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EuroMaidan: A Site of Monstration and of the Politics of Small Things

“EuroMaidan,” or Euro-Square in Kiev, has recently again become the site of protests of citizens upset by president Viktor Yanukovych’s refusal to continue negotiations on the Ukraine’s membership in the European Union last December. A loyal ally of Putin, Yanukovych turned down the EU offer, choosing the promise of billions of dollars for investments offered by the Russian government instead.

On the surface, the site and the main protagonists look almost the same as they did nearly ten years ago, during the Orange Revolution: at the end of 2004 people came out on the streets in Kiev demanding from Yanukovych, who had just won a falsified presidential election, that his rival, the EU-oriented Viktor Yushchenko be rightfully appointed. (Ironically, he campaigned in tandem with the now imprisoned Yulia Tymoshenko, who became Prime Minister in 2005). After two months of daily demonstrations the protesters succeeded.

Yet a decade later, Yanukovych, the pro-Russian Ukrainian leader who was elected president in 2010, is still present, and so are the pro-Europe cries of the Kiev crowd. Nevertheless the divide between the protesting citizens and the police sent by the government to threaten them may be slowly diminishing, as news agencies report on policemen refusing to attack the demonstrators. People on the streets, regardless of where they are standing, are beginning to see one another not as opposite sides in an increasingly violent political conflict, but as people wanting democratic freedom.

One such particularly striking example is a photograph taken recently at the EuroMaidan. It shows an exchange of glances between the police and the demonstrators pointing mirrors at law enforcers. The photo caught a moment that looks piercingly intimate, highlighting the looks of sadness, and perhaps of shame, that people who could be a mother and son are standing on opposite sides of the barricade.

The seemingly powerless crowd holding mirrors to its oppressors is, I believe, a perfect example of “politics of small things” described by Jeffrey Goldfarb. At the same time it is a performative act of showing — or as Daniel Dayan writes, “monstration” — in which a situation predefined as “us” vs. “them” can change into an extension of “us” by an act of reflection so literal, it becomes a powerful metaphor. If in the image the woman looks as if she wanted to say not “look at me” but “look at yourself,” it is no longer a crowd shouting that the emperor has no clothes, it is forcing the emperor to look at his own nakedness.

Although symbolically potent, this “small political” act of monstration does not answer the question whether the protesting Ukrainians are ready to establish the free democratic, pro-European state they are fighting for. Ten years ago the Orange Revolution was a victory, which nonetheless ended in corruption scandals, and which eventually brought Yanukovych back to power.

Goldfarb, in his analysis of the democratic revolutions in the former Soviet Bloc in 1989 points out the differences in the process of establishing civil society in different countries, based on the citizens’ prior experience in civic practices. In his argument Goldfarb uses the example of Poland, where the 1980s Solidarity mass civic movement smoothed the way for the Round Table talks between the Communist government and the opposition, and in consequence, democratic transition. In Romania, however, another example Goldfarb uses, prior to 1989 civic activity had been far smaller. Thus while the execution of the Communist leader, Nicolae Ceaușescu in 1989 marked a change in power, it took the country longer to shift from power understood as legal violence to the power of negotiation. Both countries joined the European Union in the previous decade.

In the case of Ukraine what remains to be seen is whether the current protests demanding stronger ties with Europe and the freedoms it embodies, will lead not just to another change in power, as they already did in 2004. The question is if the Ukrainians are now ready for a change in practicing power that makes a formally democratic state a civil society.

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Helena Chmielewska-Szlajfer

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