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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David Blunkett compares Labour membership to failed revolution “from Ukraine to Egypt”

The Labour peer and former home secretary says new members need a “meaningful political education”, and accuses unions of neglecting their “historic balance”.

There are three sorts of opposition. There’s the civil society opposition, with people campaigning in their own specific areas, people who’ve got an interest group or are delivering social enterprise or a charity. I don’t think we should underestimate that because we're going to have to hang on to it as part of the renewal of civil society.

The second is the opposition formally, within the House of Commons: those who have agreed to serve as the formal shadow ministerial teams. Because of what I’d describe as the turmoil over the last two years, they’ve either not been able to be impressive – ie. they’re trying very hard but they don't have the coherent leadership or backing to do it – or they’ve got completely different interests to what it is they’re supposed to be doing, and therefore they’re not engaged with the main task.

Then there’s the third, which is the informal opposition – Labour linked sometimes to the Lib Dems and the SNP in Parliament on the opposition benches as a whole. They’re not doing a bad job with the informal opposition. People getting on with their work on select committees, the departmental committees beginning to shape policy that they can hopefully feed to the National Executive Committee, depending on the make-up of the National Executive Committee following this year’s conference. That embryo development of coherent policy thinking will be the seed-bed for the future.

I lived through, worked through, and was integrally involved with, what happened in the early Eighties, so I know it well. And people were in despair after the ‘83 election. Although it took us a long time to pull round, we did. It’s one reason why so many people, quite rightly in my view, don't want to repeat the split of 1931 or the split of 1981.

So they are endeavouring to stay in to argue to have some vision of a better tomorrow, and to persuade those of goodwill who have joined the party – who genuinely believe in a social movement and in extra-parliamentary non-violent activity, which I respect entirely – to persuade them that they’ll only be effective if they can link up with a functioning political process at national level, and at townhall and county level as well.

In other words, to learn the lessons of what’s happened across the world recently as well as in the past, from the Ukraine to Egypt, that if the groundswell doesn’t connect to a functioning party leadership, then, with the best will in the world, it’s not going to achieve its overall goals.

How do we engage with meaningful political education within the broader Labour party and trade union movement, with the substantially increased rank-and-file membership, without being patronising – and without setting up an alternative to Momentum, which would allow Momentum to justify its existence as a party within a party?

That's the challenge of the next two years. It's not just about someone with a vision, who’s charismatic, has leadership qualities, coming forward, that in itself won’t resolve the challenge because this isn't primarily, exclusively about Jeremy Corbyn. This is about the project being entirely on the wrong trajectory.

A lot depends on what the trade unions do. They command effectively the majority on the National Executive Committee. They command the key votes at party conference. And they command the message and resources that go out on the policy or programmes. It’s not just down to personality and who wins the General Secretary of Unite; it’s what the other unions are doing to actually provide their historic balance, because they always have – until now – provided a ballast, foundation, for the Labour party, through thick and thin. And over the last two years, that historic role has diminished considerably, and they seem to just be drifting.

I don’t think anybody should expect there to be a party leadership challenge any time soon. It may be that Jeremy Corbyn might be persuaded at some point to stand down. I was against the challenge against him last year anyway, purely because there wasn't a prepared candidate, there wasn't a policy platform, and there hadn’t been a recruitment drive to back it up.

People shouldn’t expect there to be some sort of white charger out there who will bring an immediate and quick end to the pain we’re going through. I think it’s going to be a readjustment, with people coming to conclusions in the next two years that might lead the party to be in a position to fight a credible general election in 2020. I’ve every intention of laying down some good red wine and still being alive to drink it when the Labour party is elected back to power.

David Blunkett is a Labour peer and former home secretary and education secretary.

As told to Anoosh Chakelian.

This article first appeared in the 30 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: an opposition