Ukrainian Maidan movement, beyond Kyiv

Civic Action30 May 2017Olga Zelinska

Local protests played an important role in sustaining Ukraine’s Revolution of Dignity in 2013/14, contributing to its success in ousting President Yanukovych’s authoritarian regime. They also helped to consolidate a comprehensive post-Maidan national reform agenda and pushed for a complete revision of relations between Kyiv and the regions in Ukraine. However, at the local level, the protests had mixed success in achieving immediate political changes.

In 2013 and 2014, Ukraine experienced an unprecedented wave of mass protests. These were later called the ‘(Euro) Maidan’ or ‘Revolution of Dignity’. What started as a reaction to the government’s reversal of the EU integration policy, later grew into a nationwide protest against the regime of President Yanukovych. While the media and experts tend to equate the protest that took place at Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square) in Kyiv with the Maidan movement in general, in order to fully understand the complexity of the Maidan one has to take into account other developments in Ukraine’s regions.

Both in the east and the west of the country local protests provided the support necessary to sustain the Maidan movement; these local protests generated the necessary human and material resources and added to movement’s credibility. Following the decision of the Ukrainian government to put the negotiations on the Association Agreement with the European Union ‘on hold’, activists in Ukraine’s cities and towns, in parallel to the events happening in Kyiv, organized peaceful rallies and demonstrations in support of the pro-EU agenda. As events unfolded, protesters in the regions pressured local authorities to disobey the ‘unlawful’ decisions of the national government.

In late February 2014, the activists blocked local military bases, preventing the deployment of troops to Kyiv, and seized the offices of state administrations. Along with the resignation of some governors, these actions sent a clear message that the regime was losing its control over the regions. Together with the dramatic events in Kyiv and mass high-level political defections, regional developments eventually led to the ousting of the authoritarian president, opening a window for long-needed systemic change to take place.

By exposing tensions between Kyiv and the regions, local Maidans helped to consolidate a comprehensive national reform agenda. Gathered for Sunday viches (general assemblies), local Maidan protesters deliberated on how to address the existing grievances and issued demands to both national and local authorities. A detailed analysis of the resolutions adopted at these meetings enriches our understanding of Maidan demands and enables us to assess their effectiveness. Local Maidans did not typically coordinate the content of their resolutions with the Kyiv Maidan (or with other Maidans); each resolution reflected local problems and visions. However, four national Maidan conferences were organized, at which delegates from local Maidans issued collective statements.

Along with supporting the national-level demands issued by the Kyiv Maidan, local Maidans targeted the dismantling of the existing system and the creation of new and better governance institutions. First and foremost, the protesters called on the mayors, members of local councils, and state administration officials to abandon the Party of Regions (the party of the president) and serve the genuine interests of the local community. Additionally, the local Maidans demanded the resignation of the ineffective officials, who had been appointed by the president for their loyalty, rather than their merits. Further demands about the creation of new institutions focused on increasing public oversight of local decision-making process including through: close supervision of the appointment of local officials through creation of public lustration (purge) and anti-corruption commissions; introduction of a veto power of the local public assembly; more accountability in local budgeting; the institution of a law allowing local referendums; and the creation of the municipal police.

Post-Maidan, the attempts to dismantle Yanukovych’s corrupt political regime at the local level were mostly successful. The Party of Regions lost credibility and its members defected in large numbers. Some governors resigned voluntarily during or immediately after the Maidan, others were replaced following the presidential elections in 2014, sometimes with active Maidan participants. Discredited local council members and mayors were not re-elected during the local elections in 2015. Instead, these elections provided an opening for ‘fresh blood’ to enter local politics, with one important nuance: in 2015 elections were held using a 100% party-list system, which, although it prevented individual Maidan activists from pursuing a career in local politics, led to the creation of potentially more sustainable local party projects, which competed in their electoral districts with the large national parties. These ‘local parties’ initially focused on a limited number of constituencies and many of them were quite successful in obtaining seats on their respectful councils.

However, initial attempts at constructing new and better (more accountable and deliberative) decision-making institutions at the local level have generally failed. The public, activists, and members of the local Maidans did not become immediately involved in exercising more efficient control over policymaking in their communities. Yet, it is fair to say that many simply lacked the resources and power to change the existing system. Instead, the initiative for this (although only indirectly tackling these grievances and leaving many unaddressed) came from above: in 2014, the Ukrainian government launched the decentralization reform, which envisaged a complete revision of the centre-periphery relations, the empowerment of local communities for greater input into local matters, and more control over directly-elected officials. These changes may lead to the fulfilment of the Maidan agenda in the future. Indeed, for over a decade, various governments in Ukraine flirted with the idea of fiscal decentralization, benefiting from material and expert support from the international donor community. Yet, the 2014 Maidan provided the final impetus to get this reform agenda moving.

Hence, it appears that local Maidans have led to mixed results. It is hard to say if any of the improvements that have taken place since – e.g. the power purge or decentralization – happened due to the local protests alone. It is extremely difficult to disentangle the effects of the Maidan from pre-Maidan negotiations, post-Maidan social and economic crises, and military developments in the south and east of the country on the success or failure of these and other reform efforts in Ukraine. Yet, it is clear that the Ukrainian Maidan movement, in all its complexity, would not have succeeded without the support of local activists in the regions.