The recent protests in Ukraine – dominated, particularly in the early stages, by students – are about more than integration with Europe. They are about a desire for freedom and justice. The Ukrainian word maidan has Turkish origins. Its closest synonym is the word ‘square’. But maidan is a place for discussing and solving problems that are significant for every member of the community. People do not gather for those reasons regularly. This happens only when something goes wrong and a solution needs to be found.
Maidan Nezalezhnosti – Independence Square – in the centre of Kiev has played an important role in the history of independent Ukraine. But its role began even earlier than that.
In the late 1980s, when the Soviet Union was collapsing, the first free press was available there. In 1990, the ‘granite’ student revolution for de-communisation and the establishment of an independent Ukrainian state took place there.
In 2004 the victorious Orange Revolution broke out there, and stopped Victor Yanukovych – the current Ukrainian president – taking up office at the time.
Euromaidan is the buzz now in the centre of Kiev and in all the big cities of Ukraine like Kharkiv, Lviv and Dnipropetrovsk. In its first stage, it was mainly a student movement.
The issue of European integration
From 21-30 November mass protests in Ukraine, first of all at Kiev Maidan, were focused on support for signing the Association Agreement between Ukraine and the European Union.
This step would not mean Ukraine’s membership of the EU, but would fundamentally direct the vector of the country’s development towards European values and standards.
The Ukrainian government, after a short period of deceiving citizens about its intentions regarding European integration, swung the geopolitical vector right around and declared its intention to aspire to even closer relations with Russia through a customs union.
Quite unexpectedly, students became the strongest driver of Euromaidan. They did not make up the majority of the protesters, but seemed the most motivated and convincing members of the demonstrations.
Young people declared their desire to live in a different, European Ukraine and they protested against corruption, the ineffectiveness of the state system in general and the education system in particular.
People in Kiev supported Euromaidan, just as they did in 2004. The most numerous demonstrations drew up to 150,000 people. The movement grew stronger ahead of the EU Summit in Vilnius on 28-29 November, but it is likely to decline subsequently.
On the night of 29 November, a special purpose police unit Berkut – ‘eagle’ – not only dispersed but brutally beat students who remained at Maidan. Many students were arrested or checked into accident and emergency wards; several people are missing.
The whole society was shocked. All the events related to Maidan are highly symbolic for Ukrainians.
Trying to escape the police, who continued hunting young people, beating and maiming them even after they left Maidan, participants in the peaceful action hid behind the wall of Michael’s Golden-Domed Monastery, established in the 12th century.
The monks gave them shelter and hot food, and allowed them to stay in the cathedral. The last time such events took place there was in 1240, when the inhabitants of Kiev found shelter in Michael’s monastery during an attack by the Mongolian army.
After this act of aggression against the students, many more people flocked to the Euromaidan protests, and up to one million protesters gathered every Sunday for viche – a town meeting, in medieval Ukraine – in Kiev.
The protesters’ demands changed too. Now they were related not only to Euro-integration but also to political goals, including a demand for the immediate resignation of the government.
Civil society – activists, organisations of writers, students, journalists, sports people, experts, show business representatives, ecologists, medical workers, lawyers, military veterans, trade unions etc – and opposition party leaders and their supporters, moved to Maidan.
Security, food provision, medical care and cleaning were organised very quickly. Maidan Open University set up in the open air and invited everyone who was interested to join.
Functioning student organisations consolidated and new ones, like the Student Coordination Council, were established. Local university strike committees were organised all over the country.
Rectors in western Ukraine openly supported student protests. Several universities went to Maidan as institutions – Borys Hrinchenko Pedagogic University in Kiev, Kyiv Polytechnic University, Kyiv-Mohyla Academy and Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv.
On the night of 10 December, police tried to attack Maidan protests once more, but failed. The Maidan protest persevered. Barricades in the city centre became a common facet of Ukrainian life.
It became clear that without Maidan as an embodiment of society’s aspiration for change, there would not be any reforms in Ukraine or in Ukrainian higher education.
Over 80% of Euromaidan participants joined the protests because they objected to the acts of aggression against students. Over 70% of them – there are some distinctions between those who participate in the meetings and those who are ready to ‘stay until the end’ – are people who have a degree or are studying for one.
Natalia Humeniuk, a lecturer at Kyiv-Mohyla school of journalism and a journalist at Hromadske.tv – a public service broadcaster that functions as an NGO – emphasised the emotional and idealistic nature of Euromaidan. Most Ukrainians did not know much about the EU’s internal problems and “speak through symbols without context”.
She pointed out that in 2013 there were no specific European values and there were no unique European human rights. These concepts were universal. And the protests were not about love for the EU and hatred for Russia. They were about everyone’s right to go out onto the street when their opinions were brutally ignored, since people are the only source of power.
Ukrainians just did the same as the citizens of Turkey, Brazil, the United States, Tunisia and other countries have done in the past, and tried to protect values that were important for all of them.
It just so happens that refusing the ‘Euro choice’ in Ukraine means remaining a land of lawlessness, despotism, kleptocracy and ignorance.
The president’s and government’s vision of keeping Ukraine within the post-Soviet area dominated by Vladimir Putin’s Russia, with its sick imperial ambitions, is one that upsets Ukrainians who mostly see themselves as part of the European geopolitical reality.
Bringing down Lenin’s statue in Kiev at the time of Euromaidan was an interesting example of the differentiation between Ukrainian society’s geopolitical self-identification and the current political culture faced by people living in the capital.
Lenin’s statue is seen as a symbol of totalitarianism and new imperial threats to Ukraine. Nevertheless, people do not support the spontaneous, illegal destruction of the symbol of our ‘common history’ with Tsarist-Soviet-Putin’s Russia.
Ideology of the ‘revolution of dignity’
Volodymyr Yermolenko, a lecturer at Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, offered an original comment on the relativity of ideologies in the world today. At Maidan, one can see a mix of anarchic communism, nationalism and liberalism.
Maidan demonstrates elements of anarchic communism in its organisation: no money circulates, it is based on volunteering, solidarity and donations, it embraces the commune and the collective body dominates over individuals.
It is nationalistic in its emotional component: singing of the national anthem, prayers from Ukrainian churches, nationalistic mottos, the domination of the colours of the national flag and its use of ribbons of the national colours used for visual self-identification.
But it is also liberal in its argumentation: European flags, emphasising human rights and democracy, appealing to liberal Europe, and its aspiration to build a ‘European country’.
An anarchic and communist type organisation, nationalistic emotions and liberal arguments – this is the strange hybrid creature that is our Maidan, Volodymyr Yermolenko wrote.
I should also mention the vanishing of the national – for example, the joining together of Crimean Tatars, liberal Jewish and Russian intellectuals – and social barriers – for instance, the support given by small and middle-size businesses and the director general of Microsoft-Ukraine Dmytro Shymkiv personally shoveling snow at Maidan.
This enables us to understand that the main meaning of the Euro-revolution is held in ‘people’s heads’ and is about a real, not just a declared, belief in freedom and justice.