After the shock of the violent clearance of Independence Square in Kyiv early on Saturday and a sense that the carnival was over, the spontaneous occupation of St Michael’s Square followed by the mass demonstrations on Sunday revived hopes and gave fresh impetus to popular action. Indeed, masses of protesters are now leaving the provinces, particularly from Western Ukraine, and descending on Kyiv, with road blocks now far less restrictive than they had been a week ago. (One bus left from outside my place of work this evening – see below). Sunday’s protests in Kyiv even saw an attempt to break through lines of riot police outside the presidential administration using a bulldozer, something that has raised various accusations of “provocation” by government forces or hooliganism by right-wing militias. This event, which somewhat overshadowed the fact that at least 200,000 took to the streets of Kyiv on Sunday, reclaiming Independence Square and barricading off the government quarters while claiming Kyiv City Hall, has a resonance in Ivano-Frankivsk – the focus of this blog exploring revolution from the provinces. Meanwhile, the mass protests in Kyiv have been overshadowed themselves today by the failure to secure a vote of no confidence against the government.
In Ivano-Frankivsk on Sunday, too, mass gatherings took place, with a general strike announced for municipal and state workers (beyond essential industries and sectors, such as healthcare). This has been effective, with regional administration workers joining their colleagues on Tuesday. This strike has aided participation in mass protests in the city, as well as travel to Kyiv. On Monday some 15,000 people gathered at lunchtime outside the regional administration office, while at least 10,000 were present again today. Peaceful protest was given full support, as the mayor also joined the strike. On Monday evening, however, around 20:00 with some 500-1000 people gathered outside the regional administration building, a small group – including an allegedly-drunk councillor – broke into the building which was protected only by ordinary police. The mayor, together with the police, subsequently brought the situation under control.
The mayor, Viktor Anushkevychus, then made an emotional appeal to those gathered outside, who turned out to be young men, even boys, telling them quite clearly not to be idiots and to keep the peace. The young men declared that they had been informed of a “provocation” at the regional administration building and had come to help. However, it seems quite clear that there was no real “provocation”, so no government insiders trying to spark a situation, merely some over-zealous members of a grouping called ‘Pravij Sektor’ (Right Sector) who had decided to attempt to storm the building. The mayor, as shown in the video above, was concerned that any violence could be used by the government as an excuse to impose a state of emergency in the country. The mayor also referred to the situation in Kyiv, with the attempt to storm the presidential administration – an attempt which has been framed as one instigated by government provocateurs. There might be some credibility in those claims about Kyiv, but in Ivano-Frankivsk I myself witnessed an impromptu march and gathering by members of Pravij Sektor and the associated Tryzub (Trident) organisation after 9 p.m. on Sunday night. The leaders issued calls for armed rebellion and shouted down calls for peaceful protest. It seems that there are some in the city – in proto-paramilitary militias in particular – for whom a more Romantic form of armed rebellion in battle is a more appealing model than the more peaceful, negotiated route to overcoming the current rulers. However, ordinary civilians – as in Kyiv – proved here, too, quite adept at calming down the situation, ensuring that strikes and civil disobedience, rather than violence and Molotov cocktails become the face of these protests.
The attempted storming made it onto State Television news and was accompanied by footage from a Party of Regions rally featuring an MP declaring victory over Western Ukrainian fascists and “banderovtsy” (nationalist bandits) following the failure of the vote of no confidence. As an aside, the coverage on state television is more balanced generally now, with images of pro-EU, anti-government protests featuring prominently and not only in the framework provided by the Party of Regions.
The mass strikes now involving civil servants are an extension of the earlier student strikes, indicating something of a growing unity of Ukrainian society. Today, the rector of my university here finally spoke after limiting – much like President Yanukovych (now nicknamed “Yanusescu”) – his public appearances to a brief interviews with specially-selected media for the duration of the protests so far. The rector, whose speech I recorded, accompanied by his vice-rectors and other allies, deigned to speak to his students and staff at a grandiose gathering at the university’s central quad, beside the statue dedicated to the university’s patron. He declared that the university had always been supportive of the students’ actions and their peaceful protests, as well as their aspirations for Europe. On the subject of which he issued some generalities about what “Europe” means, although there was little talk of reforming the university which declares itself “Precarpthia’s Finest European-type university”. The grandiose gathering, or summoning of the students, also featured this music which has drawn derision here since the start of the protests.
The rector failed, however, to answer any of the questions which most concern the students in terms of their university life: will they lose marks for attending protests during the period of official silence? Will they have to make up missed classes (something that also concerns staff who have largely been present at the university during classes affected by strikes)? Will their exams take place at the end of this month as planned? Still, the students’ participation in the mass demonstrations continue, while continuing to attend the first and second classes each day enables them to discuss further action, while also maintain a sense that their studies are continuing. While municipal staff are now on their general strike in three regions of SW Ukraine (Lviv, Ternopil and Ivano-Frankivsk), the students here continue to operate in their “warning strike” mode, so only attending part of the classes.
The advice of the dean of my department is for students to organise their days so that they only attend courses that form part of their major subject. A bane of the Ukrainian university system is that students have around 30 hours a week of contact time even in the humanities, with much of this taken up by subsidiary courses consisting by and large of an introduction to almost every other social science and humanities subject, as well as some “vocational” courses ( for example, health and safety at work; but no one has asked why the fire escapes are often padlocked shut). The irony of this advice from the Dean is that with just fifteen hours a week in class, with courses focused on the students’ majors, the strikes and protests have resulted in the students receiving a European-type course structure (albeit still without any element of choice of courses). In a meeting in a city-centre cafe with some students today – an informal way of keeping English classes going while also generating cross-group discussion (students here are limited to courses with the same group of 10-15 students throughout their university life) – I tried to communicate this fact.
This discussion – highly unusual in terms of breaking down usual staff/student barriers here – also revealed that some students who had initially felt compelled by an order from university staff to attend the protests had now come to realise the greater sense and aspirations behind Ukraine’s protests, of which they were now part. However, the prevailing mood was that while the country’s rulers might be changeable and could be toppled, the university system will remain as it has been long after they have graduated. The fleeting nature of students’ presence at these institutions, while the less-than-dynamic staff turnover in Ukrainian higher education, mean that their despondent predictions regarding higher education seem likely to be borne out. At least perhaps until all young Ukrainians can study abroad – rather than only those whose parents can afford foreign tuition fees – and even greater competition will force reforms on higher education here.
Certainly the student protests laid foundations for the current mass strike in this region, which means that numbers of older Ukrainians are travelling to Kyiv, while the part-time nature of the warning strike here actually serves to keep the mass of students in place.
One bus ready to leave for Kyiv, taking a coach-load of protesters and the necessary provisions. Hopefully the revolution will also bring about an end to unnecessary spelling errors.