Flexibility and Fragmentation: Student Activism and Ukraine’s (Euro)Maidan Protests

Emily Channell-Justice

Students from universities across Ukraine played an essential role in generating the critical mass in what became the (Euro)Maidan protests, the most massive mobilization in the history of independent Ukraine.

Ukraine's Maidan Nezalezhnosti. Photo credit: Emily Channell-Justice

The first feet on Kiev’s Independence Square—known locally as Maidan Nezalezhnosti—on November 21, 2013 belonged to students. They demanded that Ukraine’s president Viktor Yanukovych put the country on the path toward Europe through an Association Agreement with the European Union. The agreement would have opened new markets to the weak Ukrainian economy and rejected Russian encroachment through Vladimir Putin’s Customs Union. The first blood on Maidan was also shed by students, who were beaten by the Berkut riot police so that a New Year’s tree could be erected. When Yanukovych fled the country after much violence had been inflicted on Maidan protesters, the first new faces in the Ministry of Education and Sciences were students who peacefully occupied the building in order to demand a new Minister of Education and better education policies.

Students from universities across Ukraine thus played an essential role in generating the critical mass in what became the (Euro)Maidan[1] protests, the most massive mobilization in the history of independent Ukraine. The protests gave students from various political organizations and backgrounds a united platform to link the Association Agreement and violence against protesters to issues in higher education, and they used the momentum from their first days on Maidan to bring attention to attempts to improve Ukrainian universities and quality of life for students and faculty through new legislation.

This article is based on research with student activists throughout the existence of the Maidan protests and following the May elections. I worked closely with the independent student union Direct Action—which drew participants from organizations across Kyiv—and with members from Kyiv and Lviv of the Studentska Koordinatsijna Rada (Student Coordinating Committee), the student governing body created to participate in the Maidan Council.[2] I participated in multiple student actions related to Maidan, including organized protests and demonstrations, strikes, assemblies, and the occupation of the Ministry of Education. These events started to unfold on November 21, 2013, and culminated in the students’ occupation of the Ministry from February 18-20, 2014. A new Minister of Education was named on February 27, and recent actions have focused on legislative change rather than occupations.

Student actions on Maidan responded to shifting targets within the educational sphere and the Ukrainian political landscape. First, mobilizations centered on demands that the president sign the Association Agreement with the European Union. His refusal cut off access to a Europeanized education system, along with access to a Europeanized economy and jobs. When students who were sleeping on Maidan were beaten on November 30, the focus of the protests shifted toward police violence and state-sanctioned repressions. In January 2014, the government responded by passing the so-called Bondarenko-Oliynyk Laws (also known as the January 16 laws), which made it illegal to participate in “mass disruptions” or wear helmets or uniforms at protests, permitted the government to cut off Internet access, granted impunity to police officers who used force against protesters, and increased fines and prison terms for protesters.[3] Despite these laws, students continued to organize campaigns on Maidan through the Student Assembly, a group that was formed to coordinate student actions through consensus-based decision-making and regular general assemblies in an occupied building near Maidan. Finally, following the violence, the students occupied the Ministry of Education and Science. They formulated demands to improve higher education, to ensure the transparency of the Ministry’s budgets, and to guarantee that student participants on Maidan would not be prosecuted under the temporary  government.

A Short Chronicle of Students on Maidan

Students in Ukraine have been active as protesters since the country gained independence in 1991. However, before the fall of 2013, student activism was organized largely by disparate groups, and particularly through self-organized student governments and independent student unions.[4] The mass mobilizations that began in November 2013 were initially a response to President Viktor Yanukovych’s refusal to sign the Association Agreement with the European Union. Despite potential problems with the Association Agreement—including loan offers from the International Monetary Fund that were tied to major austerity requirements, and the lack of any guarantee that Ukraine would ever be offered full membership in the EU—students from multiple Kyiv universities and various student organizations supported the Agreement. Their support was based in part on hopes of bringing the Ukrainian education system in line with Europe’s, increasing the mobility of Ukrainians who hoped to study or work abroad, and strengthening Ukrainian universities that hoped to attract professors from foreign universities. On November 27, 2013, students went on strike to support the protests on Maidan. Students from Kyiv Mohyla Academy, one of the most prestigious universities in Ukraine, had the support of their administration and their rector, Serhiy Kvit. However, students from other universities were prevented from striking and even from attending the protests, as administrators insisted on attendance counts at classes and encouraged students in dormitories to turn in their fellow classmates if they participated in the protests.

Despite the peaceful nature of these strikes, riot police appeared in full force in the early hours of November 30. Protesters who had occupied Maidan and were sleeping there—most of whom were students—were beaten and removed from the square. Several dozen of them were arrested. After this unprovoked attack on peaceful protesters, the rhetoric on Maidan quickly shifted. On December 1, a mass march in Kyiv drew thousands who were no longer protesting for Europe but against police violence, and particularly against a state that sanctioned such violence in the name of erecting a New Year’s tree and a Christmas market. Student protesters also adopted this rhetoric and used it to launch a new strike. University administrations’ responded as well. Several administrations came out in support of students and against the violence and repressions against protesters The attitude towards mass mobilization had generally shifted.

The use of violence also encouraged an increase in radical (although still relatively nonviolent) tactics. While government buildings around Kyiv were occupied, students blockaded the entrance to Drahomanova Pedagogical University, one of the universities still actively trying to prevent students from protesting. On December 4, students marched on the Ministry of Education itself, demanding that Minister of Education Dmytro Tabachnyk condemn the repressions against students. He did not. Students picketed the offices of the Berkut, demanding the release of students who had remained imprisoned since the police attack. During these weeks, student rhetoric shifted from claiming “Ukraine is Europe” to slogans that included “Less to the Berkut, More to Education” and “Students Against Violence.” Students began linking state repressions to their concerns about education and education reform, and began to use protests against violence as a step toward larger claims.

These larger claims began to take shape in January 2014 after the first protesters died in a standoff with Berkut in Kiev. The following day, students and recent graduates organized a final strike at Kyiv Mohyla Academy and occupied one of the main university buildings. This strike continued for three days, but Serhiy Kvit—the rector who had previously supported student strikes—refused to back student demands. He instead closed the university, claiming that the situation in the country had become too precarious to require students to come to classes. This effectively ended the occupation, while also allowing the administration to appear supportive of the strikers. However, when Maidan activists occupied the Ukrainian House on the edge of Maidan Nezalezhnosti on January 26, student organizers were able to secure space for the striking students in that building the next day. From there, the Student Assembly was born. The Assembly was a space and meeting site for students and activists with various goals. Organizers held regular general assemblies in which activists shared ideas for protests and other actions, while volunteers organized working groups for each of these initiatives. Surrounded by medical checkpoints and kitchens, students organized lectures and film screenings for anyone who was using the Ukrainian House as their home base.

I was scheduled to give a lecture about Occupy Wall Street and the tactic of occupation on February 18 in the Ukrainian House. Instead, Maidan burst into flames as Yanukovych and his ministers attempted to clear the square by violence means. Protesters set tire fires around the square to create a smokescreen and protect themselves from police snipers and from Berkut units that tried to breach the barricades. All public transportation was shut down and many of us were glued to our computer screens as we watched a live stream of protesters fighting against Berkut and snipers. When the violence ended on February 20, at least 110 people had been killed, mostly by snipers. Student activists, many of whom were caught up in the violence, were motivated to escalate their demands and to condemn the reprehensible violence. While non-student protesters focused on holding Yanukovych accountable (although he had already fled from Ukraine), students returned to the Ministry of Education on February 21 to demand accountability from Tabachnyk. When they arrived at the Ministry, a representative came to speak with the thousands of students who had gathered in the middle of the afternoon on a working day. He said that Tabachnyk was not in his office, and he did not have his phone numbers to find out where he was. The students decided they would wait inside the building for Tabachnyk, but the minister never came. Instead, the students stayed in the Ministry until Yanukovych’s government disappeared and a new one, in which they would have a say, was put into place.

Occupy the Ministry!

Students who occupied the Ministry of Education acted quickly to secure the building as a legitimate place to stage their protests and make demands. They allowed workers to leave and lock their offices, placing tape on every door to make sure no offices were broken into and no documents were stolen or tampered with. The students organized their own self-defense brigade (a common practice on Maidan, known as a sotnya), some of whom came directly from the brigades on Maidan and many of whom came from other organized groups of activists. They made calls requesting food and medical supplies, which arrived in troves at the Ministry. The sotnya guarded the gates of the building and only allowed in students and occasionally professors (and interested foreigners like myself). Every evening they held a general assembly based on the same principles that made the Student Assembly of the Ukrainian House so successful. They elected “representatives” to work as liaisons with government deputies that were putting together a new cabinet, although the necessity of having such representatives remains disputed. The students decided that their main concerns were having a say in who would become the next Minister of Education, and in creating a “road map” for higher education reforms.[5] Students discussed possible minister candidates at their assemblies and selected three, two of whom accepted this “nomination.” Lilia Hrynevych, who has worked in education and education legislation since Ukraine’s independence, and Serhiy Kvit both came to the occupied Ministry to make their case about why students should support their candidacies. In the end, both candidates were accepted by the student general assembly. Kvit was eventually named the new Minister of Education, and Hrynevych continues to work in education legislation as the Chair of the Parliamentary Committee for Science and Education.

The “road map” for education reforms included a list of demands to improve education standards in Ukrainian higher education: Accountability and transparency within the Ministry of Education were to be increased through the publication of budget documents and through online administrative systems. Universities were to be granted more autonomy in their degree programs, their finances, and their administrative organization. The number of courses any professor could teach in a given year was to be limited, and assessment standards for professors were to be developed and implemented. The document also demanded student participation in university decisions and the right to recall administrators, including the Minister of Education. When Kvit arrived at the Ministry on February 28 to take his post, he quickly met with students from the road map working group to approve a short list of demands, and later signed a document in full support of their demands.

However, most students recognize the limitations of this commitment. First, in order to separate himself from his predecessor, whose administration was widely condemned in part because of his total disconnect from students, Kvit had little choice but to sign the document. A refusal to sign would have made him look too similar to Tabachnyk’s constant ignorance towards student demands. Second, the implementation of these demands falls only partially under the personal authority of the Minister of Education. Much of it must be done through extremely bureaucratic channels. Many of the administrators working in the Ministry are still the same people who worked there under Tabachnyk. It remains to be seen how willing they are to implement reforms.

Recently, many education activists and students have focused on Law 1187-2 for higher education reform, passed by the new Ukrainian parliament in early July 2014. This law puts into practice some of the demands described above, particularly concerning university autonomy and increased flexibility for students. It will also increase student stipends and the quantity of students who receive stipends over the next four years.[6] Now, students must focus on encouraging the minister and his deputies to implement these changes, even with parliamentary elections looming in late October.

Possible Futures for Student Activism

That students were able to shift their targets so quickly throughout the course of events on Maidan shows an amazing flexibility among Ukrainian student activists. This flexibility is perhaps enabled by the fact that the student movement in Ukraine is not unified, which allows student protesters to change their focus or their organizational form as protests unfold. Anarchists and radical leftists insisted on non-hierarchical structures and organized the occupation of the Ministry of Education, but they remain skeptical to declare that the appointment of a new Minister of Education constitutes a victory. More moderate students supported the occupation of the Ministry, but focused on choosing a minister and electing representatives to work closely with him on education reform. Many students from all parts of the political spectrum have supported Law 1187-2 in hopes of major, long-term changes in higher education. All of these participants are necessary to the energy of student activism in Ukraine.

At the same time, fragmentation means that not all students can claim to be represented in the student movement. While student activism has taken its own form in eastern cities like Kharkiv and Sumy, the Maidan movement was almost exclusively made up of students from Kiev’s universities. As the situation in Eastern Ukraine deteriorates, the likelihood for problems in implementing education reform is great, particularly as student activism is centralized in Kyiv. Along with political divisions, these regional distinctions should become more prominent concerns for student activists across the country.

While the events on Maidan provided a platform for students to make vocal demands and to influence the formation of a new government, the direction of post-Maidan developments remains contested among student activists. Many students remain skeptical of whether the new minister and new legislation can be effective in changing education policy for the better. However, student activism on Maidan was essential to the dynamism of the Ukrainian protest movement, and success of students during these mobilizations has generated a new motivation and enthusiasm for student activism in Ukraine.

References and Footnotes

  1. A note on terminology: the protests were known as “EuroMaidan” in the initial weeks, as the main demand of participants was that Yanukovych sign the Association Agreement with the European Union. However, as the protests continued, and as protesters’ demands changed, the mobilizations lost their link with Europe and were known more generally as “Maidan.” I am concerned that referring to “Maidan” as a single, unified movement erases the multitude of voices present at the protests, but I reference “Maidan” here as a shorthand when necessary to signify a general trend; otherwise, I specify a group or event “on Maidan.”
  2. The SKR was made up of various “strike committees” from each university in Kyiv; each university had two representatives on the SKR. The SKR also had several members from Lviv (Western Ukraine), but universities from Eastern Ukraine were not represented on the SKR. The SKR coordinated with independent student organizations as well as other youth organizations, such as youth wings of political parties, and with the general Maidan Council, created in December, which saw itself as the governing body of Maidan.
  3. For a summary of the main issues targeted by these laws, see http://citizenjournal.info/wp-content/uploads/dictatorship-en.jpg.
  4. Universities also have “student unions” which are funded through the university and therefore subject to pressure from university authorities. These unions are not focused on political participation and did not play a role as organizations in the Maidan protests, although individual members may have been present.
  5. Another important result of the Ministry occupation was a successful initiative to require the Ministry to make its accounting and financial information available online. This is a continuing initiative that activists hope to impose on other ministries and as such merits more discussion than is possible here.
  6. More details about this legislation can be found here and here. (Both links are in Ukrainian.)