Graham Stack in Kyiv for bne (Business New Europe)
December 16, 2013
As mass anti-government and pro-EU protests move into their third week in Ukraine, vox pop and opinion polls show the continued high motivation of protestors, but also the stubborn resistance of the east-west geographical fault line that shapes Ukrainian politics.
December 15 saw another large crowd take to the central square in Kyiv, Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square), to protest against the government’s failure to sign an association and free trade pact with the EU in November and the subsequent police violence against demonstrators. The numbers of participants, in what has become known as Euromaidan, was off off the previous weeks’ turnouts of over 300,000, but clearly surpassed the psychologically significant 100,000 mark.
The protest came as President Viktor Yanukovych prepares to fly to Moscow for meetings with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin on December 17. The opposition protesting on the Maidan fear that Yanukovych is preparing to take the country into the Russia-led Customs Union in return for urgently needed financial aid – trade concessions that may prevent Ukraine from signing a deal for closer ties with the EU.
Voices of Euromaidan
“We want to join the European Union, but politicians are taking us back to the Soviet Union in the form of the Customs Union. The politicians are ignoring the people and only interested in personal enrichment,” says Igor Potichny, 55, owner of an interior decoration firm in Kyiv, explaining his participation in the Euromaidan. According to Potichny, everyday corruption has got significantly worse under Yanukovych, especially tax inspections, and he wants to see early parliamentary elections.
32-year-old car mechanic Vasil Medvedev travelled to Kyiv from West Ukraine’s Ivano-Frankivsk to take part in the meeting for personal motives: “I usually have nothing to do with politics, but my friends were among those beaten by the Berkut (riot police) November 29 and I want punishment for those who gave the order.”
37-year-old Oleh Komoyansky is one of a group of ten who have travelled to the capital from West Ukrainian Ternopol to attend the protest, hoping to force the government’s resignation. A shopkeeper, he is bitter about the increasing taxes he is being forced to pay as part of the new tax code introduced by the government. “Like everyone here, I am against Yanukovych and for signing the EU agreement – in that order,” he says.
40-year-old filmmaker Ruslan Ponochevny from Kyiv is likewise against corruption and police violence. “At the moment it is impossible to do anything without paying bribes,” he tells bne. “We need to restructure the whole system from the bottom up, but this will be a very long and arduous process.” Ponochevny is one of the few who expresses a clear political preference for one of the leaders of the opposition, Vitaly Klitschko, the former boxing champ and leader of the UDAR Party. “Because he is from Kyiv,” he says.
These views reflect the majority of protestors, according to opinion polls. The Kyiv International Institute of Sociology (KIIS) questioned over 1,000 participants on the Maidan on December 7-10, and found 70% of those present said they were there because of the violence against demonstrators on the night of November 29, 53.5% because of Yanuovych’s failure to sign the EU deal, and 50% because they want to change life in Ukraine. 71% listed signing the Association Agreement as their main goal.
Profiling the hundreds of thousands of protestors shows that 64% have higher education, just under 55% speak exclusively Ukrainian at home, and roughly half are from Kyiv or from the regions respectively.
Most worryingly for the government, 72% of protestors said they would stay on the Maidan for as long as it takes to achieve their goal. “We will keep coming back here until this band of bandits have lost their grip on power,” Ponochevny insists to bne.
Land of two halves
A rival pro-government rally held in Kyiv nearby to Euromaidan on December 15 only underscored what makes Maidan so special: the “Anti-Maidan” fielded apolitical young men in track suits bussed in apparently mostly from East Ukraine, with widespread reports that participants were paid to attend and handed hymn sheets of unconvincing pro-Yanukovych chants. The contrast between Euromaidan and Antimaidan seems to encapsulate everything positive about the pro-EU movement and everything negative about its opponents.
But whatever the aesthetics, poll data shows that the east-west divide in Ukraine is holding strong, giving Yanukovych more freedom of maneuver than the Euromaidan demonstrations would suggest. According to the reputable pollsters Research & Branding, while 46% of Ukrainians support signing the EU Association Agreement, a decent 36% support joining the rival Customs Union that comprises Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus, with 19% sitting on the fence. The poll questioned over 2,000 respondents on December 4-9.
According to the same poll, 48% believe Yanukovych had grounds not to sign the agreement, with 35% holding the opposite view. Only 30% believe the Association Agreement will be beneficial for Ukraine, while 39% believe the opposite. “Though more people think the Association Agreement was not in Ukraine’s interest, more people want to join the EU than Customs Union,” says Nicu Popescu of the European Institute for Security Studies.
Opinions are largely determined by the map, according to the pollsters: 82% in West Ukraine and 56% in central Ukraine are in favour of signing the agreement, but only 18% in East Ukraine, the heartland of President Yanuovych. In East Ukraine, on the other hand, 61% support joining the Customs Union, 54% in South Ukraine, but only 7% in West Ukraine.
No significant Euromaidan demonstrations have been held in Ukrainian provincial cities apart from Lviv, with a crowd of 3,000 in Dnipropetrovsk December 15 coming a poor third. Given the West Ukraine contribution to the crowds in Kyiv, estimated at around 50%, this again points to the dividing line. “I am against joining the EU and in favour of the Customs Union, because in this part of Ukraine all our historical and economic ties are with Russia,” 28-year-old doctor Svetlana Kuznetsova from East Ukraine’s Lugansk tells bne.
There is no polling data in yet on how Yanukovych and his Party of Regions’ rating has fared since the start of the Maidan protests on December 1. Polls for November conducted by KIIS showed that Yanukovych and Vitaly Klitchko were head to head as presidential candidates. Yanuovych’s December PR disaster combined with Klitchko’s strong showing on the Maidan may now have tipped scales in the latter’s favour.
Exit polls for by-elections in the swing region of central Ukraine on December 15 point to a major shift towards the opposition. Exit polls showed that no pro-Party of Regions candidate is likely to take a seat. The five seats were all ruled too close to call in general elections in November 2012. They could yet prove crucial to the opposition, should the Communist Party parliamentary group defect from its current coalition with the Party of Regions, according to pundits.
But while the middle ground may be shifting towards the opposition, this may shore up the divide between the hard-core, geographically-rooted opposite camps, risking a further fracturing of the country. As one riot police commander put it in an exchange with star boxer Vladimir Klitschko, younger brother of UDAR leader Vitaly, during a standoff at barricades on December 9: “The difference between now and during the Orange Revolution [of 2004] is that back then everyone was supporting the protestors, but now the land is divided – and this is what makes the situation so dangerous.”