This week started off with a bang in Kyiv...and it had nothing to do with working on healthcare reform, which the Verkhovna Rada eventually passed on October 19. The #1 topic became a protest action to push political reforms forward that was called by anti-corruption politicians and former Odesa Governor Mikhail Saakashvili
On October 17, things got very busy outside the Verkhovna Rada building: access to Hrushevskoho 5 was blocked with steel fences and metal detectors and outside the legislature itself, a few hundred police officers and National Guards were patrolling. The protesters gathered at the Constitutional Square in front of the Rada.
Such precautions were undertaken for a number of reasons. First was the tragic incident on August 31, 2015, when an exploding grenade during a protest against the controversial bill on the special status for the occupied parts of the Donbas outside the Rada killed four National Guards. And so the police were checking everyone who wanted to join this big rally.
The second reason was active protests when the Rada was adopting two bills two weeks ago, one extending the special status of the temporarily occupied territories in Donbas known as ORDiLO and one tackling the question of reintegrating these territories. Those rightwing groups who were against the bills showed up in force outside the Rada: the National Corps—an offshoot of the Azov Battalion—, the Svoboda party and activists wearing Donbas Battalion insignia. When the bill extending ORDiLO’s special status was passed, National Corps leaders said openly that if the government was not going to listen to them peacefully, they were prepared to act otherwise.
The first test came on the Feast of Pokrova or the Intercession of Mary, October 14, the Day of the Defender in Ukraine, when around 10,000 gathered in Kyiv to celebrate this day. Nothing untoward happened and no radical declarations were made. National Police officers spoke off the record saying that there had been a mutual agreement between all parties involved.
The third reason was Mikheil Saakashvili, who paraded grandly—and quite illegally—across the Ukrainian border in September. That was when he made his announcement that he intended to participate in a major pro-reform demonstration. In preparation for this, the ex-Georgian president organized a quick tour around Ukraine’s oblasts to mobilize folks to come to Kyiv.
This time, the protesters demanded three things: lifting MP immunity, passing the bill to set up the anti-corruption court, and changing electoral laws to eliminate the 50% FPTP vote and institute open party lists for proportional voting. Bills addressing all three issues have, in fact, been submitted to the Rada for debate, and the leaders of the protest, as might be expected, wanted their version of the bills to be considered. Bill #6773 on cancelling immunity was submitted in July 2017 and Bill #6011 on the anti-corruption court appeared back in February, while Bill #1068-2 to amend electoral legislation has been languishing since December 2014. What’s more, there are presidential bills on the table as well, regarding immunity and the anti-corruption court.
His anti-immunity bill was submitted by President Poroshenko the day of the protest. It calls for dropping deputy immunity starting in 2020. MPs in the Rada say there’s a reason for this date: if a bill is submitted to remove immunity from the current members of the legislature, it simply won’t be able to pick up enough votes to pass. With the bill on the court, some problems arose: both the President’s version and that of the MPs involved in the current protest were criticized by the Venice Commission, which recommended that both bills be withdrawn. The only difference was that the proposals from MPs were given better marks, which means that they can be used as the basis for drafting a new bill, which should end up on the VR agenda at some point.
And so the October 17 the rally started at 10:00. The overwhelming impression was that the quick, the dead and the unborn were all mobilized for this rally. The square shimmered with the variety of party signs and symbols. At one point, it seemed that there were far more flags on poles than there were actual people. Various estimates put the crowd at 4-5,000.
In addition to Saakashvili, the stage was taken primarily by political outsiders who are determined to make a return to major politics, one way or another. For instance, there was the 2004 Orange Revolution darling of Nasha Ukraina, lawyer Mykola Katerynchuk, who has not won a seat in two elections. By his side were people wearing the symbols of the European Party, which was active at the end of 2013, when the Euromaidan started. Hromadska Pozytsia or Civic Position was also visible, whose leader, ex-Defense Minister Anatoliy Hrytsenko has also been frustrated in his political ambitions, including presidential ones. Former SBU tsar Valentyn Nalyvaichenko also had something to say to the rally. Nalyvaichenko recently announced that he was starting his own party called Spravedlyvist or Justice and clearly has an eye on the next cycle of elections.
The rally was also attended by Yulia Tymoshenko’s Batkivshchyna and Andriy Sadovyi’s Samopomich people, who also flashed their party symbols at every chance. Svoboda’s presence, on the other hand, was muted, with only a handful of its people in attendance. One surrealistic aspect to the rally was flags representing Radical Right Forces, an odious group that some say has Russian links and tried unsuccessfully to get a “Third Maidan” going in downtown Kyiv last year.
Other than politicians, the rally was attended by a gamut of special interest groups: Chornobyl liquidators and even people carrying the banners of depositors at the bankrupt Mykhailivskiy Bank. At the end of the rally, banners could also be seen from the odious media freaks, Ghennadiy Balashov and banners with the portrait of Oleksiy Durniev, who was agitating against healthcare reform—only it wasn’t clear if he was serious or spoofing. The hard-core agitators came with Semen Semenchenko and his Donbas Battalion team, who had also been calling for a third Maidan last winter when they began to blockade trade with “DNR” and “LNR”.
Interestingly, the National Corps stayed away from the protest on its own. Off the record, some of its people admitted they were disappointed in Saakashvili. So they provided equipment and security but Saakashvili only managed to bring a bit over 2,000 supporters to the rally, despite an active promotional campaign in tandem with other politicians. “We don’t intend to do anything for him,” said one National Corps member privately.
Meanwhile, other ignominious folks who were connected to protest movements during the Euromaidan also tried to take advantage to gain a little publicity at the rally. Serhiy Koba supposedly drove to the Poroshenko residence that night with his own “Automaidan” although he was actually disowned by the original Automaidan group led by Oleksiy Hrytsenko, the son of Anatoliy Hrytsenko mentioned above.
Truthfully, the impression was that the organizers really did not have a clue how they should act. They had considered two options. One was forcing their way into the Rada led by Saakashvili. But it appears that they had neither the resources nor the means to do something like that. The second was more realistic: a tent city and blocking the legislature by every means possible until it met their demands. In the end, the second option is the one they went with.
At the end of the day, scuffles broke out on Constitution Square, but a few dozen tents managed to be erected. Someone on stage declared a partial victory, saying that the Rada had to be “nailed to the wall.” But then some voices started making new demands from the stage: “Impeach Poroshenko!” “Get rid of this huckster government!” And so the protesters began to talk about the latest “Third Maidan.”
The Rada seems ready to make some concessions, but half-heartedly, as usual. So it’s entirely possible that on Thursday, when the healthcare reform work is done, MPs might actually tackle immunity and the electoral system. Overall, this came across as a more-or-less civilized dialog between those in power and those who put them there, not the popular uprising that Saakashvili and other hot-blooded revolutionaries were calling for.
For Ukrainians incarcerated in the occupied territories and in the Russian Federation itself, things could get much worse in 2018. Only serious international pressure is likely to make Moscow release these political prisoners