Conflicting Narratives on the Euromaidan 2013/14

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Narrative 1: “Euromaidan as a Revolution of Dignity”

This narrative describes Euromaidan as a grass-root movement started by civil society in Ukraine in response to President Yanukovich’s sudden renouncement of the signing of an Asso-ciation Agreement with the European Union as well as to the numerous cases of corruption, vio-lations of human rights and flouting of the rule of law which the regime in general had demon-strated previously. According to this narrative, the Euromaidan was a follow-up to the Orange Revolution of 2004 and other “coloured revolutions” in the post-Soviet states, which protested against corrupted, undemocratic and pro-Russian elites and tried to give a new start to liberal reforms.

Starting as a peaceful demonstration of civic activists and students in November 2013, the Eu-romaidan reached a first peak in the March of Millions on 8 December after young people were cruelly beaten by militia on November 30/December 1. It became a real revolution, the “Revolu-tion of Dignity”, in January/February 2014. The violence, starting from this first incident and continuing during the dramatic events of the winter of 2013/2014, is described as being pro-voked and initiated by the current authorities and militia troops, especially the “Berkut”. Resis-tance became radicalized when Yanukovych pushed through “dictatorship” laws on 16 January, 2014 and when the first Molotov cocktails appeared on the square on19 January. The Maidan became a militarized camp after the first death on 21/22 January and ended as a killing field and makeshift cemetery from 18 to 21 February, 2014.

This narrative emphasizes that the Revolution of Dignity united numerous groups of people re-gardless of the region of origin, ethnicity, native language, gender or social position. Signifi-cantly, the first victims from the Euromaidan side were a Russian-speaking ethnic Armenian, Serhiy Nigoyan, and the Belarusian Mikhail Zhiznevskyi. Other victims, referred to as the “Heavenly Hundred”, were representatives of different regions and professions. Emphasizing the bottom-up mobilization and self-organization of citizens is one of the main parts of the nar-rative. The general motto broadly used at the time was: “I’m a drop in the ocean”, illustrated by the numerous examples of how small- and medium-sized businesses and average people pro-vided assistance to the protesters. Car owners and taxi drivers provided their services for free, while different people voluntarily joined groups who provided medical, legal and humanitarian aid, cultural and informational support – and even spiritual support by clerics of different con-fessions.

The key message, that the Ukrainian people were standing up for European values and democ-racy, was supported by Western leaders and diplomats, numerous journalists, scholars and intellectuals, as well as by representatives of Ukrainian diasporas all over the world. Demonstra-tions and campaigns in support of the Euromaidan took place in EU capitals and large cities of the USA, Australia and Canada.

Another fact often mentioned in the frame of this narrative is that the Revolution wasn’t led by any particular political leader or party. Oppositional MPs and politicians emerged as the main interlocutors that negotiated on behalf of the protesters on the Maidan with President Yanukovych to end the standoff. Each negotiation was considered fruitless, especially due to the fact that the foremost demand of the protesters was for Yanukovych to resign, and he would not. Parallel negotiations between the Yanukovych government and European and US diplomats also took place, with similar results. This fact explains why after the Euromaidan no party won a majority, neither in the Verkhovna Rada after the early parliamentary elections held on 31 October 2014, nor in local councils after the local elections in 2015.

This narrative firstly appeared within civil society and was later adopted by authorities and politicians. On 21 February 2014, the Ukrainian parliament officially recognized the perished protesters as victims. On 1 July, the Verkhovna Rada adopted the law “On Amendments to Arti-cle 7 of the Law of Ukraine On National Awards of Ukraine”, re-establishing the order of the Heavenly Hundred Heroes. On 21 November 2014, by decree of President Poroshenko, the per-ished Ukrainian protesters of the Euromaidan were posthumously awarded the title Hero of Ukraine.

Later on, some initiatives took shape following the Maidan – the “Museum of the Maidan” and the “Museum of Liberty” were established. Their joint efforts have resulted in the creation of the Heroes of the Heavenly Hundred National Memorial Complex – Museum of the Revolution of Dignity. Also, the Kyiv Council renamed part of Institutska Street to Heavenly Hundred He-roes Avenue. Since November 2014, the Day of Dignity and Freedom is celebrated in Ukraine, commemorating both the Orange Revolution of 2014 and the Revolution of Dignity of 2013/2014. So, the narrative on the Euromaidan as a Revolution of Dignity that started from the grassroots and demonstrated the will to freedom of the Ukrainian people has become widespread in Ukraine. It is shared by the incumbent President Volodymyr Zelensky and Prime Minister Oleksiy Honcharuk, supported by EU representatives and Western leaders and re-flected in academic articles and reports by analytical centres.

Narrative 2: “Coloured Revolutions – Western interference in post-Soviet space “Puppets” of the West

The main idea of this narrative is that the 2014 protests were a coup d’état. The Euromaidan was a new stage of the “colour revolutions” influenced by the West. This narrative considers all the “colour revolutions” to have been prepared and financed by the Western powers. At the least, it considers t that the West used a mass movement for its own interests.

The “Western hand” rules the “puppet” politicians in Ukraine, who prepared and organized the “colour revolutions”, since they had no chance of coming to power by means of the legal elec-toral process – this narrative exist mostly in Russia and in parts of Ukraine.

Viktor Yanukovych was a legally elected president, and Petro Poroshenko did not have enough public support to win the elections – this is the argument of the narrative. That – in addition to the geopolitical motives of the Western actors – is what moved Yushchenko and his allies, with the help of Western money, to prepare and organize the Euromaidan. Also, on the emotional level, this narrative reflects the fear of being manipulated by the Western powers. The “colour revolutions” are insulting events for the representatives of this narrative.

The participation of European ministers of foreign affairs in the Maidan in 2013 is seen as a sign of Western meddling. The “Washington curators” influenced the situation in Ukraine after the “colour revolution” and the Euromaidan, since the Ukrainian politicians are dependent actors. The Western world tries to pull many post-communist states into its sphere of influence, by pro-moting “liberal and democratic” ideas and values.

“This is a traditional political tool for some nations, aimed at destruction of statehood and sovereignty of a foreign country, conducted under the excuse of democratization. In reality, almost any country where a colour revolution is launched eventually descends into chaos and falls under external management.”

Secretary of the Security Council Nikolay Patrushev

According to this narrative, “colour revolutions” always produce a turbulent and unstable situa-tion, which means only protest and radical changes, but not sustainable and progressive politi-cal development. Revolution means radical changes, but not reforms. “Colour revolutions” are a means of USA interference in independent states, making their sovereignty “fragile”.

“They [independent states – ed.] realize that concepts like peace, independence, territorial integrity and sovereignty tend to be increasingly fragile today. They need to be protected. The last 20 years have taught them that a state can only be secure if its military is well-equipped and armed with the most advanced air and missile defence systems. The US does not sit idly and is employing other tactics including a broad range of techniques developed for hybrid wars and colour revolutions.”

Alexander Fomin, Russian Deputy Defence Minister

The political leaders on the Maidan did not have any public support, except from a minority and small radical groups. These small groups seized the power. That is why the people may feel themselves to be used by the Ukrainian and Western politicians. Since the necessary conditions for the protest movements did not exist in these countries, including Ukraine, all the protest movements must have been paid – otherwise, why would people go out? Viktoria Nuland pro-posed food for Maidan activists, and showed the open support of the West. The charity George Soros Open Society is accused in this narrative of inciting colour revolutions to install govern-ments friendly to the United States – from the Serbian ‘Bulldozer Revolution’ in 2000 to the Ukrainian uprising in 2013.

The treaty on the regulation of the political crisis was signed on 21 February 2014. Yanukovych said that the Western leaders betrayed him. The killing of people on the Maidan is interpreted as a Western ploy to make the Maidan results irreversible by provoking even stronger protests. Serbia, Georgia and Ukraine are “victims” of colour revolutions.

“When violent protests shook Kiev in 2013, Western analysts and leaders quickly threw their support be-hind the anti-government ‘revolution’ — but after weeks of Yellow Vest protests in France, the reaction has been very different”.

After the Euromaidan, the West gained strong influence over the Ukrainian government. Citi-zens of Western countries took places in government and some big enterprises. As a result, Maidan “criminal” forces came to power; that is why Russia was not going to have any negotia-tions with them.

The real peoples’ initiative and alternative to the paid Euromaidan was the Anti-Maidan move-ment. At the same time, the goal of the Anti-Maidan movement is to protect Russia from de-structive revolutionary changes. The representatives of this narrative feel themselves betrayed by Ukraine and the Western countries and accuse them of a politics of double standards.

“They (USA – ed.) are using various means of political and economic pressure; they launch colour revolu – tions and even direct military invasions. The rhetoric centred on ‘protection of democracy’ can hardly fool anyone now. The reason behind such operations by the USA and their allies is their desire to maintain their dominant position in the world. As far as the export of democracy is concerned, it only brings other peoples chaos, disasters and wars.”

Valentina Matvienko, Head of the Russian Upper House

So, a “colour revolution” pushes a country toward a fragile statehood. In Russia, the Russian au-thorities control the situation in the country and will not allow a ‘colour revolution’ scenario planned by foreign special services to happen. Further arguments of this narrative claim that the dismissal of Yanukovich was unconstitutional and that the lack of a proper investigation of the shootings on Maidan creates suspicion that is was actually initiated by protesters them-selves. Another thread of this narrative would accuse the EU of presenting an ‘either-or’ option reading cooperation with EU and with Eurasian Union, which had to be rejected by Yanukovich and thus indirectly triggered the pro-European protests and respective escalation.

Narrative 3: “The Maidan was a fascist coup d’état”

According to this narrative, the protests in Kyiv that would become known as the Euromaidan may have begun peacefully as a non-violent protest, but they soon grew to become a militant coup d’état by the right-wing fascist organizations Svoboda and the Rights Sector (Pravy Sec-tor), who effectively seized control as the militant tactical leadership of the demonstrations.

In this narrative it is pointed out that the political party Svoboda, which was founded in 1991, has never made a secret of its neo-Nazi ideology, calling itself the “Social-National Party” until 2004. Oleh Tyahnybok, who has led the party since 2004, was ousted former President Viktor Yushchenko’s parliamentary faction for a speech calling for Ukrainians to fight against a “Mus-covite-Jewish mafia” – using two highly insulting words to describe Russians and Jews. The grave danger this fascist party presents to Ukraine is demonstrated by the fact that it has even infiltrated the Ukrainian government, winning 37 parliamentary seats in the Verkhovna Rada in 2012. In the transitional government of 2014 that came out of the Maidan, three minister posts were held by Svoboda party members. (In the 2014 parliamentary elections, however, Svoboda results were low and in 2019 they won only one constituency seat.)

The Right Sector is an umbrella organization for ultranationalist right-wing groups that share an anti-Russian, anti-Jewish and anti-immigrant ideology. Its members used intimidation and brute force reminiscent of Hitler’s “brownshirts” when they attacked the police, stormed government buildings and beat government sympathizers on 17 January 2014.

Historical roots

The images of Kyiv burning and streets filled with thugs evoke the horror of the atrocities com-mitted in Ukraine during World War II by collaborators with Nazi Germany when it began its in-vasion of the Soviet Union under the name Operation Barbarossa on 22 June 1941. The far-right groups that gained control of the Euromaidan shared reverence for the infamous Nazi collabo-rator Stepan Bandera, and his so-called Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN). With the arrival of Nazi soldiers in Ukraine, Bandera declared an independent Ukrainian state and was supportive of the Nazi extermination and forced relocation of Jews, Tatars, Roma people, and Poles in Ukraine. Despite all of Bandera’s crimes, he is still considered a hero in Ukraine. Euro-maidan must be seen as an attempt by these fascist groups to fulfil the dream of Stepan Ban – dera – a Ukraine free of Russians, Jews, and all other ”undesirables”.

The right to peaceful protest, democratic procedures and elections exist for the sole purpose of replacing the authorities that do not satisfy the people. However, those who stood behind the latest events in Ukraine had a different agenda: they were preparing yet another government takeover; they wanted to seize power and would stop short of nothing. They resorted to terror, murder and riots. Nationalists, neo-Nazis, Russophobes and anti-Semites executed this coup. They continue to set the tone in Ukraine to this day.”

Vladimir Putin, President of the Russian Federation

According to this narrative, the rise of right-wing extremism in Ukraine cannot be seen, let alone understood, in isolation. Rather, it must be examined as part of a growing trend through-out Europe (and indeed the world) – a trend which threatens the very foundations of democracy. “Nazism is again coming to us from Europe,” says Mikhail Myagkov, one of Russia’s leading historians of the Second World War and a professor of history at the prestigious Moscow State Institute of International Relations, where most of Russia’s top diplomats are educated. “The bacilli of Nazism have not been destroyed. Unfortunately, they have infected, among other countries, our brotherly nation of Ukraine.”

Gaps

Russia: In the Russian mainstream media, the narrative of the Maidan as a fascist coup is part of a larger narrative which sees a growing trend throughout Europe and the world of right-wing extremism that threatens the very foundations of democracy.

Ukraine: In eastern Ukraine, the narrative of Euromaidan as a fascist coup fall on fertile ground, evoking the fears and traumas of World War II atrocities. By contrast, Kyiv has consistently de-nied the role of fascist elements in the Euromaidan. In fact, both Svoboda and the Right Sector lost in the early parliamentary elections in October 2014 which gave the Ukrainian government and civil society good grounds for challenging the narrative on the far-right parties’ impact.

The West: While denying the Russian narrative of a fascist coup as exaggerated, Western sources at the same time downplay Kyiv’s narrative of an almost complete lack of fascism – ac-knowledging a rather small fascist/far right presence within Maidan – however without signifi-cant influence, according to official German statements and mainstream media discourses.

Overlaps

The narrative of Euromaidan as a fascist coup overlaps with that of Euromaidan as a Western plot. Many members of the Right Sector responsible for the violence on Euromaidan went on to join the fascist-sympathetic volunteer paramilitary organization the Azov Battalion.

Some German and US experts point at overlaps or “bridges” between the narratives by e.g. pos-ing the question whether – even if well-intended – the presence of Western politicians on the Maidan was a mistake in hindsight, by emphasizing the complexity and unpredictability of the dynamics between different actors on the Maidan at that time or by acknowledging the am-bivalence of external funding of NGOs with respect to its supposed political neutrality.

Based on the materials: “Research of narratives in the public consciousness of Germany, Russia and Ukraine”, pp. 33-41.

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