clear mandate.

In conclusion, we should always be very wary of claims that protests speak “for the people.”  We should be particularly wary when “the people” referred to are the people of Ukraine.  If 20 years of scholarship and surveys teach us one thing, it is that Ukraine is a country that is deeply divided on virtually every issue pertaining to relations with Russia or the West, with very deep historic divisions that continue to bear on contemporary politics.

Ukrainians are, however, quite unified in the desire to be governed better than they have been for the past 20 years.  The mass protests were primarily a response to efforts by President Yanukovych to impose a more repressive regime.  Those on the square are not, on the whole, motivated by an affiliation for the far right or its agenda for Ukraine.  Yet the heavy symbolic and organizational presence of the far right in the protests has surely limited the extent to which the protests can find majority support in the country and undermined their effectiveness in producing a better government for Ukraine’s citizens.  A clear majority of Ukrainians could certainly be persuaded to abandon support for Yanukovych in an election, but the lack of majority support for the protests suggest that they might not take that option if it is presented to them wrapped in the violent anti-Russian rhetoric of the nationalist right.


For more from The Monkey Cage on the protests in Ukraine, see:

The (Ukrainian) negotiations will be tweeted!

Social networks and social media in Ukrainian “Euromaidan” protests

What you need to know about the causes of the Ukrainian protests

Why are people protesting in Ukraine? Providing historical context

How Ukrainian protestors are using Twitter and Facebook

As police raid protests in Ukraine, protesters turn to Twitter and Facebook

Six reasons to be cautious about likelihood of opposition success in Ukraine

Three reasons why protests in Ukraine could end up helping Yanukovych