Talk to Ukrainians and the view you’ll hear from almost everyone is that “they”—Ukrainians—are passive, apathetic, and inert. I’ve heard this line in Lviv, Kyiv, and Donetsk as well as in Western Europe and North America. I’ve even heard it at, of all places, demonstrations in Ukraine.
The question that invariably follows is: “Why don’t they rise up and finally do something?”
The fact is that Ukrainians are doing something almost every day. Walk down most main streets in most cities and towns and you’ll usually encounter some protesters handing out leaflets or some groups raising a ruckus. Maybe not every day, but often enough to persuade you that at least some Ukrainians aren’t passive.
Naturally, most Ukrainians aren’t impressed by that kind of protest action. It’s too run-of-the-mill, too easy, too small, too quiet, too unimpressive. In a word, it’s no Orange Revolution, when millions rose up throughout the country to demand their rights in the face of the Kuchma-Yanukovych camarilla that had falsified the presidential elections of 2004.
The problem with revolutions, uprisings, and other displays of people power is that they are, by definition, infrequent. It takes an unusual concatenation of forces to induce millions to disregard their everyday concerns—such as survival—go into the streets, and, most important, stay there for weeks or even months. And when the result of a mass mobilization is failure, don’t be surprised if people become skeptical and wait.
On the other hand, that skepticism can also vanish overnight. Remember Poland’s Solidarity movement? It emerged seemingly out of nowhere in 1980 and survived as a mass movement for about a year, until General Jaruzelski cracked down. But its activists continued to promote their cause until, finally and almost miraculously, the regime toppled like a house of cards in mid-1989, and they, the dissidents who had languished in jail just a few weeks before, suddenly emerged victorious.
I mention Poland because the similarities between Yanukovych’s Ukraine and Jaruzelski’s Poland are too striking to ignore. Both regimes came to power after democratic mass movements failed to reach their agendas. Both regimes represented a restoration of the status quo ante and, as such, had absolutely nothing to offer their populations. Both regimes represent momentary pauses in inevitable social and political processes. Both leaders were singularly unimaginative and both ruling parties were hopelessly corrupt. Both democratic movements remained alive and well, in that significant parts of the population had internalized their values and rejected the loutish regimes in power. And both countries generated impressive civil societies that kept making demands during the dark years of repression and stasis. The next few years will see the final similarity: the Yanukovych regime, like the Jaruzelski regime some 30 years ago, will collapse under the weight of its own rot.
Meanwhile, Ukrainians are protesting like there’s no tomorrow. According to a study by the Center for the Study of Society, Ukraine has experienced 100 to 300 protest actions every single month of 2010 and 2011. The numbers are usually highest, between 200 and 300, when you’d expect them to be highest—during the spring months of March, April, May, and June and during the fall months of October and November.
Now that’s a helluva lot of protests, especially in a country that’s supposedly disinclined to protest. In the social sciences, you’d say that the evidence disproves the “passivity hypothesis.” In any case, it certainly doesn’t support it.
The numbers for this year are especially impressive. There have been about 100 to 150 more protest actions per month in March, April, May, and June than for corresponding months in 2010 and 2011. A more recent study (by the same center) of protests in July shows that, at 404, they exceeded the previous month’s 330 by 74. That’s a record, sparked largely by the Regionnaire-controlled Parliament’s adoption in late June of a law on languages that is as stupid as it is supremacist. Significantly, July also saw another record: the number of repressive responses went up from 70 in May and June to 101—a 44 percent increase.
Clearly, the Yanukovych regime has seen the writing on the wall and is terrified. And rightly so. If the upward protest trend keeps up, a second Orange Revolution becomes perfectly possible. And since the Regionnaires have to cheat in the forthcoming October parliamentary elections (cheating, you see, is as much a political imperative as a genetic predisposition), a fraudulent ballot could again serve as the spark that drives the masses into the streets.
The regime is currently working overtime, trying to rig the electoral rules, gerrymander districts, split the opposition, manipulate the press, buy votes, and so on. Some of that will work, if only because the oligarch-funded Regionnaires have billions of dollars to throw around. But you can’t fool all of the people all of the time and, as Jaruzelski discovered in 1989, you can’t even fool some of the people some of the time—especially if you’re a deadbeat leader who is perceived by everyone as a deadbeat leader. Note that, in just the last two months, support for the Regionnaires has fallen five percentage points—from 28 percent to 23.
The protests in Ukraine will continue, of course. Unlike Jaruzelski, who dared to crack down in 1981 because the Soviet Union had amassed its soldiers on the Polish border, Yanukovych knows that the thousands of new militiamen he’s recently hired are just regular guys trying to make ends meet. When push comes to shove, they’ll join their friends and neighbors and give the Regionnaires a mighty heave-ho.