Rocks and Molotovs vs snipers’ bullets in Kiev

Ukraine's revolution has been an old-style uprising cut through with violence.

Ukraine’s revolution was, to some extent, an old-fashioned popular uprising, the kind you read about in textbooks about the 19th century. Until this past month, there had been too many reports in the western media that swallowed the Russian line that the protesters were all extreme nationalists. I saw a few, but I also saw old women helping cut up pavement and forming human chains to transport the paving stones for young men to throw from the front line. The neatest evidence of civic support was the cardboard boxes at the entrances to the encampment on the Maidan, Kyiv’s main square, with notes in Ukrainian or Russian on them saying things like “Fags for the lads”. Local teenagers, showing off in front of their mates, were enthusiastic donors.

Yet there was also violence. There were running battles between protesters and militiamen on 18 February and the headquarters of the ruling party was burned. Then came the long-feared attack on the Maidan, but not in the expected form. The opposing armies faced off, hurling missiles at each other. Two days later, the regime resorted to snipers. Those behind the barricades or in no-man’s-land were shot professionally through the head or heart.

The Ukrainian press later reported that the snipers had been based in either the main government building or the presidential administration. Both have been peacefully occupied since then, in part to comb for evidence.

It was originally a Twitter revolution. The protesters assembled using social media – mainly Facebook and the local equivalent, VKontakte. Maidan activists made good use of technology to publicise their cause and deter the regime from too much violence while the world’s TV cameras were rolling. But in the weeks before the revolution the regime simply moved its violence off-screen wherever possible. Suspects were snatched from their hospital beds. Activists were seized at night, beaten and dumped in local forests.

And so the protesters became increasingly militant and the regime more brutal. In the end, it became a low-tech conflict. The people in the streets won a straight fight – with rocks and Molotov cocktails against snipers’ bullets. Hence the militarised funerals that were held afterwards and the emerging national myth of blood sacrifice.

The people on the Maidan, not the moderate parties in parliament that form the new government, made the revolution. Every time the parties and the president signed an agreement, the demonstrators ignored it or put on a show of force if they had not been consulted. Tensions remain. The government cannot disband the army on the Maidan; but activists have done a good job of stepping in for the disappearing police.

The protesters gave the newly released former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko a lukewarm reception when she addressed them from a wheelchair on 22 February. She risks looking like yesterday’s politician. Officials in the new government have been stopped by protesters’ patrols and lectured about sweeping around Kyiv in their motorcades.

But no one has elected the revolutionaries – no one ever does. Elections for the presidency are scheduled for May but not yet for parliament, where new parties representing the Maidan would have more of a chance. The protesters claim to represent the “revolutionary Ukrainian people”, but things aren’t that revolutionary to date in the largely Russian-speaking east of the country. So even the spelling of the capital’s name is important: it is Kyiv in Ukrainian, Kiev in Russian.

Parliament may have made a misstep by moving so quickly to abolish the 2012 law on language, which Yanukovych introduced to mobilise his supporters by bolstering the status of Russian in the east and south. Economic priorities are more pressing. In effect, the coffers are empty and the Russians, who do not recognise the legitimacy of the new leaders, will hit them hard – with higher gas prices and trade embargoes and by stopping Russian banks from lending to Ukraine. So far, the Russians have not actively stoked separatist sentiments that would give them influence over parts of the country. They hope the new authorities will fail quickly if they ramp up the economic pressure.

In the meantime, I’m happy with “Kyiv”. The people have earned it. It was noticeable how they smiled if you spoke Ukrainian, as they did immediately after the collapse of the USSR in 1991. But healing the country’s divisions now will be even more difficult than it has been in the past.

Andrew Wilson is a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations

This article first appeared in the 26 February 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Scotland: a special issue

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Five things we've learned from Labour conference

The party won't split, Corbynite divisions are growing and MPs have accepted Brexit. 

Labour won't split anytime soon

For months, in anticipation of Jeremy Corbyn’s re-election, the media had speculated about the possibility of a Labour split. But the party’s conference confirmed that MPs have no intention of pursuing this course (as I had long written). They are tribally loyal to Labour and fear that a split would prove electorally ruinous under first-past-the-post. Many still expect Theresa May to hold an early general election and are focused on retaining their seats.

Rather than splitting, Corbyn’s opponents will increase their level of internal organisation in a manner reminiscent of the left’s Socialist Campaign Group. The “shadow shadow cabinet” will assert itself through backbench policy committees and, potentially, a new body (such as the proposed “2020 group”). Their aim is to promote an alternative direction for Labour and to produce the ideas and organisation that future success would depend on.

MPs do not dismiss the possibility of a split if their “hand is forced” through a wave of deselections or if the left achieves permanent control of the party. But they expect Labour to fight the next election as a united force.

Neither the Corbynites nor the rebels have ultimate control 

Corbyn’s second landslide victory confirmed the left’s dominance among the membership. He increased his winning margin and triumphed in every section. But beyond this, the left’s position is far more tenuous.

The addition of Scottish and Welsh representatives to the National Executive Committee handed Corbyn’s opponents control of Labour’s ruling body. Any hope of radically reshaping the party’s rule book has ended.

For weeks, Corbyn’s allies have spoken of their desire to remove general secretary Iain McNicol and deputy leader Tom Watson. But the former is now safe in his position, while the latter has been strengthened by his rapturously received speech.

Were Corbyn to eventually resign or be defeated, another left candidate (such as John McDonnell) would struggle to make the ballot. Nominations from 15 per cent of MPs are required but just six per cent are committed Corbynites (though selection contests and seat losses could aid their cause). It’s for this reason that allies of the leader are pushing for the threshold to be reduced to five per cent. Unless they succeed, the hard-left’s dominance is from assured. Were an alternative candidate, such as Clive Lewis or Angela Rayner, to succeed it would only be by offering themselves as a softer alternative.

Corbynite divisions are intensifying 

The divide between Corbyn’s supporters and opponents has recently monopolised attention. But the conference showed why divisions among the former should be interrogated.

Shadow defence secretary Clive Lewis, an early Corbyn backer, was enraged when his speech was amended to exclude a line announcing that Labour’s pro-Trident stance would not be reversed. Though Lewis opposes renewal, he regards unilateralism as an obstacle to unifying the party around a left economic programme. The longer Corbyn remains leader, the greater the tension between pragmatism and radicalism will become. Lewis may have alienated CND but he has improved his standing among MPs, some of whom hail him as a bridge between the hard and soft left.

Elsewhere, the briefing against McDonnell by Corbyn allies, who suggested he was an obstacle to recruiting frontbenchers, showed how tensions between their respective teams will continue.

Labour has accepted Brexit

Ninety four per cent of Labour MPs backed the Remain campaign during the EU referendum. But by a similar margin, they have accepted the Leave vote. Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell, both long-standing eurosceptics, confirmed that they would not seek to prevent Brexit.

Owen Smith called for a referendum on the eventual deal during his leadership campaign. But with some exceptions, such as Angela Eagle, most of his backers have rejected the idea. Though 48 per cent of the electorate voted Remain, MPs emphasise that only 35 per cent of constituencies did. Some still fear an SNP-style surge for Ukip if Labour seeks to overturn the outcome.

The debate has moved to Britain’s future relationship with Europe, most notably the degree of free movement. For Labour, like Theresa May, Brexit means Brexit.

Corbyn will not condemn deselections 

The Labour leader could have won credit from MPs by unambiguously condemning deselection attempts. But repeatedly invited to do so, he refused. Corbyn instead defended local parties’ rights and stated that the “vast majority” of MPs had nothing to fear (a line hardly reassuring to those who do). Angela Eagle, Stella Creasy and Peter Kyle are among the rebels targeted by activists.

Corbyn can reasonably point out that the rules remain the same as under previous leaders. MPs who lose trigger ballots of their local branches face a full and open selection. But Labour’s intensified divisions mean deselection has become a far greater threat. MPs fear that Corbyn relishes the opportunity to remake the parliamentary party in his own images.  And some of the leader’s allies hope to ease the process by reviving mandatory reselection. Unless Corbyn changes his line, the issue will spark continual conflict. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.