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Ukraine's anti-government protests are lumbering into their seventh week

07.01.2014

Participants insist that that is just because of the Christmas holidays (Orthodox Christmas falls on January 7th). But fatigue and a sense of futility are surely also part of the reason. Viktor Yanukovych, the president, is sitting on a comfortable parliamentary majority and a financial assistance package from Russia that will last him through to the 2015 elections with no need for painful reforms.

Put like that, the situation seems rather bleak. But wander around the protest area and you are swiftly reminded how astonishing, enchanting and also perplexing it all is. Whatever the eventual outcome, this is an event that has marked the lives of thousands of people and transformed Ukrainian civil society.

Hundreds of anti-government activists are still sleeping in tents on Maidan and Kreshchatyk Street. There is a constant supply of wood for heating. Many of the tents were provided by opposition-run local authorities in western towns, who have also helped organise transport to and from Kiev. Protesters take it in turns maintain their respective town’s representation in the capital. Most speak with jolly animation about their resolve to stick it out till the bitter end.

All are protected by a combination of 19th-century-style barricades (many of them manned by Cossacks in full garb) and 21st-century knowledge that if police try to storm the square, as they did on the night of December 10th, online networks will summon thousands of people to defend it in a matter of minutes.

Hundreds more protesters are living in occupied public buildings, mainly city hall and the trades union building. City hall was a pungent mess a week after it was first occupied on December 1st. Not anymore: a strict sanitary regime has been imposed. Medicine is available for free, as is psychological assistance. There are desks inviting people to sign up for guard duty and other voluntary tasks. The walls are plastered with messages, slogans and satirical art. Not for free, on the other hand, are the Christmas baubles and toys for sale at the top of the stairs. A sign on the stand reads “Don’t steal the toys, you’re not Yanukovych”. Among the notices on the walls are advertisements for talks on a whole range of topics related to Ukraine’s political and economic situation.

There are debates on http://hromadske.tv, an online TV channel planned by journalists who had quit mainstream media over censorship, and which started broadcasting ahead of schedule when the protests began. Within days, hundreds of thousands were tuning in to its live streams of the protests.

Even so, this grassroots explosion of creativity, energy, engagement and sheer organisational know-how does not seem to be matched at the top. The political opposition has no single leader and no clear strategy. After failing, as predicted, to oust the government in a no-confidence vote on December 3rd, it has given no credible indication of how its goal of securing early elections might be achieved. At times it is not even clear whether that really is the goal.

The largest opposition party, Batkivshchyna, led by Arseniy Yatseniuk while Yulia Tymoshenko, a former prime minister, is in prison, gives the impression of struggling to control a movement it did not see coming and did not want. Vitaliy Klitschko, a former boxing champion leads a party, UDAR, that is smaller than Mr Yatseniuk’s. His personal popularity ratings however are higher though he is still a lamentably poor public speaker. Finally Oleg Tyagnibok’s nationalist Svoboda party, which is overrepresented among the protesters compared to its 5% or 6% ratings nationwide, is coming across as the most effective force. This is alarming for a movement that purports to defend European values. Svoboda’s support is heavily concentrated in the west of Ukraine. It is allied with Eurosceptic far-right parties within the European Union, such as the French National Front or Hungary’s Jobbik. Svoboda is frequently accused of anti-Semitism, which it denies. It is vocally opposed to liberal immigration laws, gay marriage and legal abortion.

Yet there is evident potential for anti-government sentiment to bridge Ukraine’s long-standing east-west divide. Four years of recession combined with conspicuous consumption by the president and his closest associates have sapped Mr Yanukovych’s popularity in his former heartlands in the east and south.

Even so, people here are receptive to the government’s arguments that a blind rush towards European integration would cost too many industrial jobs. And with good reason: Ukrainian factories do not meet European norms, and Russia has demonstrated it that will stop buying Ukrainian products if Ukraine pursues westward policies. Workers in Kharkiv complain that opposition leaders treat the loss of their livelihoods as collateral damage on the path to a bright European future.



The Economist, Eastern Approaches