There are two big narratives about Ukraine emerging in western media right now. One focuses on political leaders (especially Yanukovych and Tymoshenko), and reduces this to an over-simplified – and more than a little Russophobic – East versus West debate. The other remains focused on the Maidan movement itself, but presents it as two extremes – the pro-EU activists with neoliberal ties, and the nationalist factions baying for Russian blood. Again, those are quite clearly stereotypes, albeit with some truth behind them. The story to follow is not which extreme will be the winner out of all the extremes, it’s the story of whether and how Ukraine can reconcile all these differences within one united, democratic state.
For those who think I’m providing an unbiased opinion here, I’m not. I’ve been following Maidan online since it began. My initial aim was to look at how gender was represented in the protest movement (hopefully I’ll get around to writing about that some time in the future), and also to see if it would spark a similar movement in other countries – particularly Armenia, whose president likewise pronounced a u-turn on European integration before the Vilnius summit in November. But gradually I was taken over by pro-Maidan fever. Since I stood on the sidelines of my first marsh nesoglasnykh in Moscow in 2007, I’ve watched countless protests and other democratic initiatives be repressed in Russia and the South Caucasus, violently or otherwise. The resilience of Maidan was something I’ve never seen before. So, sadly, was the level of state violence it elicited (not counting Russian “anti-terrorist” operations in the North Caucasus).
After the situation deteriorated on February 18th, I’ve spent most of my time at my kitchen table in Dublin, watching the revolution being broadcast in real time via Youtube, Twitter and Facebook – over-awed by the lengths that Ukrainian (and some Russian) journalists were going to in order to expose what was happening. And my heart was with the ‘rebels’. Every now and then, I would start second guessing myself, remembering something I’d read about the right-wing Pravyi Sektor, or how the protests were actually a bad thing from a socialist perspective – but then I would be drawn back into the scenes of chaos and of hope on the streets of Kiev. I watched the violence escalate and I watched what remained of Parliament, shaky at first and then growing in confidence, as it began to undo the causes of that violence. I supported the opposition in signing the so-called peace agreement because it would give Parliament a legal basis for destabilising the regime – allowing them to topple Yanukovych within a couple of days at most.
That is what I was already thinking about on Thursday night, when I watched as a young man who looked both exhausted and traumatised screamed into the microphone that if Yanukovych did not resign before morning, the fighters on the frontline would be ready to storm the presidential administration. I’ve watched the recording of it several times since, and I still can’t make up my mind. Is this a bloodthirsty extremist talking, or just an ordinary solider who watched his friends be shot and killed in front of his eyes over the last three days? In any event, the ultimatum just kind of dissolved, because Yanukovych fled the city. Not (I think) because he feared the hordes of extremists that existed chiefly in his own propaganda, but because his administration was disintegrating around him, as deputies broke away from his Party of the Regions, key supporters fled abroad, and the police and security forces began to mutiny.
I would like to emphasise that what we’re looking at now is not some kind of vacuum – at least, not from where I’m standing. Because I’m still looking at Maidan, which was – and is – a self-organised, self-disciplined, essentially democratic endeavour. This much is evident from the way the encampment and the wider movement functioned over three cold and bitter months, and throughout the past week in particular. While those at the top discuss a political solution to the crisis, those at the bottom use creative mechanisms to provide one another with shelter, food, clothes and medicine, as well as comfort, solace and laughter. In the middle, journalists and activists are constantly relaying information back and forth between the different levels. The main theme of this at the moment seems to be justice – specifically, that justice must be served before demobilisation can occur. While the primary target is Yanukovych and his Party of the Regions, I’ve also seen talk of a lustration process against the Communist Party – as statues of Lenin topple across the country.
I’m scared of where all this is heading. I know that Maidan is not without its flaws, and nor does it represent the entire country. But I have a profound respect for those who created and sustained this movement over the winter months, and who participated in the street battles of 18 -20 February, just like I have a profound pity for those who followed orders to attack the protest and did so believing that they were defending their country’s honour. And I think that the people of Ukraine now have a common sorrow that can help to unite the country, and they have the mechanisms – perhaps shaky, but still unmistakably present – that are required for democratic transition.
For a fledgling academic, there’s something embarrassing about saying all this. There’s a legitimate fear that if Maidan fails – and it might – I’ll be sent to the dunces’ corner for being foolish enough to cross the well-demarcated line between reason and hope. But I’m not making predictions: I’m saying that even if this revolution fails – if the country becomes divided, or taken over by extremists, or corrupted in any way, if Russia intervenes, or if Western powers swarm all over it – I will still support the people who came out onto the streets and did everything they could in the fight for freedom and dignity, and I will not revise that opinion.
There is a bias and a naivety in that, yes. But I don’t believe that any of us is capable of complete impartiality – the best we can do is recognise our own privilege and the role it plays in determining our distance from events. Good research practice demands this much of us. And the resources that are available to us now – the fact that there is nothing greater than a firewall or a plane ticket to separate us from what is taking place in another part of the world – demand it even more. We can’t allow cynicism to masquerade as objectivity. Ukraine is not a new Cold War laboratory experiment, and Ukrainians are not lab rats. They’re having a conversation about where their country – and Europe as a whole – is going, and we should be listening to that, not whitewashing it by focusing on the old political elites.