Leadership failure on Maidan

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In the last 10 days of January, things in Ukraine changed, and people around the world began to take notice. Sad to say, but, given the “Hollywood mentality” of many in the “developed” world, nothing really important happens anywhere until a) it gets covered by our media of choice and b) there are pictures and videos to look at which seem like something from an “action movie.” 
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As police and citizens engaged in days of a pitched battle on Hrushevskogo Street, people began to wonder about “my safety” and whether it was “wise” to travel to a place where “such things” were happening. Many saw a move toward violence as indication that “the situation had gone out of control,” that there was “Mob Rule in Kiev.”
There are a lot of “versions” of how the powder keg was lit, and it may never be possible to untangle all the complexities of “what actually happened[1].” But there is a key element in the narrative that I heard repeated multiple times from diverse sources with first-hand knowledge that has important implications for me: leadership failure. What follows, then, is not an attempt at history-writing, but about the implications of this narrative in which so many people (many of whom I love and respect) locate themselves.

The people had been gathering on Maidan peacefully for months now. As time went on, pressure (and violence, implied or actual) was increasingly brought to bear from the side of the government. Not seeing an effective way to stop this trend, the “people” (narod) on Maidan pressed strongly, loudly for a “single leader” behind which the political strength of the people could be deployed. The leaders of the “political opposition” had formed a “loose coalition” which could attract their diverse constituency. In addition to broad appeal, this arrangement was easily the “safest” for the politicians involved.

But this was no longer what the people wanted. An activist from Automaidan (well respected and seen as effective by the narod, particularly for organizing pickets of government officials’ luxurious mansions) took the stage on Maidan (which was, and remains, available to all). He read an appeal asking for the opposition to choose one leader to push the people’s demands in the political arena. It didn’t matter who, but there had a be unified leadership. The narod on Maidan loudly and enthusiastically shouted its agreement to this position. But the opposition politicians disagreed, Vitaliy Klitschko calling him a “provocateur” (a most serious accusation).

Photo: AFP/Getty images

Everyone remembers what happened to Viktor Yushchenko, who was the face of the Orange Revolution of 2004 – a face which became disfigured by dioxin poisoning which many believed was done by, or at the behest of, governmental agents. They each knew that “the tallest nail will be the first to get the hammer.” They each have their own political future to pursue (whether to the benefit of the nation or themselves), each only wanting to ‘make their move’ at the most opportune time.

One of the leading troika, Arseniy Yatseniuk responded from the stage to this request to name a leader, crying “The Leader is the Narod!” However, it was precisely this “narod” that was demanding courageous and active leadership. This was profoundly dispiriting to the people, who were beginning to feel that no one on either side was actually listening to them.

Rada, Nov. 2004. Picture by author.
Rada, Nov. 2004. Picture by author.

So, making the best of things, this “narod” – now having been anointed with some sort of mantle of “leadership” – decided to head up to the legislature (Rada) to protest the legislative anarchy that they perceived was going on there. (This was a scene of many mass protests during the Orange Revolution.) However, this time the “forces” were not ready to allow such pressure being placed upon them. So, as protesters began to head up the hill the riot police (heaving heard rumors that they were heading to either the Rada or the Cabinet Ministry building to either occupy or torch them) stopped them with a massive show of force. The people were upset, and, as it “happened” there were a goodly amount of people and groups (many of whom had not been widely known until then) who were ready to engage power with power, threats with threats.

A goodly portion of the “narod,” seeing that around the corner was forming a pitched battle between brutal riot police and what may have been at first “fringe elements,” decided to join in. After all, the Rada had just passed an outrageous packet of legislation which totally criminalized everything that the peaceful protestors had been doing for the past months. Thus, the person raising hands in prayer for the nation and singing the National Anthem (“Ukraine Has Not Yet Died”) were JUST AS GUILTY AND LAWLESS as those raising their arms to throw Molotov cocktails at police and shouting for the destruction of anything and everything. An incredibly short-sighted move, this removed any disincentive for renouncing violence… How many must have thought to themselves, “If I am going to risk 15 years in prison, whether I stand and pray behind the barricades or whether I attack the riot police, I may as well get my licks in.”? The most peaceful and the most radical, those who wanted to rebuild and those who wanted to destroy were all one and the same in the eyes of the “law.” (It should be noted that these laws were passed by raised hands, the speaker “counting” 225 votes for, even though no one had signed in an there were likely not even enough legislators in the chamber to even constitute a quorum.)

Again, the political “leaders” immediately reproached those who had crossed the line from “peaceful Maidan” to “violent Hrushevksogo” as “provocateurs.” However by this time (literally a matter of hours) it was not merely right-wing extremists who were involved, but babushki gathering empty bottles to use in making firebombs, gathering cobblestones from side streets in their plastic tote bags to take to the boys in the front lines; a well-dressed man was seen driving by in a Lexus unloading canisters of gasoline…

As one young Ukrainian wrote,

I can’t understand that I, a 22-year-old Ukrainian, could become a criminal in my own country merely for sharing information and telling the truth.
Many outside the country may wonder who started the latest conflict and why it has escalated so quickly. But I can understand why people behaved this way and I can’t call them provocateurs.
It is sad and wrong that they have expressed their feelings this way, but when there is no leader in the crowd to control people, they start to act as the street teaches them.
What happened yesterday was shocking. But responsibility for this lies with both the authorities and the opposition. It looks like both of them failed to listen to their own people.

I work with a Christian organization that places a strong emphasis on leadership, particularly leadership that “develops, empowers, and releases” people. Empowerment is indeed a very tricky process. Perhaps the politicians thought they were “empowering and releasing” the narod? But true empowerment, like true dialogue, cannot be scripted in advance, cannot be pursued along routes pre-designated in advance. In this case, those putting themselves forward as “leaders,” missed a huge opportunity to serve… the people, the narod, had made it clear that they truly needed a leader, and that they were ready to follow. By ignoring these demands, whether out of strategic differences or personal considerations, the “leaders,” in fact, ceased to be able to function in that capacity. Proclaiming “the narod is the leader” was not empowerment, it was a refusal to listen to and to embrace the will of the people who needed the tactical and political direction that these “leaders” could provide.

In asking how things took such a violent turn when one made the turn from (peaceful) Maidan to (violent) Hrushevskogo (literally right around the corner from one another), many will employ methods of “objective” history, as well they should. But, at a deeper level, I think there is here a great lesson for leaders – one from which I pray the Ukrainian political opposition – and all of us who strive to lead well – can learn.


[1] “Not all that is presented to us as history has really happened; and what really happened did not actually happen the way it is presented to us; moreover, what really happened is only a small part of all that happened. Everything in history remains uncertain, the largest events as well as the smallest occurrence.”
Goethe – http://hnn.us/article/1328#sthash.lhtrDDRg.dpuf

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