Amid increasing hostilities in Ukraine, many of the social aims of the Maidan revolution could be lost or simply forgotten. That, at least, is the impression I got from speaking to activists on the independent left circuit, not to be confused with the old Soviet and authoritarian left. During my recent research trip to Kiev, organizers expressed dismay that war with Russian separatists in the east of the country had served to distract the nation’s attention from urgent social reform, including the need for progressive taxation and redistribution of wealth.
Denis Pilash cut his teeth while working with a local student labor union, and later the activist took part in popular protests which helped to topple the unpopular government of Viktor Yanukovych. Though he participated in the Maidan movement, Pilash does not share the mainstream’s triumphalist narrative about the overall course of events. To be sure, Pilash and his colleagues did their utmost to inject a bit of radical politics at Maidan square. They distributed leaflets, for example, calling for improved healthcare and education and a ban on offshore money laundering. From the very outset, however, Pilash held a “very pessimistic outlook” about the potential for meaningful social change.
Pilash wasn’t alone. Take for example Denis Gorbach, another political activist who helped co-found the Autonomous Workers’ Union, an outfit which aims to organize industrial laborers in the workplace along anarcho-syndicalist lines. When protests erupted on Maidan, Gorbach and his group initially refrained from participating. In the first few weeks, the activist adds, most of the demonstrations consisted of mere pro-European Union students and liberals.
When you hear about student activists in Ukraine, Gorbach adds, don’t immediately assume they are on the independent left. “More often than not,” Gorbach continues, “you’re talking about hard-line nationalists or liberals … We were very skeptical, because at the beginning, in November 2013, the whole movement was merely intent on making president Yanukovych sign a trade pact with the European Union.” Gorbach was also hesitant when he witnessed “repeated acts of violence” by the far right at Maidan.
Radicalization on the Maidan
Nevertheless, by January, 2014 Gorbach began to sense a palpable change in crowd dynamics. As parliament became increasingly dictatorial, it became evident to Gorbach that Maidan was no longer about rival trade pacts or individual politicians like Yanukovych but rather had morphed into a struggle “about individual freedoms and individual rights.”
From this point onwards, it was clear there was no turning back: for Gorbach, Maidan became “a choice between a more repressive Yanukovych tied increasingly to the Kremlin or the demonstrators, who weren’t exactly our political ideal, though certainly more progressive than the government.” Down at Maidan square, some of Gorbach’s colleagues participated in protests while sustaining severe injuries. The activist adds that his group “received a considerable influx of people who hadn’t been political up to that point.”
Pilash, too, was becoming less skeptical. On the Maidan, he tells me, it was common to hear people chanting, “All politicians out!” The grassroots, it seemed, had become more anti-establishment. Many protesters, Pilash adds, started to become radicalized and to call for punitive measures against Ukrainian oligarchs and the powerful. For example, demonstrators sought to put an end to the corrupt and incestuous alliance between business and government. Moreover, they sought to shed light on privatization initiatives so as to reveal the true extent of what had been stolen.
Class Dynamics on the Maidan
At this point, Maidan might have become even more radical by pushing a truly transcendent social agenda. Unfortunately, Gorbach says, the movement was hindered by internal frictions and a lack of long-term vision. To be sure, the activist remarks, the working class, which included office and industrial laborers, “was obviously dominant” at Maidan. On the other hand, even though the working class was numerically important, it didn’t steer developments on the ground. Though trade union leaders sought to play a role at Maidan, such moves weren’t backed up by the rank and file. That’s not too surprising, Gorbach adds, since the “the regular trade union movement is extremely weak and almost non-existent” in Ukraine.
In the midst of political confusion, Gorbach says, “it was difficult to say who was actually in control” on the Maidan. For its part, the opposition took to the stage and politicians sought to “put on the brakes and steer things as they saw fit.” The working class might have taken advantage of the circumstances by pushing harder for its own agenda, but progressive forces instead chose to pursue limited short-term goals and ally with business oligarchs. Maidan became a multi-class movement, united in its desire to merely get rid of Yanukovych.
Progressive elements also lacked cohesive self-organization. “As I see it,” Gorbach says, “people were acting as individuals in the crowd. They were unable to establish a decision-making mechanism like they did at Occupy.” Gorbach says the crowd did establish a kind of archaic, medieval decision-making body which encouraged people to elect their leaders by shouting or even throwing their hats into the air. That’s a “very primitive understanding of democracy, which is fine for the 12th century but not for the 21st,” Gorbach remarks in a rather drole aside.
Initially at least, Pilash says that many people on the Maidan were receptive to a more progressive social agenda, though over time “you saw a lot less of this kind of rhetoric,” and such ideas were entirely lost amidst all the “mainstream, pro-market neo-liberal politics.” What is more, the crowd stopped being assertive in its demands and lost its momentum, solidarity and sense of unity. “When protests ended,” Pilash declares, “ordinary people weren’t involved in making decisions anymore and left such tasks to the establishment.” In the wake of Poroshenko’s electoral victory, civil society retreated and “there is very little political engagement.”
If anything, however, recent developments prove the need for a strong and independent left. Indeed, political elites seem intent on pursuing radical deregulation, including cuts in energy subsidies and public expenditure. Meanwhile, the government is pushing privatization and “liberalization” of the labor market. Fiscal Times writes that “since we detest euphemisms here, this means hire ’em-fire ’em will be the new rule.” Finally, “a health-insurance system of unspecified structure will be introduced and public spending on education will be determined on the basis of merit.” For the technocrats, this all sounds great, but “if you are a housewife, a student, or a steamfitter, this might just as rationally sound like somebody’s idea of hell.”
Can Ukraine’s independent left present a viable challenge to the technocratic elites and their “neo-liberal” agenda? Anton Shekhovstov, a visiting fellow at the Institute of Human Sciences in Vienna and an expert on Ukrainian politics, is somewhat skeptical. “Politically,” he says, “such forces are not very viable or competitive in elections. There are some left-wing/liberal forces which I would call progressive, but we’re not talking about political parties but rather clubs, milieus or circles around particular magazines.” The expert adds, “I don’t think the left can oppose right-wing nationalism. Their share of the vote [if you subtract the old Communist Party of Ukraine, which isn’t even that communist but more pro-Russian] is smaller than the political right’s. I think the only force which can counter right-wing extremism is the mainstream political center.”
Nevertheless, a series of recent protests suggest that Ukraine’s political elites may have a tougher time ramming through reforms than might have been expected. Indeed, several thousand people recently rallied in Kiev against austerity policies. Reportedly, the protest included civil servants, teachers, doctors and students. “Things have tilted so far to the right that disillusionment is inevitable,” says Pilash. The activist adds that once people start to learn more about the technocrats’ true intentions, “this small Ukrainian left will undertake actions closer akin to Occupy Wall Street.” Pilash muses, perhaps prophetically, “I don’t think this last Maidan was the last.”