Several thousand protesters gather on Kyiv Maïdan Nezalezhnosti and in cities across Ukraine to remind Volodymyr Zelenskyy of their “red lines” and their refusal of a “capitulation” in the negotiations with Vladimir Putin in Paris.
Among these red lines: not to discuss federalisation of Ukraine, not to hold elections in Donetsk and Luhansk self-proclaimed republics, not to give up on recovering Crimea. Zelenskyy actually did embrace all of these red lines himself in public statements. But the split is deeper here. Most of the demonstrators that standd under the flags of the “Svoboda” and “European Solidarity” (Poroshenko) parties (no Natsionalniy Korpus here) favor the idea of a clean cut with Russia. The Kremlin does not want to build any kind of peace, they say. It only wants to look for new ways to extend its influence over the post-Soviet empire. Hence holding discussions with Putin is already a betrayal of national interests.
The Israeli scenario is quite popular here, that is to say an economically-developed state that considers itself surrounded and maintains a state of war for the sake of its very existence, with no diplomatic relations with most of the neighbors. “The best thing that Zelenskyy can do is not to do anything, not to sign anything. He is not in a position to make any positive decision for Ukraine”, protester Svitlana says. Military disengagement is not popular here, not even the reconstruction of the Stanytsia Luhanska bridge. A banner to protest against the land reform and the sale of Ukrainian land shows that the understanding of “betrayal” encompasses many more aspects of the president’s and government’s policy.
In this context, the very personality of Volodymyr Zelenskyy is the focus of much distrust. “He lives in his own reality”, demonstrator Arseniy claims. “His entourage has never been very pro-Ukrainian, so he feels about the country differently”. The underlying assumption here is that Zelenskyy is not” Наш” (Ours). His vision of a multilingual multi-ethnic Ukraine that looks for its place in a given geographical context is obviously fundamentally different than a more Ukrainian-centred identity promoted by Svoboda and European Solidarity. Yet more importantly it differs from the vision of a Ukraine that would try to escape its geography and its history by closing up the Eastern borders and by reaching out to sole Western partners (It is an idea promoted by a wider range of the political spectrum). I would remind the recurring meme on social networks that calls for the building of a Game of Thrones-type of wall between Ukraine and Russia, so that the former may forget about what is beyond and focus on the rest of the world.
One sees here the persistence of the election divide, roughly 75% vs. 25%. For these demonstrators, the presidential and general elections was stolen by the TV series Sluga Narodu and a series of tricks on media and social networks. Zelenskyy is not “their” president. Were he to be considered as betraying national interests, then they may simply stop considering him like “the” president.
Zelenskyy’s answer to their critics may also be problematic. In a recent selfie video he shot from a treadmill (!!), he discarded criticism of his policy as “mere paid-for protests that are organised by politicians who already died a long time ago. Actually they were never even born as human beings”. In doing so, he obviously speaks of politicians like Poroshenko and Tymoshenko. But he also alienates this part of the population that does not believe in him. It is extremely dangerous as a president who was elected to unite Ukraine. It may also be quite silly, to say the least, considering that this share of the population is the most active part. It is the part that starts revolutions. Their potential of starting unrest, for a cause of another, should not be underestimated. Organisers of today’s meeting actually call for spending the night on Bankova street by the office of the president. The rally is meant to last until some result come out of the Paris meeting – if not beyond.
N.B. For long-time Ukraine’s observers, the last remark on the activism of these protesters depends of course on the content of any agreement Zelenskyy has made with Interior minister Arsen Avakov. He is the one who holds so-called “security organs”, from state’s law enforcement to nationalist paramilitary groups.