Many people are looking forward to a successful running of national elections in Ukraine this coming weekend as being a “victory for democracy.” But let’s look a little harder at the subject of democracy: it’s worth taking consideration of the experience of Maidan – some lessons to be learned and observations to be considered – before we check off the “Free and Fair Election” box on the “Democracy” scorecard. I can’t possibly exaggerate how important this election is: but it is not the best possible achievement – it’s just the thing that looks the most like something that’s worked pretty well for us in the past.
But what can we learn about the pursuit and practice of democracy from Maidan?
First, keep in mind that the current “divisions” in Ukraine (between East and West, pro- and anti-Russia, pro- or anti-fascist, Ukrainska mova vs. Russkiy yazyk) are largely manufactured. The real division in Ukraine, the one that Maidan sought to address, was between a government, controlled by a ruling elite, and ordinary folks – between those who had grasped power and were using it to get obscenely wealthy and those forced to bow to the system’s demands and struggle to make ends meet themselves.
As we’ve observed our neighbors over 15+ years of living in our adopted home town of Kyiv, it seems that a sizable majority speaks Russian but “thinks Ukrainian.” When it gets right down to it, there is a high degree of unity around a common fight against corruption, dictatorship, and economic and moral decay.
Now, once the debris from the current information war” can be cleared away, I believe you will find a clear narrative thread about a people whose spirit rose up against a culture of corruption entrenched in a Mafia government, and did so by incarnating a “revolution of dignity” (достоинство) which used an appeal to love of country and family, human rights, civic participation (“to be a drop in the ocean”), and lots of prayer to draw a diverse, even self-contradictory, collection of actors and interests into an emerging entity which, in and of itself, became a distinct, if not indispensable, actor in the unfolding drama.
The strategy of Maidan demanded a constant, vocal presence. But not everyone whose heart was behind the “revolution of decency” was able to stay on the streets of the capital for months. Though they would’ve if they could’ve.
During the initial months of the protests the early stages of information war involved arguing about “how many people showed up” for the protests on ‘any given Sunday.’ However, counting the people on Maidan as a number of individuals missed something important. The bottom line is, when 100,000 people were considered as “needed” to establish the movement’s credibility… they came. When the bells of Mikhailivskiy Cathedral (and innumerable tweets and Facebook posts) called people to Maidan to dispel an all-night attempt to violently disburse the protestors… they came. When a million were needed to up the ante… they came.
So here’s the payoff: It’s no help to “count heads” on Maidan. What needs to be appreciated is that every individual who has at least once stood behind the barricades carries Maidan in her heart. The people who held out on Maidan until the government fled – and those who remain on watch until a stable government, accountable to the people, is in place – are delegates, each one representing hundreds, even thousands, of others ready to join the ranks on Maidan when needed.
Maidan is not just a place, it is a state of mind. It is a phenomenon that I was privileged to witness in its dynamic stage, evolving day by day, being a place for the people to meet, communicate and exchange ideas, to develop strategies, hold meetings and implement their plans. Maidan is a living organism – thinking, reflecting, finding a voice and taking action, dealing with the realities of hostile attacks and physical exhaustion. Maidan is Ukrainians finding and formulating their own values and building the ideal model for a country worthy of worthy citizens.
While Yanukovych was just one man being pressured by other secondary actors – Russia; Ukraine’s business oligarchs, politicians, and military leaders; the U.S. and E.U. – Maidan was something else entirely. The “actor” of Maidan is single but not simple, therefore, its decisions are very difficult to forecast. The opposition (political) “leaders” sought to represent the protesters in negotiations with the forces, but the real power they brought to the table was derived from the crowds. When Maidan determined that the prime objective was to force Yanukovych from office, it was impossible to dislodge them. They pursued – and achieved – this result through dogged determination and persistence… as well as a willingness to adjust tactics – a process which no individual could orchestrate.
It was extremely ironic to hear many times over past months that the “opposition” (that is, the political leadership) was not “in control” of “the people.” Meanwhile, on Maidan, “the people” were upset that they did not have control of the “opposition leaders.” And the times where Maidan and the “leadership” diverged, a case could be made that Maidan “had it right” (see my comments on “leadership failure” as well as this story of how the last day of the Yanukovych regime was brought about not by the negotiations of the “leaders” but by the insistence of Maidan. Under lethal fire, Maidan rejected any proposal which left Yanukovych in place. (I think this is one of the absolutely “must-read” stories of this part of the history:
They prayed that would leave; they demanded that he leave… and he did. In Psalm 37 we read: “I have seen a wicked and ruthless man flourishing like a green tree in its native soil, but he soon passed away and was no more; though I looked for him, he could not be found.” It was Maidan that saw this reading change from an anguished cry to a prophecy of victory.
It is clear that, as the crisis in Kyiv unfolded, Maidan developed a noisy, yet effective, process for finding its voice. They made canny use of social networks, stage presence, and traditional international media… but all of it built on the fact that “Maidan” was “in session” and, in a time when there was no one else to speak for the people, Maidan became the voice of the people.
And I would love to see some ambitious social scientist go through the decisions faced and made (or avoided) by each of the “actors” in the scenario since November, along with whether and how their wisdom or effectiveness was vindicated. I truly believe that such an analysis would show that, rather than being an amorphous pseudo-collective (let alone a “mob of neofascists”), the voice of Maidan turns out, in fact, to be the most dependable voice around.
Since that means Maidan may have spoken more correctly, counseled more effectively, and included in its “deliberative process” the maximum amount of openness (people were allowed to state their views from the main stage at Maidan at will, without significant restriction, during the times of deliberation), then Maidan represents a resource for democratic governance that needs to be harnessed, not simply decommissioned once the “real democracy” of “free and fair elections” has been established. (We’ve certainly seen how that – as an end in itself – accomplishes little.)
Maidan was not a place or an event: it was a nation believing, praying, hoping, agitating for the impossible, for a shot at dignity… and seeing it happen. As the nation of Ukraine – and many of our own nations – struggle for the same, there may be some lessons that Maidan holds for us that go beyond this weekend’s elections or the boundaries of Ukraine – however they end up.