Day 5: More protests, more people, more confusion, more hope

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Police, hearing the national anthem at the start of today’s midday gathering, salute throughout.

After yesterday’s largely organised protests, which drew students out of the university at a particular time, the lack of central organisation today caused some confusion among students, as well as staff. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that the Rector has not issued an official statement on the position of the university. Generally he is seen to have given approval for the students’ actions, and a brief interview with an obscure local tv station suggests the same. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y9baZzCDvY0 (Obscure because two of the nine views of this video have been from my household, while the station is not on all cable platforms). However, besides the impracticality of the rector insisting students will need to make up for missed classes as the end of the semester approaches, in practice each departmental dean continues to issue individual instructions.

Some Deans are highly supportive and have effectively allowed students to attend protests with no further consequences. Others, meanwhile, forbid participation or insist that all absentees must be reported by group monitors. (Here, each group has a student – known as starosta, who is responsible for communication between the authorities and groupmates.) However, in the more restrictive departments, students are openly rebelling and failing to attend classes. Across the city meanwhile, pressure from two universities ensured that the Medical University finally relented and has allowed students to join the protests. However, individual lectures continue to exert pressure on their students, threatening sanctions for missing classes. Meanwhile, one university in the city – a branch of a Ternopil HE institution – continues to forbid participation.

Today, I had three seminars to teach, none of which went ahead as the students were participating in the protests. A worrying phenomenon, however, is that numerous students have interpreted the fact that either a lecturer or the dean has permitted their participation in the protests not as permission to make a decision for themselves but as an order to attend. Indeed, my own emails to students have been interpreted as stating “we must go”, whereas the message has always been, “think about whether and why you want to attend”. I have always been available to teach classes where students have been absent, but there has never been a group so far that has split, with part protesting and part staying for lectures. A group mentality prevails (not solidarity), regardless of the individual will (or lack of consciousness) of particular students. Some students did make individual choices, namely to disappear from both the university and protests, instead taking the day off. The significance of such actions cannot yet be established.

Today’s midday protest meanwhile took the form of an extraordinary meeting of the city council, held in the open air on the main square hosting the camp/protest in the city. I think this has to be the most popularly-supported local council meeting held. 67/114 councillors were present, meaning the meeting had full powers and authority. Just 1/13 Party of Regions councillor attended, drawing aggressive/pantomime boos from the crowd. The crowd today was the largest of any protest in the city, with the crowd also invited to vote on motions. Unsurprisingly, all were passed unanimously. It was a mightily impressive sight, this council meeting, as democracy was directly put into action in front of the people, rather than behind the suspect, closed doors typically associated with political dealings here. 

The university authorities, however, remain behind closed doors and refuse to speak openly on the situation, with the usual means of top-down communication disrupted by autonomous actions by deans. The university here does not have a centralised email system, meaning that any communications are passed through arcane levels of hierarchy, with rumour often replacing the actual message as these Chinese whispers wind their way through bureaucracy. Or the message gets lost as it is generally noted from oral communication by each level of the hierarchy, rather than fixed in a document.

It seems, however, that a critical mass of students has been reached who no longer fear sanctions for being absent from classes. The square is thus fuller with each meeting as the old men in flat caps are replaced by young men and women with painted faces and a carnival atmosphere. Whether this atmosphere will remain once the Vilnius Summit is over is another question and only time will tell if the students, and Ukrainian society, have the will, the warmth and means for another occupation of urban spaces – and particularly central Kyiv – lasting weeks and eventually forcing an election. For now, the typical pessimism of students – who felt that they could not even get the university to turn the heating on in a near-freezing early October by means of protest – has subsided, giving way to a carnivalesque optimism. Even if Ukraine, as a state, fails to sign the Association Agreement this week – or at all – hopefully these protests will shape the students’ – and thus this country’s young generation’s – attitudes, showing them that meek passivity, relying on decisions taken by others or orders from above can give way to what here is imagined as a more “European” mode of action.

The Orange Revolution seems to be an inspiration, rather than an example of failed revolution. Rather than the current protests being the farcical repetition of the tragic dashing of hopes with the Orange Revolution, the events of 2004/05 are seen more as a dress rehearsal for the push for a European Ukraine.

 

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