Protesters on the edge of Kiev's central square, Maidan. Photo: Sasha Maksymenko/Flickr
It is easily forgotten that the inspiration for the wave of 'city square' movements that swept southern Europe and North America back in 2011 lay in the revolutions of the Middle East and North Africa. Egypt especially was a conscious symbol for the activists who put out the call to 'take the squares' and mirror in their own countries the Tahrir occupation that had forced Mubarak from power.
Each one of these protest movements reflected the specific circumstances of their own national terrain, but there was also a convergence of causes and influences that could be traced to the cultural and political fallout from the financial crisis.
That we are still talking, some three years later, of the Egyptian Revolution illustrates starkly how Tahrir Square went beyond protest and constituted a bona fide challenge to the country’s traditional ruling establishment. Indeed, the extraordinary problems facing grassroots activists in the country are, it should be remembered, ultimately a feature of this success. Authoritarianism had to find ways of adjusting, manipulating and rendering impotent the power of the streets.
Recent events in Ukraine suggest that the movement that erupted at the end of November last year may be undergoing the transition from protest to power. In doing so, it has also given rise to all of the complexity and pitfalls that this inevitably involves. Even more so than in Egypt, Ukraine’s #Euromaidan (literally 'Euro-square') movement exhibits little in the way of socialist consciousness, let alone goals – a trend, indeed, hardly unique to these countries either. Yet, like in Egypt, the crippling poverty and levels of inequality that are characteristic of modern capitalism have driven the aspiration for democratic change in Ukraine.
Scale and momentum
It is the sheer scale of the movement and its extraordinary determination that has led ineluctably to a deep crisis in the Ukrainian political establishment. A chain of events over the last week has shifted momentum in favour of the square.
Just like in November last year when attempts to use heavy police repression led the movement to grow rapidly in size and support, so too have recent tactics badly backfired on the government of president Viktor Yanukovych. Moves to curtail freedom of assembly led to several days of rioting and the occupation of scores of government buildings all over the country. It was clear at this stage that the movement had created a new power on the streets and the state was left either unwilling or unable to mobilise the overwhelming force needed to crush it.
That it might have gone the way of violent coercion on a much greater scale could be seen in the use of snatch squads, which were accused of using torture and beating opposition activists to the very point of death. As the situation escalated further, Leonid Kravchuk, Ukraine’s first post-independence president warned that the country 'was on the brink of civil war' and called for national compromise.
As the government climbed down, the laws curtailing the right to protest were withdrawn. An amnesty for protestors has been suggested but can only be plausibly realised, and its sincerity tested, once the overall conflict has come to a resolution. The opposition rejected attempts to form a government of national unity and instead demanded new parliamentary and presidential elections. In response the government, but not the president, has resigned, and the country’s crisis is encapsulated by this breakdown in the normal structures of governance.
A controversial movement
Two elements of the Ukrainian movement have made it controversial as a symbol of the kind of resistance we have seen since the financial crisis. Firstly, the movement’s original concern lay in the country’s relationship to the European Union. The Ukrainian government backed away from signing a free trade agreement with the regional bloc back in November. Forming barricades for the EU is difficult, if not impossible, to imagine from a British perspective and may seem equally strange for those economies in southern Europe that have experienced the hardships of austerity imposed by EU memorandums. Yet this aspiration for European integration has to be seen in the context of Ukraine’s own balance of payments crisis that has deepened its dependency on Russian credit. For the left in Greece and Spain, Ukraine’s plight illustrates that even in conditions of nominal sovereign independence, states can and will remain at the mercy of global capital markets in the absence of radical incursions on capitalism.
It is also widely accepted that the movement has now moved beyond this trigger issue and raised a whole series of questions about corruption, oligarchy and democracy. These could potentially provide fertile ground for an anticapitalist – and not merely anti-Russian and pro-EU – form of critique and strategic outlook.
Secondly, the participation of the far right Freedom Party in the protests has naturally, and quite rightly, alarmed many left observers of these events. Their brand of neo-fascist ideology is fiercely hostile to the country’s Russian-speaking minority. In a fashion that reflects traditional far right sentiment they mix a pseudo-anticapitalist critique of Ukraine’s oligarchy with these dangerous ethnic sentiments. No one should be complacent about the dangers that the inchoate populism of the movement might be consolidated on deeply reactionary lines. But it should also be noted that these dangers were present in the 'beyond left and right' discourse that characterised the southern European city square movements, and which saw the actual involvement of the far right in Greece.
A wider problem exists that is equally familiar to the 'city square' movements. Politics famously abhors a vacuum and once protests begin to threaten and challenge power, then they are open to co-option by established parties of the official opposition that are themselves, in one way or another, part of a ruling elite. This is a feature of the current conjuncture that Egyptians know all too well.
This is all an argument for constructive engagement and participation without any illusions in the multiple guises that contemporary populism takes. A new manifesto of Ukrainian left activists stands in this mould. In a world where financial markets enjoy hegemony over the lives of us all, its call for popular participation and socialist democracy has become more urgent than ever.