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From Flags to Tags? Euromaidan Might Be a New Revolution, But Not a Twitter One

BY Antonella Napolitano | Monday, December 2 2013

Euromaidan Protest Kiev - December 1, 2012 /Photo by Nessa.Gnatoush (CC BY 2.0)

Nine years after the Orange Revolution, the citizens of Ukraine are taking to the streets again, this time to protest against a government u-turn in the EU integration process, which some attribute to pressure from Russia to maintain their trade relations.

The protest has been dubbed “Euromaidan” (or “Eurosquare”): the first gathering occurred in Kiev's Independence Square and then spread massively throughout the country and even abroad.

While the protest has a hashtag, it hasn't been reduced to being labeled a Twitter revolution. This time, social media's role is less about organizing and more about providing a free flow of information about the protest in a country that seems to have stepped back in media freedom.

#Euromaidan is the New Orange

Protests started peacefully ten days ago on November 21st, when the government, led by President Yanukovych, refused to sign a landmark association agreement with the EU representatives, as previously planned.

Opposition leaders asked for the government's resignation and protesters have been gathering in the streets for the last ten days. Camping tents were setup in the main squares of the capital, Kiev, on Sunday night.

A Ukrainian Facebook user, Bogdan Tsap, set up an interactive map of pro-EU Association Agreement protests in Ukraine. On November 23rd, the map showed about a dozen protests in the country.

This is how it looks like, as of Monday.

Euromaidan Map - screenshot taken on Monday afternoon

Over the weekend, however, the protest turned violent. On Saturday morning, riot police used batons and stun grenades to remove protesters from Independence Square in Kiev, according to Radio Free Europe.

“Some protesters used gas, knives and smoke bombs against police lines. About 100 police had been injured in the clashes near the building by Sunday afternoon, according to the interior ministry, and 12 soldiers were also injured,” the Guardian reported on Sunday.

Part of the riot can be seen in the video below, filmed and published by one of the protesters (Global Voices has several others).

The Kiev District Administrative Court has banned peaceful protests and gatherings of citizens in the main squares of Kiev from December 1, 2013, to January 7, 2014, according to the news agency Ukrainian News.

Yesterday, BBC also reported that demonstrators were blockading government buildings in Kiev.

Is Social Media the Only Free Media?

According to several independent researchers, the web might be the only way to spread independent information about the protests.

This is most likely true in Ukraine where presently, the press seems even less free than nine years ago.

The 2013 Freedom of the Press Report by Freedom House explains:

Four pro-Yanukovych media magnates dominate the national television channels, while most regional broadcasters are dependent on progovernment business magnates and state subsidies, encouraging self-censorship and bias in favor of specific economic or political interests. Transparency of media ownership remains poor, as businessmen and politicians often prefer to hide their influence over news programs.

In the same report, Freedom House rated Ukraine as “partly free”. Contrast that with another report, which rates the country as “free” when it comes to the Internet.

Euromaidan Protest in Warsaw (photo by Julia Maria Koszewska)

“The Orange revolution was also a media revolution, as journalists of mainstream TV and press went against censorship practices,” researcher Natalia Shapovalova wrote in a recent blog post.

In her analysis of the protests, Shapovalova, a fellow at Madrid-based think tank FRIDE, pointed out several differences between the Orange revolution and this current decentralized movement, including the increasing role of social media in spreading news about the protest abroad.

“News coverage of the protests largely takes place through Facebook and Twitter, which did not exist in 2004. The first live-stream of the 21 November protests was broadcast on Ustream by a student through his iPhone, “ she wrote in her blog post. She also noted that, “on top of the increased censorship of the TV and press, there have been cyber-attacks against online media, such as the popular outlet Ukrainska Pravda.”

Ukraine has a population of 44 millions people and an Internet penetration rate of 33.9%, according to the Internet Telecommunications Union (ITU).

An Unfinished Orange Revolution?

In November 2004, President Yanukovych, the then Moscow-backed candidate, was declared president despite reports of massive fraud. The opposition launched a huge wave of protests dubbed the Orange Revolution and, in the re-run, opposition candidate Viktor Yushchenko became president.

Yanukovych was eventually elected in 2010, this time with no corruption according to international observers.

International politicians and observers attribute the president's change of mind on EU-integration to pressure from Russia to retain their trade relations. While Ukraine declared its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia's influence has remained strong ever since.

Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt, a veteran of east-west diplomacy, tweeted, "Ukraine government suddenly bows deeply to the Kremlin. Politics of brutal pressure evidently works."

Bildt was clear in condemning pressures coming from Russia. “If the choice was between stagnation with Russia or integration with the EU, we were told that Ukraine had made up its mind. And opinion polls showed solid and increasing support for this European choice,” he wrote in an op-ed published on the Financial Times. He also tweeted two pictures of the protest in Kiev.

A Le Monde editorial lamented the "unfinished" nature of the Orange Revolution, whose leaders pushed for Western-liberal policies:

The "Orange Revolution" of 2004 was an unfinished revolution, which left the Ukraine stuck halfway: the state, pseudo-democratic, was soon given over to systemic corruption and the economy was left not restructured and inexorably collapsed [...] The demonstrators of 2013 want reforms and a clean and democratic state. A European state.

This newly-born movement expresses a strong political will and may well be spurred by unfinished business from the Orange Revolution, but it is certainly no Twitter revolution.

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