Letters From St. Petersburg, Part I
Social justice in the Maidan movement in Ukraine
Authors Maxim Alyukov, Svetlana Erpyleva, Andrey Nevskiy, Natalia Savelyeva, and Oleg Zhuravlev jointly submitted this piece as the first of a series of essays by the Public Sociology Lab, an autonomous project of social researchers in Russia.
Many researchers analyze the Maidan movement as a part of recent waves of protests shaking the world one after the next. However, despite the similarities behind all these movements — populist identities, anti-state agendas, and more — there is one crucial difference between the movements in the post-socialist world and protest movements in other countries: the social climate. Occupy Wall Street, the Indignados, mass mobilization in Greece backed by Syriza – all these examples demonstrate that people in various countries are concerned with social justice and propose a social agenda as a part of political protest. However, this picture drastically contrasts with post-Soviet protests, where any kind of social agenda is rare and not dominant even if social issues directly determine a protest. This is true for the Maidan movement in Ukraine as it was for the “For fair Elections” movement in Russia in 2011-12. In both instances, the political and moral agenda prevails over the issues of social benefits, employment provision, affordable healthcare and education. Thus, according to available statistics, the demand for “general raising of standards of living” constituted only 11.5% of all Maidan demands (Khutkyy 2014).
There are various models explaining this peculiar situation. Some researchers refer to the absence of frame resonance with the social agenda because it is perceived as a part of the old, communist world. Either liberal or nationalist agendas or both turn out to be more mobilizing in the situation of the stigmatization of “communist” ideological discourse.
Another explanation concerns the class structure of post-socialist societies. Various factors such as the socialist inheritance of “the classless society” ideology, the diminishing of industrial labor and the rise of service based economies, as well as post-socialist stigmatization of any kind of civic activity, have influenced vague understandings of social hierarchy and finding oneself in this hierarchy. This uncertainty leads to the problem of understanding class differences and, consequently, weak class solidarity, as well as non-articulation of social demands (Bikbov 2012). People can experience social problems, but they cannot express them due to the absence of the feeling of distinct social belonging and a proper intellectual toolkit. Both explanations — stigmatization of socialist past and vagueness of social structure — work in the case of Ukrainian movement as well. But in this text we will clarify the role of contingent factors which underlined the disavowal of a social agenda during Maidan.
According to the Centre for Society Research’s data, Ukrainians were always concerned with social guarantees, and social protest was the most frequent type of collective action before Maidan. However, the Centre’s data on the protests in Ukraine during Maidan indicated that although the general number of protests increased, the number of the protest events dedicated to social problems decreased dramatically. Instead, issues such as national independence, democracy, and lustration became the most prominent. In post-Maidan Ukraine though, things have shifted again, and now the social issue is becoming dominant once more (Centre for Society Research 2012; 2014, 2015). Qualitative analysis of the protesters’ narratives, which is based on more than 70 in-depth interviews with Maidan’s participants, allows us to understand these metamorphoses.
The overall low level of Ukrainian economy and high poverty rate determined the feelings of Ukrainians towards social issues. In our interviews, Maidan participants talked about social problems passionately and emotionally. Discussing corruption, they usually turned to these issues:
Money stolen by his [Yanukovitch’s] father from the country gives him… he doesn’t need to earn it. They have their own business, that infuriated people … Today a loaf bread costs 5 hrivnas in Ukraine, this is equivalent of one dollar. That is, two loafs of bread cost 1 dollar. An ordinary pensioner has even not 100, 90 dollars. Communal services prices now raised on 55% … That is, to pay for accommodation, a pensioner needs 50 dollars, 550 hrivnas. (Kiev, July 2014, male, higher education, unemployed)
We suppose that the fact that they were concerned with the social problems made the dominant discourse of struggle against authoritarianism, corruption, etc. more consistent and reflexive. Their hate toward the state and bureaucracy was inspired by the experience of deep inequality in the society.
Furthermore, the majority deemed social demands as already included in Maidan’s agenda “in a folded way.” Maidan participants supposed that the realization of key demands (regime change, the struggle with corruption, lustration) would lead in turn to the resolution of other problems, social problems in particular:
Of course, they [social demands] are important [for Maidan’s agenda]. Of course, people protested against, I think, unjust system in general, against arbitrary rule, wrong political course. Initially students protested because they refused… because the goal was the [EU-Ukraine] Association. Because the association gives jobs and visa-free regime. In any case, there are some advantages in terms of social issues. (Kiev, July 12, 2014, male, 24 years, higher education, transport company worker)
You know, this protest included everything. It included the most important implying everything: pensions, education, and normal job. All of these were included into “European way of life.” (Kiev, July 9, 2014, female, student, freelance)
Therefore, in this sense “Europe” and “European way of life” were understood as a metaphor for the social and economic well-being of the society — social guarantees were perceived as a part of the abstract movement of Ukraine toward Europe that concerned Maidan participants.
Despite the fact that Maidan participants were strongly concerned with social issues, they did not turn them into slogans and political demands of their movement. Some of them even tended to reject these kind of demands calling them “minor” in comparison with broader political and moral slogans of the Ukrainian revolution:
People hit the streets not for the sake of higher wages or benefits, or things like that. No one has even been speaking about that, as it was too minor in comparison with the dictator that we have got in our government. (Kiev, July 12, 2014 female, student)
The “European way” the Maidan activists stood for was more a metaphor for social justice and better society than it was the demand to sign a concrete document. Metaphoric language replaced political language, which would have made the articulation of social demands possible.
There are other, more specific causes of this inattention to social issues. The annexation of Crimea and military aggression of Russia have dramatically influenced the agenda of Maidan, leading it to put forward nationalist and anti-Russian attitudes. In fact the war in the Eastern part of the country gave the new Ukrainian government a chance to put aside a solution to crucial social and economic issues. In addition, it can be assumed that Ukrainians mostly did not expect any solution from the former Yanukovitch government, as they considered it to be corrupt, ineffective and, unable to work for the sake of the majority of the people. That is why the demands of the protesters mostly concerned dismissal of the government and lustration.
Maidan was, in a sense, a protest with a social agenda. But due to different factors and circumstances mentioned above, social claims were replaced by nationalist agenda and paternalist rhetoric. Inability of rallies’ participants to articulate ideology and political differences contributed to the domination of elites’ and leaders’ interests over those of participants. As a result, the discontent of the protesters, which had provoked their participation in the movement, has remained unresolved. Revolution won, Yanukovich left, new leaders came. But the people who invested in those changes are faced with even worse social conditions and violations.
Bikbov, Alexander (2012). “Representation and Self-Delegation.” Logos, No. 2.
Centre for Society Research. (2012). Protests, Changes and Violence in Ukraine: Monitoring’s Results.
Centre for Society Research. (2014). Repressions and Violence: in Donbass and All Over Ukraine.
Khutkyy, Dmitry (2014). Obwestvennye mneniya o protestah: mezhstranovey razlichiya i dinamika [Public Opinion About Protests: Cross-Country Differences and Dynamics].