“The following video contains graphic content, which may be disturbing for some viewers,” says NYTimes.com about a video of the protests in Ukraine. Yes, politics — if by “politics” we do not mean debates of “experts” and TV celebrities who represent political parties — is disturbing, and not only in Ukraine.
Yet, in Ukraine, politics has come back. Hundreds of thousands of people have been on the streets for two months already protesting the government. What started in November 2013 as a protest against President Viktor Yanukovych’s decision not to sign the Association Agreement with the EU has very quickly turned into a protest against the entire regime, the whole system of power from the President to a local police officer.
The first violence used against the protesters on November 30 showed that the government hates to see the faces of those who do not like it. After two months of mass protests, when two to three hundred thousand people were peacefully marching the streets of Kyiv, the government turned to “legal” measures. On January 16, the pro-government Parliament passed a package of anti-Constitutional laws that criminalized every form of public protest. Moreover, they criminalized political competition, making an opposition victory practically impossible.
What happened next was another turn in the struggle against the corrupt government that protects itself with internal military and police forces. In the aftermath of the laws that criminalized everyone on the Maidan being passed, the opposition leaders were at a loss and could not clearly explain what to do. Some of the protesters turned to violence against the police, and the police shot at the protesters, killing four and injuring hundreds, all the while declaring that they do not use firearms.
“Law enforcement” agents were also kidnapping the wounded from the hospitals. One of them, Ihor Lutsenko, survived and told of how he and another man, who was later found dead, were tortured and interrogated by people close to the police. Another victim of kidnapping, Dmytro Bulatov, is the organizer of the AutoMaidan, a car protest that started as rallies on wheels and have since been patrolling the streets of Kyiv in search of the paid thugs who cooperate with the police and attack protesters. Bulatov was tortured for eight days and then dumped in a forest near Kyiv.
The videos of police brutality and torture proves what happens to those who become their hostages. The arrested protesters are heavily beaten at the police station, while the wounded are taken from or on the way to the hospitals. In official negotiations with the opposition the government acts as a terrorist. It openly threatens that the courts can either set the arrested free or put them in prison for months and years, where they will be tortured and maybe even killed. The brutal officers of Berkut, special forces who are trained to suppress mass public activities, are often called “zvirstvo,” the beastly, by Ukrainians. For fun, the beastly take pictures with their victims. In a video that appeared on YouTube a few days ago, a young man was stripped naked on the snow and photographed by policemen while being beaten. On Facebook shots from this video are often compared to pictures of Nazi actions in concentration camps. This comparison reflects the way in which the protests were radically politicized, following the logic of Carl Schmitt.
The Berkut and the protesters are absolute enemies for each other, and enemies must die: even if the enemy is your neighbor, relative, or just a suffering human being. The kidnapped Lutsenko described his interrogators as people who really believe in what they were doing. They believe that the protestors on the Maidan were paid to be there, taking orders from the “master” who designed the evil plan the interrogators try to uncover.
On the other side, there are many rumors that the Berkut on the streets of Kyiv consists of Russian special forces units — this is how people imagine the enemy that does not belong to “us.”
The struggle quickly spread beyond the Maidan and has already come to the houses of Berkut families: in the city of Kryvyi Rih people ruined the car and house of a member of the Berkut who is now on service in Kyiv. The Berkut and the police in general have lost their monopoly on violence. After brutal kidnapping and torture no one believes in the right of the police to arrest. What people are doing now is trying to rescue those who have been and will be arrested, staying on watch in hospitals, protesting at police stations, and mobilizing advocates and parliamentarians to the courts.
From the beginning, the three opposition leaders — Arsenii Yatseniuk, Volodymyr Klychko, and Oleh Tiahnybok — were uncertain about their actions and were gradually losing support of the people on the Maidan. After the violence erupted in Kyiv on January 19, the people outside the capital, first in western and later in central and eastern Ukraine, began occupying government buildings. The protesters were hardly led by uncertain calls of the opposition leaders to create an alternative to the government. As in Kyiv, the large-scale public protests turned to radical action such as occupying buildings and fighting with the police, when small radical groups took the initiative and started acting.
As the state structure apparently is crumbling, many fear a split, the threat of civil war, and Russian intervention to restore order, quite a familiar scenario. For many media outlets, the map showing the location of occupied buildings demonstrates the tired thesis of “two Ukraines” — a western one that is pro-EU and supports the opposition, and an eastern one that is pro-Russia and supports Yanukovych. Another version of the story is western nationalists or even fascists against pro-Putin east. This is a simplistic vision that first of all universalizes language as the dividing factor and essentializes cultural differences, while ignoring other causes of political and social division and unity. Significanlty, the first victim of police brutality was a young man from the Dnipropetrovsk region, one of the core areas of government support.
While many speak about the “civil society” that is being formed on the Maidan, instead of the emergence of this vague buzzword, what I see is the very powerful momentum of self-organization that not only makes the Maidan function, but also aims to replace state institutions of coercion. The Maidan’s kitchen and medical services are the best-known examples, but the AutoMaidan is more obvious evidence that the protesters can go further.
The government started bringing hundreds of paid thugs to the streets of Kyiv to beat up the protesters and create chaos in the city. Known as “titushky,” these men are unemployed youth or low-paid workers who are eager to earn 20-30 dollars and do not mind fighting or other illegal activity. In fact, they are able to direct their own frustrations with the country’s political and economic situation into physical action; sadly they do not realize (or do not care) that they are being played by the very people who bear responsibility for Ukraine’s plight.
The AutoMaidan has turned into a street patrol that aims to seize groups of titushky. For taking up the role of the discredited police, many of them have been severely beaten and arrested, their cars destroyed.
Another example of well-organized protesters is the soccer “hooligans” all over Ukraine and ultra-right organization like Pravyi Sektor who last week started fighting with the police in Kyiv. Their radicalism attracts many people who are not throwing Molotov cocktail themselves, but are ready to back them up, considering in this situation violence against their “enemies” appropriate. There are calls for the next step — to free people from police stations and prisons, breaking into them and setting them on fire. Ultras from Donetsk, the hometown of Yanukovych, and other eastern regions unexpectedly also voiced support for the local Maidan in their city. These radical people are used to fighting police and now they are fighting on the side of protesters against similar local groups of titushky.
Soccer hooligans were a strong organized force before the Maidan, but now they have become a driving force of violent protest, praised by the opposition leaders for their bravery. In words of famous Ukrainian writer Serhii Zhadan, ultras are fans of soccer clubs, not the oligarchs who own them.
At the same time, the group of protesters, mainly associated with leftist movements, now organize a watch in Kyiv hospitals to prevent the taking of wounded protesters to police departments. Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, the oldest and most esteemed university in Ukraine, is on strike, and the university building has been turned into a hospital where the wounded are safe from the police. These are only some examples of self-organization that shape a picture of the Maidan.
Those who throw Molotov cocktails and stones at the Berkut and consider themselves “right,” and those who prevent the kidnapping of the wounded from hospitals and consider themselves “left,” all belong to a Maidan that is much bigger and more diverse than is often presented, especially in the Western media.
Listening to endless chants “Slava Ukraïni!” — “Heroiam slava!” — “Smert’ voroham!” (“Glory to Ukraine,” “Glory to our heroes,” “Death to our enemies”), which originated in the nationalist struggle of the first half of the twentieth century, raises much concern about the direction of the protests. One of the three leading opposition parties is the nationalist Svoboda (Freedom). Its protesters toppled the statue of Lenin last December. Their symbols of anti-Soviet guerrilla struggle are the most visible on the protests. Two other parties, Batkivshchyna (Motherland) and UDAR (Ukr. Democratic Alliance for Reform), are more liberally oriented, or rather comprise a mixture of rhetoric without a clear political program that can be defined as “right.”
People on the Maidan are disappointed with the three figures who are still fighting to be the solitary leader and are still in negotiations with the president, even after they have realized that all negotiations come to a deadlock. The two weeks of negotiations were used by the government as a mere decoration of democracy; their content demonstrated that the president and his government are not going to share their power with the opposition.
Now both sides are waiting. The protesters are unable to bridge the political power of the street and its political representation. Yanukovych controls the majority of the parliament, thus the fate of the new government and amnesty laws are in his hands. But the Maidan on the streets of Kyiv and other cities keeps him in a deadlocked position, especially when he still has to address mounting economic problems and the danger of default.
The Maidan is the power of the people on the streets, separate from all political parties. Its ultimate power is that politicians do not control it. At the same time, people realize that without political leaders they cannot solve this crisis: hence they boo them yet still listen to their speeches.
Many see the Maidan as a version of the Occupy movement, self-organized and without hierarchy, without a clear political representative of the public demands. The people who come every day to the Maidan after work, who live there in the occupied buildings, who bring money and medication to the wounded cannot be described as “right” or “left” as, for better or worse, these categories are not relevant for the Maidan now. Even if in many accounts, the Maidan is more about nationalist Ukrainians who believe in “Ukraine above all,” one of the popular slogans, and sing the national anthem every hour. For some other commentators, it is a revolution of the middle class that disregards the old East–West division. Yet, most of the protesters are the poor, the majority in Ukraine.
From a Marxist prospective, no class as a revolutionary subject can be found on the Maidan, but neither is the nation the revolutionary subject, even if it is a popular nationalists’ claim. If we do not imagine the people in Ukraine as a class or nation, then their struggle loses teleology and a conviction of inevitable victory. Different groups of people are gaining new knowledge of how to struggle for their rights, be it how to build barricades or how to protect themselves in solidarity. They may succeed, or not, but in either case they will have to start from the beginning over and over again. Like every revolution, it is an unfinished project, and its outcome in the next a days or months will be able to satisfy those who struggle for changes only for a while.