Revolution in Vain: Maidan Ukraine Two Years Later

photo Tyahnibok

by Gordon M. Hahn

Two years after the Maidan ‘revolution of dignity’ it is now clear that the Western-backed overthrow of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych was not a revolution and that it was in vain—however one wishes to characterize it. True, as a mass demonstration movement, it could be categorized as a nascent revolution. The movement was opposed to corruption and authoritarianism and supported European integration.

Unfortunately, that nascent revolution was hijacked by neo-fascist elements that infiltrated the Maidan protests, overthrew the government, and then were themselves infiltrated and largely overcome by, and subordinated to several key oligarchs. Not surprisingly, corruption has increased rather than decreased, European integration has stalled, and authoritarianism not just in corridors of power but on the streets under the yoke of roaming bands of neo-fascist groups seeking to foment a second, truly ‘national revolution.’

Despite the all too numerous adepts of democratization and democratic ‘transition,’ this is not the first time nor, apparently, will it be the last time when the West has misunderstood processes it has hoped for, encouraged, and often funded and helped to organize. The Arab ‘Spring’ is only the most recent set of cases in point. The spring’s various revolutions predictably became one big Islamist winter, except in those cases—for example, Egypt—where a counter-revolution returned matters to the status quo ante.

Similarly, in 1991 the adepts got it wrong, taking what they wished for as reality. Few post-Soviet states became democracies because the ‘democratic revolution’ that overthrew the reformist late Soviet regime of Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika was assumed to be a ‘revolution from below’ organized in society by societal opposition forces. This was true in a few of the smaller union republics—the Baltic and Caucasus republics, Moldova and Ukraine. However, in most cases the elements of democratic revolution from below were counterbalanced by less civil revolutions from above and nationalist revolutions from below. In Russia, the revolution was largely one led from above by the Russian President Boris Yeltsin and the Russian state apparatus against the partially reformed but crumbling central Soviet state and regime. In Central Asia, the revolutions from above were not even revolutions but simply a change of sign boards, of branding for still very authoritarian regimes, with the partial exception of Kyrgyzstan, the tulip revolutions and counter-revolutions of which also had strong elements ‘from above’.

Thus, it is no surprise that Ukraine’s 2004 Orange revolution, as I noted at the time, and the 2013-2014 Maidan revolution of dignity, as I predicted, proved to be something far less than democratic revolutions from below. The failure of the former was evident in its defeat at the polls by the same Viktor Yanukovych in the 2010 presidential election. Relatively free and fair elections have never been a serious problem in post-Soviet Ukraine, except in the November 2004 presidential election and in the some of the recent local elections under the Maidan regime. Corruption, criminality, conflictive political culture, and ultra-nationalism/meo-fascism have been the main aspects of the country’s democracy deficit—as they have been in all the former Soviet republics, including the more democratic Baltic states.

In addition to the strong element of revolution from below, the recent Maidan revolt also had elements of revolution from above led by some state officials and state-tied oligarchs. Moreover, the revolution from below was under considerable influence from national chauvinist, ultra-nationalist, and neo-fascist groups. These two factors have created to an ultra-nationalist-oligarchic regime with little popular support and little to no revolutionary accomplishments in terms of democratization. The present regime is no different than Yanukovych’s except for a considerable increase in western Ukrainian neo-fascism both in the corridors of power and on the streets and a decidedly more catastrophic economic condition. The lack of any real change represents a failure of Ukraine’s most recent pseudo-revolution, with corruption, criminal and nationalist violence, and the lack of rule of law so prevalent it more than negates Ukraine’s often relatively free and fair elections.

Regarding corruption, the view is now unanimous that there is more of it than under Yanukovych. Even the West’s former ‘beacon of democracy’ in the former USSR, now Odessa Governor and former president of Georgia Mikheil Saakashvili, now wanted on charges of abuse of power in his native Georgia, famously acknowledged this fact. At a recent government meeting of the ‘Council on Reforms’, he and ultra-nationalist Minister of Internal Affairs Arseniy Avakov forced the meeting immediate cessation after they exchanged curse words and accused each other of stealing millions and billions. Both were right.

But we do not need to be reduced to taking Saakashvili’s word for it—the Ukrainian people say this. A recent Gallup poll released yesterday found that 88 percent of Ukrainians say corruption is widespread in their government, and 81 percent say the problem is no different in the country’s business circles. A mere 5 percent of respondents said the Ukrainian government is doing enough to fight corruption—lower than the 6% who said the same in 2013 on the eve of the Maidan ‘revolution’ (Julie Ray, “Ukrainians Disillusioned With Leadership,” Gallup, 23 December 2015, http://www.gallup.com/poll/187931/ukrainians-disillusioned-leadership.aspx).

There are other problems in Ukraine besides corruption. Independent media is being repressed, and state television represents the views of only one part of the political spectrum—those that support Poroshenko, the oligarchs, and the ultra-nationalists. Neo-fascist groups, like the Svoboda Party and Right Sector among many others, continue to undertake vigilante actions, carry out terrorist attacks, and prepare to finish the ‘national revolution’ they saw Maidan as but the first phase of.

Thus, opposition to the government and regime is ubiquitous. The government’s approval rating is the lowest since 2007—during the Orange regime (2005-2010)—with 8 percent approval rating then as now. By contrast, under the overthrown Yanukovych government (2010-2014), public approval of the government was at 26 percent in 2010, 24 in 2011, 24 in 2012, 19 in 2013, and 24 in 2014. Only 19 percent of Ukrainians say the regime is taking the country in the right direction; 65% think it is moving in the wrong direction.

The same pattern—disapproval of ‘pro-democracy’—i.e., nationalistic leaders—has been evident in presidential approaval ratings. The Orange president Viktor Yushchenko had approaval ratings of 17 percent and 7 percent in 2008 and 2009, respectively. The overthrown Yanukovych’s approval ratings were as follows: 46 percent in 2010, 29 percent in 2011, 28 percent in 2012, and 28 percent in 2013. Petro Poroshenko’s ratings were 47 percent upon his arrival in office—similar to Yanukovych’s 46 percent—but the fall in his ratings in his second year is much more akin to a full collapse than that under Yanukovych. Poroshenko has fallen from 47 percent in 2014 to 17 percent in 2015. Yanukovych fell from 46 percent to 29 percent and then held steady unti he was overthrown with ratings higher than Poroshenko’s present rating.

Although some of the differences in polling results between the Yanukovych and Poroshenko periods can be attributed to the exclusion of Crimea, Donetsk, and Luhansk from surveys for the latter period, since these are regions that were allied with Yanukovych’s politics for regional ethnic, linguistice, cultural, and economic reasons. This, however, cannot explain the relative popularity of Yanukovych over his predecessor Yushchenko. And absolutely nothing but corruption and otherwise bad policy can explain the Poroshenko administration’s catastrophic ratings.

Poroshenko is unpopular in every mega-region of Ukraine—west, east, north, south, and central—with catastrophic, indeed ‘revolutionarily’ low popularity ratings in the south and east (not including Crimea, Donetsk and Luhansk no less) at 11 percent in the east and 7 percent in the south. In Ukraine’s central and northern regions (the former includes Kiev), barely as many Ukrainians approve of Poroshenko (21 percent) as approved of Yanukovych (20 percent) in 2013 on the eve of the Maidan revolt.

In sum, the Poroshenko’s Maidan regime is less popular within the polity it rules than Yanukovych’s was in that which he ruled and which was overthrown by a pseudo-revolution or revolt backed as a democratic revolution then and now by the Barack Obama administration and the West’s other governments. The country has more in common with Wiemar Germany and ‘post-Sovietistan’ than a Western democracy.

This raises several questions. Is USAID as active in Ukraine today as it was in 2012 in training activists on how to organize mass demonstrations, sustain long-term protest demonstrations in the central squares of the country’s major cities, and resist police anti-riot actions? When demonstrations occur in Kiev, will State Department Assistant Secretary Victoria Nuland and US Ambassador Geoffrey Pyatt go there to hand out cookies? Will US Senators like John McCain go to the Maidan and make speeches urging the population to overthrow Poroshenko and telling Russia not to interfere in domestic Ukrainian politics? If somehow the representatives of Ukraine’s most anti-Maidan regions in the south and east seize power by using force in violation with an agreement signed by Poroshenko, Germany, France, Poland and Russia, will the U.S. support the overthrow of Poroshenko? Certainly, there are more questions one could ask…many more.

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About Gordon M. Hahn