ZOiS Spotlight 3/2018

Protests and political coalitions in Ukraine

by Olga Onuch 31/01/2018
Mikheil Saakashvili holding up a victory sign after he was freed from police custody in Kyiv in December 2017. Evgeny Maloletka/n-ost

When news of lawyer Iryna Nozdorvska’s gruesome murder came to light on 1 January, a group of activists quickly convened a protest outside the Kyiv police headquarters. Although journalists nearly outnumbered the estimated 200 participants, it was clear that the organisers knew what they were doing. What social scientists have dubbed the ‘theatre of resistance’ was on full display for visitors to Kyiv’s Christmas market. There was clear coordination with the police, and many of those present wore white ribbons with a red ‘i’—the symbol of the call for Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko’s impeachment.

Prominent scholar of protest politics Charles Tilly noted that contentious actions are connected to past events through what he calls ‘routines of contention’. Ukraine has a long history of such routines at the levels of both the elite and ordinary citizens, predating the 2013 EuroMaidan Revolution or the 2004 Orange Revolution. In fact, the development of contemporary activism in Ukraine can be traced back to the Prosvita (Enlightenment) organisations at the beginning of the twentieth century.

But in Ukraine, like elsewhere, these routines are often accompanied by patterns that undermine activists and their gains. One such pattern is that unlikely partners enter into negative coalitions held together by a focus on a common enemy. Examples include the Socialist Party joining a coalition with the centre right to support then president Viktor Yushchenko in 2004, and liberal pro-European democrats entering a ‘coalition of inconvenience’ with nationalist right-wing parties in 2013. A second pattern is that complex coalitions come with multiple if not competing claims, and thus protests succumb to the populist discourse of politicians. And a final pattern is that such coalitions result in the discrediting of key activists. All three patterns seem to be visible in Kyiv today.

From anti-corruption to pro-Saakashvili protests

January’s events followed a wave of protests from late October to mid-December 2017. In many regards traditional in nature, the protests included party-sponsored marches through Kyiv, typically culminating in a takeover of Independence Square, where speeches were made from a stage. The main celebrity speaker was Mikheil Saakashvili, a former president of Georgia and former governor of Odessa. He has since been stripped of both Georgian and Ukrainian citizenship and is standing trial in Ukraine while also being pursued on numerous charges in Georgia.

Although the organisers of these protests were well versed in the drama of resistance, their framing of grievances was blurred. On the one hand, there was a clear message of anti-corruption. This narrative criticised recent attacks against the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine as well as the lack of progress since the EuroMaidan Revolution. The protesters demanded that the government cease interfering in anti-corruption processes and allow the bureau to do its job—a claim that many ordinary Ukrainians could get behind and that has international support.

On the other hand, participants called the events ‘impeachment protests’, and the claims seemed to become more and more focused on Saakashvili. There was an anti-Poroshenko coalition in the making, with its eye on Ukraine’s 2019 presidential and parliamentary elections. Whilst Poroshenko is by no means popular (with only 14 per cent support) political science suggests that as a wartime president, he Poroshenko might be difficult to beat. He still remains one of the two most popular politicians in Ukraine, the second most popular being former prime minister Yuliya Tymoshenko, who has 8.4 per cent support according to a recent poll.

Activists’ association with politicians

Saakashvili made repeated populist claims about embodying the EuroMaidan, even suggesting that he was a key organiser in 2014, despite a lack of reputable evidence for this. He stated that he alone is brave enough to speak up for the people of Ukraine and protect them against what he and his supporters call the ‘authoritarian and corrupt Poroshenko regime’, which they deem worse than the government of the authoritarian former president Viktor Yanukovych ousted by the EuroMaidan.

Recent protests have been taking performative elements of popular resistance to a new level, hollowing out the substance that turned past events into revolutionary moments. Observers may wonder whether the demonstrations are really about a drive for anti-corruption reforms, or whether they are a political attack on a weak president amid the need to build a winning electoral coalition in the months to come.

Activists will have to decide if they want to outlive this and the next ruling political clique and put pressure on it when it goes astray. Otherwise they risk failing to learn from past patterns and losing credibility by being too closely associated with politicians. The clearest example of what may discredit activists has been the pro-Saakashvili camp’s reporting on the size of the protests. His supporters repeatedly reported inflated numbers and used purposefully angled photos to make the protests seem larger than they were. Overhead air photographs suggested a much smaller number of participants. Another example is the lack of responsibility over reckless calls to take over the ‘October Palace,’ —calls that resulted in violence and were condemned by international actors.

Whether respected opposition figures decide to pave their own way or tie their fate to that of Saakashvili is to be seen. But for now the protests have not gained wide popularity or support. Nonetheless, one wrong move by the Poroshenko regime that overestimates the levels of political patience could turn these small protests into a moment of mass mobilisation. Unfortunately, it seems that neither political leaders nor activists in Ukraine learn from past mistakes.

Olga Onuch (@oonuch) is an Assistant Professor (Lectureship) in Politics in the Politics Department at the School of Social Sciences at the University of Manchester.