What the Mass Demonstrations in Ukraine Mean

Whatever the outcome of the mass demonstrations that rocked capital city Kyiv on Sunday, November 24th, their meaning is clear. The spirit of the 2004 Orange Revolution is alive and well in Ukraine, and the Yanukovych regime had better watch out.

Some 100,000 to 150,000 Ukrainians assembled in downtown Kyiv to protest the regime’s rejection of an Association Agreement with the European Union. (Another 20,000 to 30,000 marched in Lviv on November 25th, and hundreds of Crimean Tatars set out for Kyiv on November 26th.) For them, and for countless others, the agreement represents much more than a trade pact and access to European goods. It was, first and foremost, a “civilizational choice”—an irreversible move by their country toward European democracy and away from Russian despotism. In snubbing the agreement, the regime effectively told Ukrainians that they would never be free and independent.

In mobilizing in Kyiv and other cities, however, the people effectively told Yanukovych and his Regionnaire cronies that they would not accept tyranny. As one journalist put it: “The Sunday events once again demonstrated something that is the object of envy of many residents of Moscow: people in Kyiv are freer…. They conduct themselves as the citizens of a republic, and not the subjects of an all-powerful tsar.”

For several years now, Ukrainian and foreign analysts have been insisting that Ukrainians had become apathetic, passive, and indifferent, and that mass protests would never again take place. There was massive evidence to the contrary: continual demonstrations throughout all of Ukraine, by Ukrainian- and Russian-speaking students, businesspeople, pensioners, veterans, feminists, environmentalists, urban preservationists, and many others. Contrary to the claims of many dispirited analysts, civil society was vibrant, if only one looked closely. Discontent was ubiquitous. Meanwhile, regime predations continued unabated: unjustified political arrests, rampant corruption and outright theft of state property, the falsification of history and the denial of memory, attempts to curb freedom of speech, assembly, and press. The emergence of the Yanukovych “Family,” a money-grubbing camarilla centered on the president and his two sons, illustrated just how closely his regime had come to resemble the “socialism in one family” once practiced by Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, his wife Elena, and their playboy son Nicu.

Seen in this light, the government’s rejection of the Association Agreement was the last straw: the spark that mobilized the people and revealed the depths of their hatred of the Yanukovych regime. Some scholars, and many revolutionaries, might call the ensuing condition a “revolutionary situation.” And they’d be right to do so. For the first time since Yanukovych’s unfortunate election as president in early 2010, his corrupt regime could actually be toppled (especially if demonstrations acquired renewed force after the EU’s Vilnius Summit takes place on November 28th and 29th and Yanukovych fails to backtrack and sign after all). Should Ukraine’s president eventually fall, he would have the richly deserved distinction of possibly being the world’s only leader to have been humiliated twice by people power.

Of course, it’s possible that the demonstrators will be dispersed or that Yanukovych will satisfy their demands by dismissing the Azarov government and actually signing the agreement at Vilnius. At the moment, the situation is too fluid for the ultimate denouement to be even remotely predictable. But one fact remains indisputable: mass protests on the scale of the Orange Revolution are taking place. The regime now knows that the Ukrainian people’s democratic aspirations have not withered and died. It knows that it’s lost the hearts and minds of the young (the students of Kyiv’s top two universities joined the demonstrators en masse on November 26th) and has no future. It knows that the people want to be free. And the regime knows that they detest it.

Worse for the regime, it has stupidly provided the opposition with the ideal slogan and the perfect brand. Ukraine’s democrats are now all Europhiles. Their goals boil down to one word—Europe. Their fears boil down to two—Putin’s Russia. Their allies are all people who support Ukraine’s European choice. Their opponents are all authoritarians who insist that Ukraine remained mired in its Soviet past and aspire to be a colony of a despotic, neo-imperial, and chauvinist petro-state.

If Yanukovych had welcomed the Association Agreement, he could have positioned himself as Europe’s champion. Now, he’s defined himself as Europe’s enemy. Had he freed Yulia Tymoshenko, as the EU requested, he could have claimed to be magnanimous. Now that she’s declared an open-ended hunger strike on November 25th, he can look, at best, vindictive or weak.

Whichever way you look at it, the regime is rapidly maneuvering itself into a dead-end.

The Ukrainian anthem begins with the words, “Ukraine still lives.” Despite the regime’s best efforts to transform the population into a mindless rabble, Ukraine’s pro-European demonstrators have shown that it’s alive and kicking. It’s just a matter of time before one of their kicks lands squarely on Yanukovych.

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