A Year of Euromaidan: Mistakes and Implications of Revolution of Dignity

It has been a year since the victory of Euromaidan in Ukraine in February 2014. The revolution began in support of closer integration with the European Union, and resulted in the overthrow of President Viktor Yanukovych’s regime. This is a sufficient period of time to evaluate and summarize the outcomes of these events. In order to obtain a clear understanding of the internal and external implications of Euromaidan in Ukraine, it is essential to examine why and how Ukraine found itself in such a difficult situation. This includes the war in the east of the country, loss of Crimea and the comprehensive economic crisis.

In the West, Russian aggression towards Ukraine is widely believed to be the only reason that created the Ukrainian crisis, although no credible evidence to prove such aggression has been ever presented. There is no doubt that Russia plays a huge role in the post-Euromaidan events in Ukraine, but Russia cannot be exclusively blamed for the situation as that would ignore the inner political transformations taking place in Ukraine itself. These transformations started during Euromaidan and then were continued by the new government of Ukraine.

The Reasons for Euromaidan

Euromaidan has both evolved spontaneously and had distinct and definite causes. First, there were inner defects of the Yanukovych regime, such as theft, systematic corruption and the failure to fulfill the promises that had been made during the previous elections. The second cause was a contradictory and inconsistent foreign policy, which was called “side jumping” in Ukraine.
On 21 November 2013, a week before the Vilnius Summit, the Ukrainian government had officially declared that it was “pausing the preparation” for signing the Association Agreement with the EU. In response, the then-parliamentary opposition represented by the “Motherland,” “Punch” and “Freedom” fractions obstructed the work of the Parliament, and their leaders called people to gather on the Maidan Nezalezhnosti (“Independence Square”) in Kiev to oppose the government’s decision.

The mistakes of Euromaidan

Although Maidan was a direct result of the inconsistent policy of the Yanukovych regime, the course and outcomes of the protests were driven mainly by their participants. Voluntarily or not, the leaders and activists of Euromaidan had selected a dangerous path for regime change and this approach has had devastating outcomes for the country.

The first and the most dangerous failure of the Euromaidan protests was the creation of the precedent of a violent overthrow of a legitimately elected government.

The civil disobedience, and then the overthrow of the local governments, and even separatist calls did not start in the Eastern, but in the Western regions of Ukraine. For example, after the first attempt to suppress a rally in Kyiv at the end of November, 2013, the Ternopil city council made a decision not to execute the “criminal orders of the government.” Shortly after this statement was released, the regional councils of the Ukrainian cities of Ivano-Frankivsk, Lviv and Ternopil decided to eliminate the local regional administrations. Simultaneously, the rebellious councils in eastern and southern Ukraine established their own executive committees that were meant to manage the economic activities of the separatist regions.

The most active phase of the violent seizures of the administrative buildings occurred in western Ukraine during late January 2014 through the beginning of February 2014. Using brute force and illegal measures, the protesters in nine western regions in Ukraine, and also in Chernihivska region (northern Ukraine) and Kyiv seized local administrations’ administrative buildings and then began seizing the buildings of the “power ministries” (Ministry of Internal Affairs, Security Service of Ukraine, Office of the Public Prosecutor and multiple warehouses with firearms). After that, the Security Service of Ukraine declared the beginning of the anti-terrorist operation against the protesters. But the anti-terrorist operation (ATO) of President Yanukovych remained a declaration, and no real measures were taken. If President Yanukovych had regained control over the situation and introduced an order to stop the seizures in the Western regions, the possibility existed that the Western regions of Ukraine would have formed violent uprisings directly against the government. Initial planning in the Western regions of Ukraine was taking place against the Yanukovych government. Had this scenario played out, instead of President Poroshenko, there would be President Yanukovych, and instead of the fighting in Donetsk and Luhansk, it would have been in Lviv and Ivano-Frankivsk. Presumably, the USA and EU would have supported the rebels in Western Ukraine and supplied them with weapons and defended them in the UN, and Russia and China would have demanded the disarmament of the activists of Maidan who would be getting their supplies through the borders of Poland and Hungary.

Therefore, the eastern regions in Ukraine have used this exact precedent. In the beginning of March 2014, right after the appointment of the new government, massive anti-government protests started in the major cities of the eastern and southern regions in Ukraine. Initially, the protesters demanded a referendum on the major foreign and domestic policy issues, federalization of Ukraine, making Russian the second official language, preservation of historical heritage sites, and anti-fascist legislation. The new government which ironically styled itself the “government of the national unity” had ignored these demands and reacted harshly to the protests.

The critical first mistake of Euromaiden was the protests’ deviation from the legal framework of Ukraine, and eventual refusal of the protestors to use legal methods to define their political struggle. The laws of Ukraine were broken almost from the very beginning of the protests, and the chain reaction of violations of the law continued throughout all of Euromaidan. The Okruzhnyi administrative court in Kyiv passed a resolution in which it prohibited any meetings in the center of the capital until the end of the Christmas holidays. If the leaders of Maidan were unsatisfied with this resolution, they could have appealed it. Otherwise, they had to follow the rule of law. As a result, however, people did not leave Maidan. The attempts of the police to demolish the tents (with incidents of the excessive use of force, but also not without provocations from the side of the protesters) provoked the new wave of protesters’ indignation that turned into aggressive resistance to the police. According to the law “About militia,” the police were authorized to use force to preserve the rule of law, but initially, President Yanukovych prohibited it. Due to the Yanukovych regime’s failure to act quickly by requesting negotiations with the protestors, the protests escalated even further.

The events in the capital affected the situation in the west of the country immediately. Under the premise of “revolutionary necessity,” the protesters seized and burned administrative buildings, local councils, local police stations, physically assaulted local representatives and prosecutors, threatened to punish other officials and blocked the roads. The events that followed in the east of the country raised the question about a distinction between the western Ukrainians’ “righteous anger of the revolutionary masses” and the “criminal actions” of the eastern “terrorists” and “separatists” despite virtually identical actions on each side. The argument from the newly elected government that the Eastern Ukrainians, unlike their Western compatriots, from the very beginning desired ultimately to separate from the rest of the country was invalid. The situation in the east was starkly different compared to the situation in Crimea. Within Crimea, the local population provided large scale support for a transition, understandably, given the ethnic composition of Crimea: 60% Russian, 24% Ukrainians who live in mixed Russian/Ukrainian household families, 10% Tatars, 6% are other minorities. The majority of these population groups saw a better economic future with Russia than with an indecisive central government in Ukraine. The physical separation of Crimea from Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea by Russia were also accomplished with very few instances of violence. A key important factor is that Russia showed the international community that it was ready to decisively defend its vital geostrategic interests in the region.

The third mistake of Maidan was the Yanukovych Regime’s complete disregard for the opinions of the population in Western Ukraine.

In the TV coverage of the Maidan events most Ukrainian media showed many different demographic groups represented on Maidan, people who came to oppose the government from all over Ukraine and thus created the impression that the protests were truly national and democratic. Thus, if “all people” were fighting against the regime, then it is was assumed that “the people” could not be denied and were in complete unity. Another media assumption was that since certain parts of Ukraine supported Euromaidan, the entire country of Ukraine was moving forward in unison. This was not the case and presented somewhat of an initial quagmire for the EU and the US. Since the legitimately elected regime of Viktor Yanukovych was recognized by the aforementioned entities as the legitimate government, it was initially assumed that the regime would not confront the people and would not resort to violence to end the protests. These assumptions were proven false and led to the deaths of many people in Ukraine.
The approach taken by the protesters was completely undemocratic, because everybody who disagreed with their (“the people’s”) goals and methods were excluded from the political process. Those who did not share the protesters’ values were viewed as either criminals whose interests were connected with preservation of the current regime, or Kremlin agents, or, at best, idiots who could not comprehend the advantages of the new regime.

The active participation in the initially peaceful protests of the ultra-right groups and of odious politicians who were famous for their anti-Russian and anti-Semitic views also pushed away a major segment of Eastern Ukrainians who traditionally stick to the center-leftist ideology.

Long term negative consequences for Ukraine will be likely due to the country’s inability to produce a new generation of responsible leaders. This is often viewed as a major failure of Euromaidan. As a result of this failure, representatives of the old political establishment acted in its name, and after the victory, they formed a new government. Hence, no renewal of the political establishment actually happened – Alexander Turchynov, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, and many others had been on top of the Ukrainian political Olympus for many years by then, and repeatedly occupied the highest offices. It was naive to hope that politicians who had started their careers on the eve of Ukrainian independence in 1991 could rapidly turn Ukraine into a modern European country.

Euromaidan – A Year in Review

A year ago, when people gathered on Maidan Square, hoping for a better future in the family of European nations, nobody could predict the consequences of the “revolution of dignity,” as President Poroshenko called it. What started as peaceful protests very quickly transformed into violent riots that led to the overthrow of the Yanukovych regime.

Euromaidan has revealed the multidirectional processes at work within Ukrainian society: pursuit of European integration on one side and the desire to preserve close economic and political relations with Russia on the other. For historical and territorial reasons, the main part of the supporters of European integration were located primarily in the Western and Central regions of the country, and the supporters of the pro-Russian vector were located primarily in the Eastern and Southern regions. These internal processes and perspectives were developing in Ukraine for many years and Euromaidan was ultimately their mechanism for expression.

Ukraine was, and is, in need of good economic and political reforms. Both western and eastern Ukrainians despised Yanukovych’s regime for its corruption and inconsistency. At the same time, the changes should have been conducted legally, consistently and professionally. Illegal and violent riots that lead to the government’s overthrow are especially dangerous in the countries like Ukraine, since they lack stable democratic procedures and practices that could protect a country from anarchy. Illegal means of political struggle such as Maidan generate a vicious cycle of riots – every time people feel dissatisfied with the regime, they overthrow it.

Despite the constant threat of moving backwards again, after the special parliamentary elections and with the appointment of a new government, Ukrainians are hoping for peace in their country, and for comprehensive and systematic reforms that would finally make their county more prosperous, stable and democratic.