Confrontation in Kiev

Jerusalem Report, January, 2014.

Ukraine events showcase Russian strength, Western confusion with the Jews caught on the fringe

Kiev’s Euro-Square (the renamed Independence Square) was roiling with anger and confusion in the frozen late afternoon of December 17. Word had just come through of the deal between Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych and his Russian counterpart, Vladmir Putin, to cut gas prices and purchase Ukrainian government bonds.

Putin had apparently outflanked the protestors who were demanding Yanukovych’s resignation and new elections. Having pressured the government of Ukraine not to sign the Association Agreement with the European Union, the Russian leader made a counter offer of his own: Russia would slash the price Ukraine would pay for gas by a third; and Moscow would also acquire $15 billion in Ukraine bonds. The offer was a generous one, but it was clear that its rationale was not economic in nature. Moscow was willing to pay whatever price was necessary to keep Ukraine in the fold.

The demonstrators were not impressed. A middle-aged man from a group of veterans of the Afghan War who had turned up to perform security duties at the square grimaced with disgust when I asked him about the deal. “This changes nothing,” he insisted. “We want a change of government, and new national elections –
parliamentary and presidential – and the EU Association agreement.”

Kiev was tense amid the sub-zero temperatures. The security forces had cordoned off a whole area close to European Square with buses used to block roads. At Mariinsky Park, about a kilometer from the square, meanwhile, a rival, pro-Yanukovych demonstration was hastily assembled. The talk throughout the city was of the protests, and where it was all heading.

The protests erupted after Yanukovych failed to sign an Association Agreement with the EU on November 21. Ukrainians were aware that the refusal constituted a move in the broader tug of war between those who wish to take Ukraine further toward the West and those determined to couple it to Russia. So the square demonstrations quickly took on the colors of a general protest movement of all those forces opposed to the move toward Russia.

The government attempted to destroy the protest camp on November 30, and again on December 10. These attacks further polarized the situation, and increased the number of protestors in the square. They began to call for the resignation of Yanukovych and the holding of new presidential and parliamentary elections.

Many Ukrainians noted that the EU was no longer all it was cracked up to be. In particular, they observed the situation of recent new members of the EU, and noticed that their situation had not drastically changed or improved as a result of their membership.

But for the thousands of people in European Square the main issue was not the specific short-term benefits; it was about the longer-term future.

As journalist and anti-corruption activist Nikolai Vorobyev tells The Jerusalem Report, “People here haven’t read the association agreement. It’s over 100 pages long and it’s almost certain that Yanukovych himself hasn’t read it too. The issue for the protesters is simple: They want to move closer towards Europe, towards civilization, and away from Russia.”

The roots of anti-Semitism run deep in Ukrainian political culture, particularly in its nationalist variant (the Nazis, enthusiastically abetted by Ukrainian collaborators, murdered a million and a half Jews in the Ukraine in World War II).

On New Year’s Eve, a large anti-government gathering took place in Independence Square – or euro-square, as the anti-government protestors have renamed it. There was a show in which the Nativity story was presented in a modern Ukrainian context. Among the various stock figures was a stereotypical Hasidic Jew, played by Bohdan Benyuk, a deputy from the far right Svoboda party. The Jew was presented as a swindler, speculator and coward, who nevertheless eventually joins the demonstrators against Herod, i.e. Yanukovych.

“The Jewish community is highly concerned by a very significant participation of Svoboda party and ultranationalists in these anti-Semitic manifestations, the President of the Ukrainian Jewish Committee Oleksandr Feldman, tells The Report. “This reminds us of the horrors of Holocaust when Ukrainian ultranationalists were actively taking part in the killing of Jews. I myself was highly upset a few days ago watching a live nativity scene from Maidan? performed by Ukrainian politicians and celebrities depicting anti-Semitic lies.”

Feldman, a Member of the Ukraine Parliament, is a firm supporter of association with Europe, “I strongly believe that Ukraine should and will follow the path of European integration as this is the will of majority of people, its historical destiny and also would be mutually beneficial for all the parties. Also it would be good for Jews,” he concludes.

The demonstrators at European Square look at the EU and see societies that, for all their problems, retain independent judiciaries, working parliaments, and functioning civil societies. They look eastwards and see Putin’s combination of corruption and authoritarian rhetoric. And they know which one they want.

Elena, a 27-year-old IT worker from Kiev who joined the demonstrations, also asserted that the Association Agreement was not the main issue: “There are no rights in Russia and we don’t want to live in that kind of country,” she tells The Report. “This is really the main reason. But what made people crazy angry was using riot police against a peaceful demonstration, and officials completely supporting that way of acting.”

The stark East-West discrepancy was reflected in the nature of the rival political mobilizations in Kiev.

In European Square, the mix was a chaotic one, from civil society and democracy activists to shaven-headed radical Ukrainian nationalists. The makeshift security detail of army veterans and volunteers handled entry and exit through the crude barricades guarding the protest area. Far into the night, one could see people arguing, debating and singing. It had the unmistakable, fragile look of a civil society in revolt.

Ukraine is an uneasy amalgam of sharply differing political traditions. It consists of the linked borderlands of two empires – the Russian and Austro-Hungarian. The dividing line between East and West runs through it. In the Ukrainian-speaking west, a strong nationalist tradition espouses deep hostility towards Moscow and a fervent desire to move towards Europe. In the Russian-speaking industrial east, however, there is an equally strong determination to retain and strengthen the link with Russia. This was reflected in the events of the last weeks, as the government bussed in its own supporters and constructed its alternative to the protests in European Square

The protestors in the square are themselves divided. Many of them are young civil society activists with a liberal orientation. But there is also a sizeable contingent of Ukrainian nationalists. One may see the red and black flags of the Banderisty, nationalist paramilitary associations from the west. These groups are of an openly anti-Russian and anti-Semitic orientation. Many of them trace their lineage back to units that fought on the German side in World War II and took part in atrocities against Jews and Poles.

Stas, a butcher from the western Ukrainian town of Rivne, and a member of the nationalist Ukrainian National Assembly, showed me the collection of clubs and fire extinguishers that he and his associates, shaven-headed men in camouflage jackets, had assembled in their tent on the square. “For defense against the Berkut [special police],” he tells The Report me. “The entire government, police and prosecutors,” he told me, “are criminals. We will be here to fight them to the end.”

At the rival, pro-Yanukovych gathering in Mariinsky Park, the participants were mainly tough-looking young men from the Donbass region – Yanukovych’s eastern heartland; coalminers and factory workers given time off to remind the world that Yanukovych also has supporters. Pro-government demonstrators were paid $50 a day for their activities, according to Kiev residents.

Mariinsky Park, the “anti-square,” as Kiev residents called it, was deserted by nightfall. The Donbass men were not there to debate politics and policy into the night. They finished their day at an agreed time, and could be found in large groups round Arsenalna Metro station a little further south, smoking and drinking bottled beer, entirely impervious to the freezing temperatures.

It was civil society, with all its flaws, versus Putin-style political technology, which conjures up political manifestations, for an agreed price.

On Wednesday, December 25, following the announcement of the Putin-Yanukovych deal, an opposition journalist, Tatyana Chernovil, was dragged from her car in Kiev and badly beaten by unknown assailants. Chernovil, 34, a campaigner against corruption, had just written an article about Ukrainian Interior Minister Vitaly Zacharchenko. The article asked how Zacharchenko was able to afford the massive estate where he lives on the salary of a public employee.

This incident offered some insight into the reasons behind the passion and fury of the protests in the square. The Yanukovych government regularly engages in the intimidation of its critics and opponents. This large, fertile country of 46 million has long lagged behind its neighbors to the west in the development of democratic norms. The ongoing protests at Independence Square were intended to kick-start a process of reform.

Instead, the trajectory of the protest campaign and the swift agreement between Yanukovych and Putin is an object lesson in the balance of power in international affairs. They showcase the determination of Moscow to preserve and advance its geopolitical interests, the relative fecklessness of the West by comparison, and, as a result, the helplessness of the Ukrainian people in the face of the tactics of their Moscow-supported government.

The power game between Russia and the EU in this regard is not a game of chess. It has real life consequences such as the assault on Tatyana Chernovil. It is an example of what happens when a country is absorbed into the alliance of states led by Moscow – namely, corruption as a norm, assaults on civil society, and the removal of all structures of defense protecting ordinary citizens from the will of the powerful.

The official Ukrainian political opposition is also no cause for celebration. Inna Korsun, an activist with the Democratic Alliance movement, noted that a crucial difference between the current protests and the Orange Revolution of 2004 was that this time around, the protestors did not see the heads of the official opposition as their leaders. “People don’t want to march under opposition flags, don’t support Yulia Timoshenko [the jailed former opposition leader], and so on,” she states to The Report.

The wariness towards the official opposition derives from the great disappointment that followed the Orange Revolution. Squabbles between the rival camps of Timoshenko and then-president Victor Yushenko and accusations of corruption rapidly soured the hopes of that time.

“There’s a need for a new leader, someone from the young people in European Square,” says Korsun. But she readily admitted that no such leader or organized movement had yet emerged.

Currently, the liberal Udar (Punch) party of heavyweight boxing champion and Kiev Mayor Vitaly Klitschko remains the main organized force backing the protests. The far-right, anti-Semitic Svoboda party of Oleh Tyahnybok is also in evidence in the square. The third organized element is the Batkivschnya (Fatherland) party, which is close to Timoshenko.

None of these forces or any other organized political grouping exercises complete control over European Square. It is diffuse and leaderless, with only a confused message and no clear strategy. But for the most part, at its root, and despite the worrying presence of far-right elements, it represents a longing for normality among Ukrainians, for the kind of imperfect but ordered societies that they see to their west.

It is hard to see even this modest ambition being achieved any time soon.

The events in Ukraine show the extent to which Russia and the West are thinking in entirely different terms. To the bureaucrats in Brussels, the addition of another impoverished, populous, former communist country to a closer relationship with the Union would be at best a mixed blessing. The EU is in any case a troubled entity, with sharp divisions between its richer and poorer member states.

In the US, the Kiev protests might have been expected to spur some echoes of titanic struggles of the past. There was a time when enthusiastic crowds in public squares in central and Eastern Europe, challenging the encroachment of authoritarianism and arguing about their country’s future direction, might have found the clear and active support of Washington DC. That time appears to have gone. Only Senator John McCain came to visit from the front rank of American politicians – with no particular consequence.

The determined outside support in the Ukrainian crisis has come from the other side – from Moscow, for the government, and against the protestors. The people who may well have been implicated in the assault on Tetyana Chornovil appear to have won in Ukraine – at least for the moment.

Meanwhile, the protesters in frozen European Square, gathered under EU flags, continue through the night to shout their demand for membership in a club of Western states that appears neither willing nor able to come to their aid.

About jonathanspyer

Jonathan Spyer is a Middle East analyst, author and journalist specializing in the areas of Israel, Syria and broader issues of regional strategy. He is the director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and analysis (MECRA), a research fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for strategy and Security (JISS) and a Fellow at the Middle East Forum.
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