Ukraine’s opposition: Different roles, different goals

Anti-government protesters clashing with police in Kiev represent a multitude of beliefs and agendas

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“Everyone is a leader, and everyone is a soldier,” said Odinochka of the massive protests that have rocked Ukraine for months, and turned violent in recent days. The 20-year-old represents a radical faction of the protesters, which began as unified demonstrations but has evolved into a more complex — and splinted — movement.

Months have passed since Odinochka first traveled from his native city of Lutsk in early December to join anti-government protests in Ukraine’s capital of Kiev, but the standoff between the government of President Viktor Yanukovich and an assemblage of opposition groups has only escalated. In recent days at least 67 people died and hundreds more were injured.

Despite government calls for a truce and attempts to work out a road map to end the violence, a resolution to the unrest remains elusive, and a picture has emerged of an increasingly complicated protest group. (Update Feb. 21: Government and opposition leaders signed a preliminary agreement Friday that would change to the country's Constitution and bring about early elections.) Many analysts think opposition leaders may be losing their sway over rank-and-file protesters.

"Now the official opposition cannot control the people protesting in the streets," Valentin Yakushik, a political science professor at the University of Kiev, told Al Jazeera. "They came to the tactics of vandalism, burning down some buildings, destroying cars, throwing stones, Molotov cocktails — very dangerous situation."

Odinochka, who refused to disclose his real name, is among those who refuses to identify with any opposition leader: “I do not usually listen to orders and prefer working alone. But I am comfortable here in a group, because we don't have a clear leader.”

With the goals of protesters filling central Kiev often distinct from those of the primary opposition leaders, a difficult political road lies ahead, as leaders struggle to control and unify the diverse opposition groups while achieving successful negotiations with the government. 

The most visible protest leaders so far have been Arseniy Yatsenyuk of the Fatherland party (the party of former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, now in jail over controversial abuse-of-power charges by the government), Vitaly Klitschko of the Ukrainian Democratic Alliance for Reform (UDAR) and Oleh Tyahnybok of the rightist, nationalist party Svoboda.

While the Euromaidan protests (Maidan being the Ukrainian word for Kiev’s central square) began as a reaction to Yanukovich’s canceling of an association agreement with the European Union in November, they have since morphed into a broad-based referendum on an unpopular government.

“They are not on the Maidan because they are pro-Klitschko or pro-Yatsenyuk, but because they are anti-Yanukovich and want early elections,” said Annabelle Chapman, a freelance journalist in Ukraine.

“They want more than new faces in power; they want to put an end to the current system, which they see as characterized by corruption and the absence of the rule of law,” she told Al Jazeera by email on Thursday.

But as recent protest movements from Tunis to Cairo to Damascus demonstrate, a shared enemy can often act as a uniting force only for so long before papered-over internal divisions emerge in an opposition.

“The (Ukrainian) opposition has always been incredibly divided,” said Harriet Salem, a freelance journalist in Ukraine. “But the rise of extremism is a direct result of failed negotiations ... That has essentially radicalized people.”

Some protesters have grown wary of the seemingly unending political talks.

“I think I am a radical, as I am taking radical actions and not standing like those zombies at Maidan, waving lighters and singing an anthem of Ukraine every single hour,” Odinochka told Al Jazeera. “People sacrificed their lives. There has been bloodshed. There will only be blood for blood here. They say only blood washes off blood."

I think I am a radical, as I am taking radical actions
and not standing like those zombies at Maidan,
waving lighters and singing an anthem of Ukraine
every single hour.

The notion of radical groups intent on provoking a violent state reaction has been a primary piece of government propaganda since the protests began.

“Everybody on the Euromaidan is a terrorist” according to Yanukovich’s government, said Salem.

But the presence of radicals within the opposition, however small in numbers, cannot be denied.

While the Svoboda party has long relied on support from right-wing Ukrainian nationalists and envisions a country with less fealty to prevailing Western European democratic standards than Klitschko and Yatsenyuk advocate, even more extreme groups like Pravy Sektor have loudly clamored for their own stridently rightist views in the Maidan.

While representing only a fraction of protesters, they retain influence within the movement, partly because of how their lack of patience with the political process resonates with some.

In an interview with Time magazine earlier this month, Dmitro Yarosh, leader of Pravy Sektor, outlined his movement’s goals.

“This whole peaceful song and dance, the standing around, the negotiations, none of it has brought real change.

“We are not politicians,” he said. “We are soldiers of the national revolution.”

Mainstream opposition leaders understand the high stakes involved with a splintered movement, even if some reject assertions that more radical viewpoints are anything but a minority.

“They (Yanukovich’s allies) are trying to show everyone as radicals,” Klitschko told Al Jazeera. “How can hundreds of thousands, millions of Ukrainians be radicals? It's a specially staged action to show as if the radically minded people are gathered at the Maidan.”

The opposition draws support from virtually every demographic group in the country.

“The protesters represent every group of Ukrainian citizens: Russian speakers and Ukrainian speakers (although most Ukrainians are bilingual), people from the cities and the countryside, people from all regions of the country, members of all political parties, the young and the old, Christians, Muslims, and Jews,” wrote Timothy Snyder, a history professor at Yale and a visiting fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna, in The New York Review of Books.

“The diversity of the Maidan is impressive: The group that monitors hospitals so that the regime cannot kidnap the wounded is run by young feminists. An important hotline that protesters call when they need help is staffed by LGBT activists,” he wrote.

In such a wide-ranging environment, opposition leaders are faced with acute political dilemmas, needing to be mindful of not alienating street protesters whose support they need to shepherd a political transition, but also being careful that they’re seen to be acting in good faith in negotiations with the government, especially to Western observers who largely blame the government but desire a democratic process.

“A final settlement would have always been difficult,” said Salem, referring to the diverse Ukrainian political landscape.

Depending on what happens in the coming days with the levels of violence and political negotiations on top of a divergent opposition, the contours of such a settlement appear more difficult than ever.

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