Futile Effort, New Maidan, or Neither? October Protests in Kyiv

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A new political season has opened. This fact was made abundantly clear to Kyiv residents on October 18, as the police patrol had increased its presence downtown. The reason? Mass protests that started a day earlier near the Ukrainian parliament building.

Indeed, if the situation in Ukraine were judged based on the number of political forces and civic organizations participating in the protest, a likely conclusion would be that Ukrainian society had come together in a broad antigovernmental coalition. The participants involved entities and actors from across the political spectrum, including such diverse groups as the KyivPride LGBT activists and nationalist parties such as Svoboda and the Right Sector, and pro-European liberals from the Democratic Alliance and numerous civic organizations and supporters of the For Life party, whose rhetoric tends to be aimed at the traditionally pro-Russian regions of the country.

To some extent an antigovernmental coalition does exist, as all these forces expressed some degree of criticism toward those in power, and in particular toward President Poroshenko, who, according to expert opinion, is concentrating political power in his own hands. 

To some extent an antigovernmental coalition does exist, as all these forces expressed some degree of criticism toward those in power, and in particular toward President Poroshenko, who, according to expert opinion, is concentrating political power in his own hands. Further, according to polls, Ukrainian society maintains a high degree of mistrust in governmental institutions.

At the same time, the coalition proved to be highly situational. The common denominator of the protests consisted of three key demands: lifting the parliamentary immunity provision, creating a specialized anticorruption court, and adopting a new electoral law that would provide for full proportional representation with open ballots.

However, Mikheil Saakashvili also introduced the demand that Poroshenko leave office in case “there are no decisions in favor of the people,” and started a tent camp. This was done with the evident aim of gaining political traction for his Movement of New Forces party, but it was not what other political and civic organizations wanted. Instead, as parliament was introducing the draft bills to place a lifting of parliamentary immunity on its future agenda—a step toward meeting the protesters’ goals—Saakashvili’s followers left the protest. In a common declaration by the protesters who left, it was stated that Saakashvili’s party should bear sole responsibility for the tent camp.

Poroshenko was reportedly furious about the camp installation and the police inaction that allowed it. Yet as only 200 people attended the gathering in the camp on October 21, the president is likely to be satisfied with seeing the protest effectively marginalized. Meanwhile, as the lack of popular support for Saakashvili became evident, the authorities increased their pressure on him personally. Three of his close allies were deported to Georgia for violating the migration laws of Ukraine, and Saakashvili himself is threatened with deportation after being denied refugee status.

Overall, the protests did not see an exceptionally large attendance: at their peak, there were only about 5,000 participants, apparently including some who were paid to take part. This is in line with the general trend after the 2014 regime change in Ukraine: there were numerous attempts to call for a “new Maidan,” but the peak attendance numbers were low, the protests were short-lived, and the organizers often had to resort to inviting paid protesters. Without a major trigger, such as the electoral fraud of 2004 or the beating of protesters by police forces in late 2013, these events will fail to mobilize a passive if dissatisfied public. Further, numerous opinion leaders in social networks held and disseminated a skeptical view of the October protests.

A large element of the puzzle was also missing. Batkivshchyna, led by Yulia Tymoshenko, is the oppositional party with the greatest support in the country. Yet Tymoshenko herself, a charismatic leader, did not participate in the protests, despite declaring her support for their three demands, and only several of her supporters did. This was likely to hedge her risks: had something gone awry during the protests, her reputation would have stayed clean.

In an unexpected move, members of a political movement once again seized a building in Ukraine’s capital city.

Not everything is happening under the parliament these days, though. In an unexpected move, members of a political movement once again seized a building in Ukraine’s capital city. On October 16, right-wing activists from Svoboda, National Corps, and Right Sector seized the Parkovy Convention and Exhibition Center. The nationalists are demanding that the building be “returned to state property.” Though formally it already is state property, they claim that status is “purely theoretical” and that the center is used for private needs, as it was in the Yanukovych era.

In a weird way, they also claim to have a “normal dialogue” with the police. Since Minister of Interior Arsen Avakov is known to exert significant influence over the Azov regiment—a founding base for the National Corps party—the existence of such a “dialogue” raises questions as to whether Avakov might be pressing Poroshenko for certain concessions. Furthermore, it is interesting to see representatives of the three Ukrainian nationalist parties, which earlier had signed a cooperation agreement, in a common street action. However, it is too early to tell whether the cooperation will last. When and if the time comes to form a common ballot list in national elections, internal conflicts among the rightist parties are likely to appear.

Direct action in Kyiv did not end there. During those same October days, the followers of another nationalist politician, Mykola Kokhanivskyi, who was arrested for opening fire in an argument and wounding his opponent, blockaded the entrance to the courtroom where he was appearing while his case was adjudicated. When law enforcement officers stormed the building, three journalists were attacked. Finally, in an explosion near the entrance to a radio station, determined to be a terrorist attack, the Radical Party MP Ihor Mosiychuk was wounded and his guard was killed.

None of these incidents—the tent camp, the seizing of the Parkovy Center, the storming of the courtroom, the explosion—seems particularly major by itself. Even the protests at their peak might be treated as just another not-a-Maidan. Yet the third week of October in general was definitely one of the most eventful in Ukrainian politics of recent years, and as a lot of direct action was involved, these events were alarming. While there is little visible likelihood of a “third Maidan”—at least without some major trigger—the degree of instability in Ukrainian politics seems to be increasing. It is a sign that the campaign for the 2019 presidential and parliamentary elections, or possibly even a snap vote, has kicked off.

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