MU professor studies protesters, predicts Ukraine's future

Wednesday, February 19, 2014 | 10:12 p.m. CST
MU political science professor Mark Nieman and his wife, Olga Chyzh, studied protestors in Kiev's Independence Square two months ago. They found that the average age of protestors was in the mid 30s.

COLUMBIA — The sight of Ukrainian protesters in Kiev's Independence Square is a familiar one for MU political science professor Mark Nieman.

Two months ago, he was in the same square where at least 26 people died Tuesday. He wasn't there to join the protesters; he wanted to study them.

Nieman and his wife, Olga Chyzh, a post-doctoral fellow studying international relations and political methodology at Washington University in St. Louis, were visiting Chyzh's family in Ukraine in December when violent protests broke out. Nieman and Chyzh braved freezing temperatures to find out why protesters in Independence Square were risking their lives. The answers were interesting, he said.

“We typically think of protests involving young people, especially violent protests," Nieman said. "But it’s actually a rather high average age. There are quite a few older members of the protests.”

What brought the protesters to the streets was Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych's unexpected and unpopular rejection of a deal with the EU on Nov. 21. The protesters were angry, not only about the rejection of the EU alliance, but also with perceived rampant governmental corruption and the negative impact it has had on the economy.

Outrage brought protesters from around the country to Kiev. Some sold their belongings to finance train tickets to the capital. Many did not have food. Many camped in tents and slept outdoors in the freezing temperatures. Many protesters told Nieman they came out of a sense of duty.

"I was surprised by the number of elderly people who would give up work or just leave their homes to go (to Kiev) with no place to stay, no expectation of where they were going to stay, just knowing they feel their country needs them,” Nieman said.

The average age of the protesters he and his wife surveyed was in the 30s. The average age of protesters who stayed at night — when the square is most dangerous — was in the 40s.

Nieman said some of their findings were contrary to popularly held beliefs about protesters, as well as the Ukrainian protesters specifically. His findings included:

  • The group was largely composed of fairly well-educated adults, rather than young people or students.
  • There was not strong support among the protesters for any one person as a preferred new leader.

  • Language and geography were not significant indicators of whom the protesters supported. Russian-speaking people from eastern Ukraine were among the protesters, contrary to the idea that all of eastern Ukraine supports Yanukovych.

  • Ukrainians have loose affiliation to political parties. They are much more personality-driven when supporting political figures.
  • Males were more likely to participate in nighttime protests.
  • People who participated in the country’s Orange Revolution in late 2004 and early 2005 were no more likely to protest than anyone else.

Nieman said the protest seemed largely organic and there was no central leadership directing the protesters when he was there. Since December, however, people have begun to look more to former heavyweight boxing champion Vitali Klitschko as a leader.

Nieman said he thinks that, in part, the violence escalated because parliament took a step backward in refusing to place any restrictions on the president.

Skeptical hope

MU graduate student Roman Kolgushev is an international student from eastern Ukraine. His parents and younger sister currently live in Donetsk, Ukraine, about 450 miles east of Kiev. He said his family does not support the recent violence but supports the spirit of the protest.

“I think our desires for the change are rather similar to those that are expressed by the majority of the protesters, which are the desires to go to a much more transparent society with less bribery, with more democratic values, with more freedom of speech and independence," Kolgushev said. "(We want) the ability to live and not survive."

The oligarchs — rich members of society who support certain politicians — in the country have a lot of power over Yanukovych and parliament members, both Nieman and Kolgushev said. As long as they support the president, Nieman is pessimistic about the potential for change.

"If the oligarchs lose faith in Yanukovych, then I think there’s a very real prospect that you’ll see change in Ukraine," Nieman said. "If the oligarchs don’t feel that level of threat, then nothing will really happen."

The EU is meeting Thursday to discuss potential economic sanctions against Ukraine in response to the violence Tuesday, according to The Associated Press. The U.S. has already imposed visa sanctions on 20 Ukrainian officials, according to Washington Post reporting.

Kolgushev said he believes economic and visa sanctions on the wealthy who have had control over the politicians in parliament would positively impact Ukraine. Without the pressure from the EU, he said, the oligarchs will not be brave or certain enough to withdraw support from the current president and regime. Sanctions would be more beneficial than harmful, Kolgushev said. 

"I sincerely, truly believe it (sanctions) should have been done a long time ago," Kolgushev said. "Maybe the deaths would have been avoided. I don’t know. It’s hard to say right now, but I think so."

Moving forward

The protesters have made progress that has given them hope, however, Nieman said. While he and his wife were in Kiev, the protesters forced the police chief to resign because of corruption. Then they called for the resignation of former Prime Minister Mykola Azarov, who resigned Jan. 28. The protesters were also invigorated by their ability to maintain control of the square Tuesday.

Kolgushev said the protesters are not a group looking for power. Instead, they are just sick and tired of the way things are in Ukraine and want a better life.

"They're not looking to bring opposition to power," Kolgushev said. "They're looking to change the system from the ground up."

On Tuesday, Chyzh spoke to people she knows in Ukraine who said the government and interior ministry don’t seem to have the level of power that they have claimed to have. Yanukovych's failure to retake the main square has hardened opposition and given it hope for success, Nieman said.

Nieman said that though his wife is concerned for her family in Ukraine, she’s mostly hopeful that the opposition will be able to succeed. She would like to see her country grow and advance economically and politically, he said.

"She sees hope with the opposition that they might be able to achieve some of that,” Nieman said. “But without structural changes, she would have no expectation that anything real would change. You can’t just replace the people in power. You need real changes to the rule of law."

Supervising editors are Katherine Reed and Elise Schmelzer.

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