Maidan, A Year Of Living Dangerously

Last December, amidst dramatic protests in Kiev, few imagined that the Maidan protests would lead to land grabs and open warfare. The symbols and substance of Ukraine's iconic square.

Fish-eye photo of Kiev's Maidan Square
Fish-eye photo of Kiev's Maidan Square
Valeri Kalnyish

KIEV"Whenever it's not clear what's going on, gather at Maidan..."

That was a joke that started circulating last year, after protesters first began meeting up in Kiev's Maidan Square in the wake of the Ukrainian government's refusal to sign an important agreement with the European Union. A year later, willingness among Ukrainians to gather at the square to protect their interests through protests hasn't disappeared.

The Kiev International Sociology Institute reacted quickly when last year's Maidan protests began, surveying the protesters about their attitudes and motivation. The institute found that 70% of them were protesting the actions of the Ukrainian special police, who had forced the earliest protesters from the square on the night of Nov. 29.

The operation, meant to clear the square, only encouraged more demonstrations, and on Dec. 1, 2013, the largest protest since the 2004 Orange Revolution gathered in Maidan Square to express discontent with the government.

In the survey, the second most common reason given by respondents for protesting — cited by 53.5% of them — was then-President Viktor Yanukovych's refusal to sign the EU association agreement. In addition, 50% of respondents expressed a desire to improve life in Ukraine, while 39% said they would like to change the government and only 5% said they wanted to put the opposition (now in control of Ukraine's government) into power.

There is other interesting data to consider. According to Harvard public opinion research, only around 47% of Ukrainians supported the protesters, while in the United States and Britain 55% the population was behind the Maidan movement. In Russia, the overwhelming majority of respondents — 69% — were neutral about the protests, while the rest were divided evenly between those who supported the protesters and those who didn't.

"I trust the students," recalls singer Ruslana, who didn't leave Maidan for the first four months herself. "They were the first to go out to Maidan. They were the first to see the point of protesting on Maidan. They will always be the ones who protect Ukraine. A year ago, there were so many people protesting, and the people left, but the students stayed."

Maidan Square on Nov. 30 — Photo: Olena Chertilina via Instagram

Maidan is, above all, a young person's phenomenon. Students were the first ones to protest during the original Maidan in 2004, which like last year's started in November.

The reasons were different then, but there are also some striking similarities. On Nov. 21, 2004, Ukraine had held the second round of its presidential elections, and the official results contradicted the results of the exit polling, which had forecast a different winner. The differences were significant enough to make a simple mistake unlikely. The official results showed Yanukovych winning with 49.42% of the vote, while his opponent, Viktor Yushchenko, got just 46.69% of the vote. The exit polls showed Yushchenko winning the election with an 11% margin.

While students and other protesters gathered in Maidan, Ukraine's Supreme Court invalidated the election results after finding substantial evidence of fraud. Yushchenko won the election held the following January and went on to become Ukraine's president. Although he was an integral part of the first Maidan protests, Yushchenko did not appear the second time around, saying he didn't want to use the protests for his benefit.

But both protests were motivated by the actions of Victor Yanukovych — in 2004, for election fraud, and in 2013, for refusing to sign the EU agreement. And in both cases, Yanukovych inspired the "anti-Maidan" counter-protesters.

Fear of Russia

Another survey conducted in 2005, six months after the first Maidan protests, revealed that 38.5% of Ukrainians were worried about upheaval and uncertainty about the future. Perhaps the most telling statistic one year after the start of the second Maidan protests is that nearly 80% of Ukrainians believe the country is likely to be attacked by another country, and 76% believe such aggression is likely to come from Russia. In June of 2013, only 22% of respondents thought Russia posed a direct threat to Ukraine.

Of course, no one expected that Maidan would end in a war, in the loss of Crimea, and in the organization of militias. If that could have been foreseen, perhaps there never would have been a Maidan.

Of course, there are always shortcomings. "It seems that there's no disappointment in the ideals of the Orange Revolution, but there is disappointment in concrete individuals who didn't live up to expectations," sociologist Andrei Buichenko said in 2011. "There is disappointment in the way the Maidan ideals were realized."

At the moment, Ukraine's government is promising reforms of everything from the railroads to the court system. People still believe in current President Petro Poroshenko and his coalition members, whom they voted into the parliament, giving the former opposition a historic opportunity to govern. But that's just politics.

The average citizen is struggling with rising prices for groceries and heat. Nonetheless, everyone remembers the Maidan movement, the "heavenly hundred" and Yanukovych's flight. Could there be a third Maidan? Of course, as long as there is something to ask for and no fear of or deference to the government.

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