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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The TV stars MPs would love to be

Labour MPs dream of being Jed Bartlet.

In my latest book, A State of Play, I looked at the changing ways in which Britain’s representative democracy has been fictionalized since the later Victorian period. With the support of the University of Nottingham, we decided to turn the tables and ask MPs about their favourite fictional political characters. The results are intriguing.

All MPs were contacted, but with only 49 responding – that’s a 7.5 per cent return rate – I can’t claim the results are fully representative. At 22 per cent, women figured slightly less than they actually do in the Commons. But the big difference is in party terms: 71 per cent of respondents were Labour MPs – double their share in the Commons – while just 20 per cent were Conservatives, less than half their proportion in the Lower House. Maybe Conservative MPs are busier and have better things to do than answer surveys? Or perhaps they just don’t take political fiction – and possibly culture more generally - as seriously as those on the Opposition benches.

What is not subject to speculation, however, is that Labour MPs have very different tastes to their Conservatives rivals, suggesting they are more optimistic about what politics might achieve. At 22 per cent, the most favourite character chosen by MPs overall was Jed Bartlet, heroic US President in Aaron Sorkin’s romantic TV series The West Wing. Of those MPs who nominated Bartlett, every one was Labour. Of course Barlet is a Democrat and the series - dismissed by critics as The Left Wing – looked favourably on progressive causes. But it seems Labour MPs regard Bartlet as an archetype for more than his politics. As one put it, he is, "the ideal leader: smart, principled and pragmatic" For some, Bartlet stands in stark contrast with their current leader. One respondent wistfully characterised the fictional President as having, "Integrity, learning, wit, electability... If only...".

As MPs mentioned other characters from The West Wing, the series accounted for 29 per cent of all choices. Its nearest rival was the deeply cynical House of Cards, originally a novel written by Conservative peer Michael Dobbs and subsequently adapted for TV in the UK and US. Taken together, Britain’s Francis Urquhart and America’s Frank Underwood account for 18 per cent of choices, and are cross-party favourites. One Labour MP dryly claimed Urquhart – who murders his way to Number 10 due to his obsession with the possession of power - "mirrors most closely my experience of politics".

Unsurprisingly, MPs nominated few women characters - politics remains a largely male world, as does political fiction. Only 14 per cent named a female character, the most popular being Birgitte Nyborg from Denmark’s TV series Borgen. Like The West Wing, the show presents politics as a place of possibility. Not all of those nominating Nyborg were female, although one female MP who did appeared to directly identify with the character, saying: "She rides a bike, has a dysfunctional life and isn't afraid of the bastards."

Perhaps the survey’s greatest surprise was which characters and series turned out to be unpopular. Jim Hacker of Yes Minister only just made it into the Top Five, despite one Conservative MP claiming the series gives a "realistic assessment of how politics really works". Harry Perkins, who led a left-wing Labour government in A Very British Coup received just one nomination – and not from an MP who might be described as a Corbynite. Only two MPs suggested characters from Anthony Trollope’s Palliser novels, which in the past claimed the likes of Harold MacMillan, Douglas Hurd and John Major as fans. And only one character from The Thick of It was nominated - Nicola Murray the struggling minister. 

The results suggest that MPs turn to political fiction for different reasons. Some claimed they liked their characters for – as one said of House of Cards's Frank Underwood – "the entertainment value". But others clearly identified with their favourites. There is clearly a preference for characters in series like The West Wing and Borgen, where politicians are depicted as ordinary people doing a hard job in trying circumstances. This suggests they are largely out of step with the more cynical presentations of politics now served up to the British public.

Top 5 political characters

Jed Bartlett - 22 per cent

Frank Underwood - 12 per cent

Francis Urquhart - 6 per cent

Jim Hacker - 6 per cent

Birgitte Nyborg - 6 per cent

Steven Fielding is Professor of Political History at the University of Nottingham. Follow him @polprofsteve.