Ukraine’s ‘Prorizna Street Rebellion’ Shows Democracy Internalized

Ukrainians are keeping a wary eye on the new government of Viktor Yanukovych following his victory in the two-round presidential election of January-February 2010. Some of them are also setting him an example of what collective action in the public interest can mean – and in central Kyiv, just one block away from the site of the “orange revolution” of November 2004-January 2005. There, on Prorizna Street, just above Khreshchatyk (the main artery of Ukraine’s capital city) a citizens’ initiative is demanding that unlawful construction of a “polyfunctional establishment” – including a restaurant, sauna, and underground garage – be halted and the existing “green zone” be preserved.

This “Prorizna Street rebellion” could very well define the new, socially active, and civically mobilised Ukraine that Viktor Yushchenko’s successor will have to confront in the years to come.

Yushchenko and his ally-turned-adversary, former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, failed to live up to the promise of the orange revolution – that great outpouring of defiance and hunger for change on the streets of Kyiv in 2004. But Ukraine still managed to change fundamentally in the five years that followed. Today’s Ukraine is a democracy capable of holding fair elections. It is free, and its media, parties, and people revel – sometimes with excessive enthusiasm – in that freedom.

Ukraine’s population has also become deeply disillusioned with politics and politicians, and cynical about their ability to deliver the goods. Whether they like or not, people have been forced to rely on themselves to get things done. To put it in a more positive way: they have in effect been obliged to internalise the values of the orange revolution. As one of the Prorizna Street activists puts it: “Our initiative would have been impossible before the orange revolution.”

There is no going back to the days of Leonid Kuchma, the pre-revolution president who could manipulate the people with a clever mix of harsh measures and occasional concessions before the epic popular demonstrations of 2004 swept him away.

A City’s Cause
The Prorizna Street rebellion embodies that new attitude of self-initiative. It began in late January 2010, when workers started constructing a fence around the square. Some local residents spontaneously began picketing the site and demanding an explanation. Activists tore down the fence. Up it went again; and again down.

The protest centred on two issues. First, the developer – Parus – had failed to undertake a study of its project’s impact on surrounding buildings and the ecology of the square, and may have even forged a work-permit. Second, residents suspected that a “polyfunctional establishment” could ultimately be transformed into a casino, strip-club, or anything else that would enrich Kyiv’s criminal establishment.

Within days, the rebellion became a political cause célèbre. Vitali Klitschhko, the Ukrainian boxer who heads the Vitali Klitschko Bloc and hopes to become Kyiv’s next mayor, joined the rebel side; so did the Save Old Kyiv and Our Country citizens’ movements, the Kyiv Landscape Initiative fund, the Civic Position group, and the Coalition of Orange Revolution Participants. Meanwhile, the media picked up the story, writing extensively and sympathetically about the rebellion. The little square on Prorizna Street had clearly captured Kyivites’ attention and become a symbol of official indifference that resonated with their growing frustration at the political deadlock and corruption in the country.

The Prorizna rebels ultimately place the blame on Kyiv’s loopy and allegedly corrupt millionaire banker-turned-mayor, Leonid Chernovetsky. Since he was elected (with 32% of the votes) in 2006, Chernovetsky has allegedly used his office to enrich himself and his cronies from the capital city’s real-estate boom – especially in the downtown area, where most of Kyiv’s historic buildings and monuments are located. Luxury high-rises, hotels, and office buildings have gone up in every possible space, while traffic has increased to unmanageable levels; at the same time, preparations for Kyiv’s participation in the European football championship of 2012 (which Ukraine is co-hosting with Poland) have been neglected.

Chernovetsky survived an effort to unseat him in 2008 by distributing favours to his primarily elderly electorate, but public opinion has again turned against him in recent months. In the tough winter of 2009-10, city authorities neglected to remove a large accumulations of snow, with the result that Kyiv’s streets soon became covered with several inches of treacherous ice. As Kyivites were slipping and breaking limbs, Chernovetsky was vacationing in sunnier climes. To add insult to injury, he eventually expanded budgetary outlays – not for the clean-up, but for plaster casts. Even more insulting to many Kyivites was the claim by his daughter, Khrystyna, that on a trip to Paris on 15 February 2010 she had been robbed of jewellery worth €4.5 million ($6m).

Chernovetsky’s political future is therefore uncertain. The population of Kyiv as a whole detest him, and local elections in Ukraine are likely to take place in 2010. The tussle between Yanukovych and Tymoshenko gives him some breathing-room, but time is short: he and his cronies may have only a few more months to enrich themselves by appropriating more real-estate. But the Prorizna rebels know that too and are not about to give up. Whatever the ultimate outcome of the standoff between the builders and the citizens, the lesson of the initiative is that individuals who had never met or greeted one another in the past have developed a sense of solidarity, mission, and community. In effect, they have demonstrated just how and why civil society, the kind that can actually make a difference, emerges.

A President’s Warning
The Prorizna Street rebellion, like many other similar such projects across Ukraine, demonstrates that the country now has genuine citizens able and willing to defend themselves against the predations of corrupt political and business elites. Ukrainian citizens are angry with their rulers and exploiters, and they are again refusing to accept it.

Yanukovych, Tymoshenko, and their colleagues must now live with the empowering consequences of the orange revolution and the five years of endless politicking – and the resulting popular revulsion – that followed. To find a modus vivendi with an empowered population will be especially difficult for Viktor Yanukovych, who is used to exerting strict control of his hometown of Donetsk. Two-thirds of Kyivites voted against him in the presidential elections. Yanukovych will have to learn to talk to a sophisticated city that distrusts all politicians. If he tries to rule Kyiv and Ukraine as a whole as if they were extensions of Donetsk, the Prorizna Street rebellion may turn out to be a foretaste. For Ukrainians have indeed – despite their politicians – become citizens.

Alexander J. Motyl, an Atlantic Council contributing editor, is a professor of political science at Rutgers University-Newark. This essay first appeared in openDemocracy.  Photo credit: Getty Images.