Democracy Lab

No Exit

Ukraine's government started the crisis. The opposition needs a strategy for ending it.

Ukraine's failure to take a pivotal step toward Europe ignited the protest movement that is currently sweeping the country. But what began as a confined demonstration on the central square of Kiev, or the "Maidan," and has since grown into a broader civic protest movement known as "Euromaidan," was never just about ties with Europe. From the beginning, the protests have drawn their energy from the common view that Ukraine's government is deeply corrupt, running the country with impunity for the benefit of the few and a complete disregard for the many.

Viewed this way, the willingness of citizens to brave subzero temperatures for days and weeks on end, standing up to riot police striving to disperse the crowds by force, should have surprised no one. There have been a number of occasions when the actions of President Viktor Yanukovych and government institutions over the past four years could have triggered similar mass protests: the wealth accumulation and opulence of the "Family" (the president's relatives and inner circle); measures to curtail a still pluralistic media environment; preferential treatment for connected persons committing horrible crimes, including gang rape and murder; and others. The president's decision to choose partnership with the Kremlin rather than with Europe was a tipping point for many Ukrainians as it set the country on an irreversible trajectory, and sparked an awakening in citizens that the world has come to know largely through live web feeds, e-journalism, and social media of the events in Kiev's center and elsewhere in the country.

But the awakening has not, in some 60 days, brought about the kind of change that Ukraine's 2004 Orange Revolution produced in just 17. Aside from the intransigent regime, there are a number of factors that help to explain why.

First, unlike the earlier, successful civic protests against regimes in Serbia, Georgia, Kyrgyzstan, and Ukraine itself, today's Ukraine is not facing a short-term election outcome or scheduled transfer of power. Elections, no matter how quiet, are themselves each a kind of revolution, as they provide the people an opportunity to express their will on how and by whom they should be governed. Such opportunities have at times allowed for a maligned opposition to seize the moment and cast off the old regime. This is not currently the case in Ukraine, since the next presidential poll is still over a year away. For the people and opposition parties to take power through these protests (which is essentially the key demand) is a difficult, even unrealistic objective. A more drastic series of events is required for this to happen -- perhaps along the lines of the broad, national protest movement unfolding now. But given the current circumstances, full-scale regime change still appears highly unlikely -- or, at the very least, not imminent.

Second, Euromaidan lacks a clear, vertical organization. The leaders of the Orange Revolution had months to prepare for the possibility of a fraudulent outcome in that year's presidential election. Civic and political leaders set up a command and control structure and established financial backing. By contrast, Euromaidan is a horizontal arrangement that brings together a multitude of groups -- civic associations, political parties, students, religious groups, and others -- that have seemingly different aims.

Efforts to unite the objectives of these disparate groups have been few and achieved seemingly little. But following last week's dramatic developments, when violence broke out as the crowds attempted to move toward government buildings and parliament, we are seeing convergence on the primary objective: removing President Yanukovych and his loyalist circle. The political opposition has held the president responsible for the use of force against citizens and has maintained, somewhat convincingly, that only his removal from power can stop the bloodshed.

Third, the leaders of the opposition have themselves struggled to demonstrate that they can offer the kind of leadership Euromaidan has so sorely needed. Arseniy Yatsenyuk, Vitaly Klitchko, and Oleh Tyahnybok, the three leaders of the parliamentary opposition, really only arrived on the scene after the Nov. 30 attempts to disperse the peaceful protesters by force. For it was only at this point, as the protests turned from a medium-sized demonstration in the capital into a national movement, that it became clear that these protests could launch a major political movement or presidential campaign bid.

But while the three leaders gladly took center stage, they appeared more preoccupied with campaigning for the job of top presidential contender than with acting as the leaders of a national rebellion. As the numbers in the center of Kiev dwindled, and the movement languished for most of January, these politicians (and western politicians too) also appeared to lose interest in the goings on of Euromaidan. The recent outbreak of violence further revealed the limits of their leadership. New strategies and public appeals have drawn heckles from the crowds, and, with the possible exception of Klitchko, these leaders were largely irrelevant (if they appeared at all) during the recent clashes between protestors and riot police in the center of Kiev.

Fourth, to the extent that Euromaidan has a unified voice, it has maintained a set of extreme and unrealistic negotiating positions, chief among them the sacking of the president and cabinet members, and new presidential and parliamentary elections. Such demands are hardly viable. When one side’s negotiating position entails the elimination of the negotiating partner on the other side, then the talks in question are destined to fail.

It is also not evident that the people on the Maidan share the opposition leaders' demands. Talk of lesser aims, such as an amnesty for prisoners or opposition representation in Yanukovych's cabinet, sounds hollow and has probably come too late. After this week's spreading violence and last week's Russian-style legislation limiting freedom of assembly and speech, growing numbers of Ukrainians just want to see Yanukovych and his cronies punished and exiled from the political world.

Over the past few days, the government has lost control of several important regions of the country. The violence has spread even to traditionally pro-government areas. The opposition leaders may have gained some credibility by their public refusal of the government's recent overture to share power. The once disparate groups of the Euromaidan movement have converged on the common goal of the president’s removal. All this could amount to a fundamental shift in the balance of forces that could hasten an end to the political standoff.

But the protestors -- having camped for two full months in the center of Kiev, bereft of clear leadership and now targeted by draconian anti-protest laws -- have already endured a lot. It seems, sadly, that they must be prepared to endure more should they hope to realize the kind of victory of which they dream.

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Why is the Chinese Communist Party so afraid of legal activist Xu Zhiyong? 

On Jan. 22, Xu Zhiyong, co-founder of the New Citizens' Movement, went on trial in a Beijing court on the charge of "assembling a crowd to disrupt order in a public place"; on Jan. 26, he was convicted and sentenced to four years in prison. The conviction relates to activities organized by Xu and other Chinese civil rights defenders to demand fair education opportunities for children of migrant workers and asset disclosure by government cadres. That might not sound like revolutionary behavior -- but it may have been the final straw in convincing the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) that Xu constituted a clear and present danger to its authority.

Since Xu was detained in July 2013, his case has received extensive international media coverage. In the majority of reports, Xu is described as a "legal scholar," "legal activist," "rights advocate," or "rights lawyer" -- not a "dissident." That may be because Xu has always insisted that he is a "peaceful reformer" who does not espouse radical action to bring about rapid political and social change. As Xu emphasized in his final statement in court, he and fellow rights advocates have been "moderate and reasonable" in their approach. In demanding asset disclosure by officials, for instance, they avoided organizing large crowds, choosing instead flash mob-style actions that only involved a small number of participants, as they believe that "reform requires stability and social progress needs to advance gradually." 

But despite Xu's efforts, it is hard to imagine that the Chinese authorities view him as anything other than a diehard dissident. Some well-connected Beijingers believe that party leaders think Xu and his fellow activists in the New Citizens Movement had formed an "anti-CCP clique" -- a very serious charge.  and have decided they therefore do not deserve lenient treatment. 

If this rumor is true, it should not surprise anybody with basic knowledge of the rules of the Chinese political game. Chinese civil society actors have long known there are three red lines they mustn't cross if they don't want to end up on Beijing's list of troublemakers. The first is between the political and the non-political: If the issues they engage with are political in nature, civil society actors must find ways to depoliticize them and present them as technical issues instead. The second line is between national and local: Any attempt to establish cross-regional organizations or movements must be strictly avoided. Everything must be kept localized and uncoordinated with activities in other locations. The third is street campaigns. Criticizing the authorities in conference rooms, advocacy reports, or on the web is one thing. Once critics take to the street, it's a different ballgame. 

Staying away from these red lines doesn't guarantee that civil society activities will be free from government intervention or harassment. But the consequences of crossing them is usually much worse. Xu and his fellow campaigners stepped beyond all three.

In his May 2012 essay "New Citizens' Movement," Xu was clear about the movement's true nature. The essay's opening line calls it "a political movement," one where "this ancient nation bids utter farewell to authoritarianism and completes the civilized transformation to constitutional governance." Xu called on Chinese citizens all over the country to participate in the movement by organizing regular meals to meet like-minded people living in the same cities to discuss the current political situation. "Every place has a group of modern citizens. Everybody needs to group together for society to progress. Unity begins with acquaintance," the essay read. The campaign has reportedly attracted 5,000 supporters across China. So much for the first two red lines. 

Xu and his friends refrained from mobilizing large-scale street rallies -- but they did organize activities in public venues, which facilitated the criminal charge of "disrupting order in public places," justified or not. That stepped beyond the third unspoken line the Communist Party has drawn in the sand.

Making things worse in the eyes of party authorities, movement advocates campaigned on the issue of asset transparency of government officials, one that resonates deeply with the Chinese public, as rampant corruption fans mounting anger. The authorities may think that Xu and other members deliberately made this issue the centerpiece of their campaign, in an effort to gain maximum popularity for their movement and cause maximum embarrassment to the party.

In short, Xu may be a moderate in his own estimate, but he and fellow activists almost certainly knew the party would see them as mounting a direct challenge to the existing political system. Those who know Xu have not accused him of naïveté, so observers have offered various speculations as to what prompted him to stride across the party's tripwires. Some international media reports have suggested that after China's new leaders took office in late 2012, promising to deepen reform, attack corruption, and promote the rule of law, Xu and other members of the movement became emboldened and decided to test the new leadership's tolerance for grassroots political activism. If indeed they felt the time was ripe for a courageous move, they were also surely aware of the great risks it entailed.

The sentencing of Xu -- and the crushing of the New Citizens Movement that it represents -- does not necessarily mean that the new leadership will not contemplate any political reform. But the party will not allow any outside force to dictate reform's timing, pace, or agenda; if reform happens, it will be from the top down. The party is convinced that the day that grassroots political movements born without party blessing can flourish is the day when it loses full control of the country's political process.

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