They Claim They Represent THE PEOPLE - Olga Onuch on Ukraine’s populists


Why do Ukrainians keep taking to the streets? What are activists and politicians not learning? Political Scientist Olga Onuch explains

Show hosts

Oksana Smerechuk,

Marta Dyczok

They Claim They Represent THE PEOPLE - Olga Onuch on Ukraine’s populists
They Claim They Represent THE PEOPLE - Olga Onuch on Ukraine’s populists

A fresh wave of protests has swept through Ukraine’s capital this winter. Mikheil Saakashvili placed himself in the focus, as the protest leader. This week he was deported from Ukraine. Political Scientist Olga Onuch studies protests and mobilization in Ukraine. And in our feature interview she speaks to Marta Dyczok, explains the latest protests and puts them in context. Why do Ukrainians keep taking to the streets? What are activists and politicians not learning? Here’s the interview, have a listen:


Dyczok: Dr. Olga Onuch is one of the world leading experts on protest, mass mobilization in Ukraine and not just Ukraine. Her doctoral dissertation was a comparative analyses of protests in Ukraine in 2004 and Argentina. It was published in 2014 in a book Mapping Mass Mobilization [Onuch, O. (2014). Mapping Mass Mobilizations: Understanding Revolutionary Moments in Argentina and UkrainePalgrave MacMillan. ] and is a must read for people who want to understand what makes people to take to the streets.

Olga Onuch Courtesy of Olga Onuch

Dr. Onuch also conducted a very interesting research during Euromaidan protests that she published very widely. The most recent publication, which is why invited Dr. Onuch for an interview, is her article Protest and Politics which looks at a way protest have swept through Ukraine over the fall and winter of this year. Dr. Onuch is an Assistant Professor in Politics at the University of Manchester and is an Associate Fellow in Politics at Nuffield College, at the University of Oxford. Thank you very much for finding time to speak to us. I thought we would start with your latest article on protests and political coalitions in Ukraine. Maybe not everybody read it. Can you just tell our listeners what the main points are you are making in that article?

Onuch: Thank you very much for inviting me. This article that I wrote for ZOIS which is a Centre in Berlin that focuses on Central and European politics. ( They asked me to write about the most recent protest wave in Ukraine that has got media and policy-makers attention around the world. They were interested what is next for Ukraine. Is this another potential lead up to mass mobilization? My answer would be no, it’s not. We see some very similar pattern of what is a theatre of resistance or routines of contention that we have seen for many decades before in Ukraine but also elsewhere like Latin America, for example, or Middle East or beyond.

Some of the patterns that have in the past featured among activists, protesters unfortunately undermine activists and their gains often times. So there are negative coalitions. This means when different groups – whether it’s social movement organizations and activists that run them or different politicians and their various parties –are brought together only when focused on common enemy. Actually Mark Beissinger writes quite a lot on this in reference to Orange Revolution. A second problem or a pattern that becomes a problem is that these complex coalitions with multitude of partners also have competing claims as what protesters want to achieve, want to see happen. Because of these competing claims there is vacuum of main message or main frame and this creates an opportunity for populist discourse and populist style politicians to become leaders of these protests.

Dyczok: They sort of capture the attention.

Onuch: Absolutely. They use sensational language. They claim they represent THE PEOPLE. They start making claims about having organized large scale protests in the past even if there is no evidence to that. Finally, what these coalitions, especially in aftermath, tempt to discredit key activists for various reasons either individual activists succumb to the opportunity to become politicians themselves and do various things to get there or very simply the political parties and/or populist politicians hollow out the messages.  They make this pretty much empty broad appeal to people and use tactics – I do not want to call them “fake news tactics” – but certainly tactics that . . . I do not know.

In the case of recent protest in Ukraine of some of the people connected to [Mikhiel] Saakashvili, the populist megastar, and his recent protest events they doctored photos. They angled how they took photos of the main protest to make them look like there were more people on the streets.  It does not mean that there weren’t a lot of people on the streets. These protests were in fact large.

Dyczok: Legitimate

Onuch: And legitimate. The anti-corruption claim was very important but yet there is no need to angle the photos and say that there is more than double the amount of participants on the streets that there actually are. By using these tactics observers or ordinary citizens look at those protests and start questioning what is actually happening here. Is this more about that figure head, that politician? Is this more about creating as in this case anti-president Poroshenko coalition in the upcoming elections?  Or is this about fighting corruption? That when people start questioning more and more and investigating more and more. And when we open the Pandora‘s box we start to see things that perhaps do not want to see and things which perhaps the activists do not know happening. That is a quick summary.

Dyczok: That’s a very nice overview. You have been studying mass mobilization for a while and if I read your work correctly what interests you what makes people to get off the couch and head to the streets. We have seen this in Ukraine over and over again. This latest wave as you have just outlined was sort of a lot different issues, dissatisfaction so that people just started heading to the streets with some kind of organization. You end your article by saying that neither the political leaders not the activists have really learned from past   mistakes or accomplished their goals. What are these mistakes and why do they keep making them?

Onuch: Perhaps I cannot answer why they keep making them.

Cover of Mapping Mass Mobilization Photo by Roman Brewka of Lesia Khomenko’s painting

Dyczok: Fair enough.

Onuch: I think for starters it’s getting into coalitions. Of course it’s very important to have cooperation and coordination between different factions of the opposition and different factions of opposition, social movement organizations and political parties. That is pretty much from Charles Tilly, and other scholars from the field. ( Everybody agrees that this coalition element is important but when you get into a coalition with self –interested politicians just because they are not that negative focal figure that is currently running that particular country, the current president. So just getting into a coalition with these self-interested politicians is problematic.

I am actually surprised that sometimes the willingness to allow these politicians stand up on the stage and speak for the hard work of the activists. That is what they are doing on a daily basis, yes.  Perhaps they do not have the same name recognition, perhaps the average Ukrainian would not know who they are but nonetheless allowing someone who has a chequered past, to say the least, to become the face of your movement.  I think it’s a serious miscalculation. It’s a key mistake.

Dyczok: Sorry to interrupt. I just want to follow up. Is your view is the politicians are the ones who jump on the front and stand up on a stage? Or activists invite them? How does that dynamic work? I think you are absolutely right, when you have someone like Saakashvili leading an anti-Poroshenko protest, which is what we saw in the fall, there is a political undertone there – maybe that is what protests are not about. Maybe they are tired of things not changing and you get Saakashvili. So is he jumping in on a band wagon and making himself a leader? Or are these activists looking for someone to get more media attention? How does that part work?

Onuch: I think it depends on the different protest events we’re talking about. If you look back in Ukrainian recent history, you have the ‘Ukraine without Kuchma’ protests in the early 2000’s and there was a struggle to find a politician that could be the face of those protest events. That was actually something that activists tried to find. They tried to make coalitions with different political groups and they were not successful. During the Orange Revolution there was a clear go-to individual and that was going to be the person who could possibly become president and that Viktor Yushchenko. But in between 2005 and 2013, again, activists struggled to find these focal characters from within their own group and at times did turn to people like Yulia Tymoshenko and now we see the same thing with Saakashvilli.

What is interesting is that in 2013-2014, activists worked very hard actually not to allow one particular politicians to be the main figure and there was a variety of activity trying to prevent that. That was obviously helped by the fact that the politicians themselves could not come to an arrangement on who would be the one representing them. But in the most recent case, I think it is a combination of two things. There is this Saakashvili character who became very popular is some circles and that is saying, I think, a lot of the right things in terms of the anti-corruption message, makes a lot of critical public statements…

Dyczok: Sort of tapping into the mood of the people who are protesting and articulating it.

Onuch: Absolutely. But there is a broader political and economic coalition behind him. That being said, activists or former activists-turned-politicians or former journalists-turned-politicians who are also the leaders of some of these protest events are in some way connected to that same political coalition. To me, it’s not clear who turned to whom first. I think the activists in civil society organizations that are involved in organizing these protests have been doing this very valuable work since 2014 trying to push for a variety of policy changes specifically in the anti-corruption field, but I’m not quite sure yet who initially used whom and how did we come to what it is today. Unfortunately I think that one particular individual is becoming the face of the protests which can be very polarizing.

Dyczok: Absolutely.

Onuch: I think whenever you have more polarization in an already unstable context such as crisis and war-torn Ukraine it could be a very dangerous situation beyond just simply an election result. That’s the thing that worries me as an observer.

Dyczok: You make the excellent point in this recent article and in your earlier work that mobilization and political activism is a part of the history of Ukraine. The fact that we’re seeing this again in the post-Euromaidan era, is this something that is positive or is this something that’s perhaps not so positive? That the changes that society was expecting did not happen so people are taking to the streets yet again. Is this a sign that Ukraine’s political elites are unable to govern effectively? Is this an indication of political culture in Ukraine? That people rather than working through various organizing, political parties, and a normal political process, they resort to taking to the street? This pattern of constant protest, what does it tell us about Ukraine’s political situation?

Onuch: So just two things, I’d like to take a moment to pause. Because when I started out my doctoral research which you may remember—

Dyczok: Absolutely, it was excellent work!

Onuch: I was comparing Ukraine and Argentina and I was repeatedly told, “well, in Latin America you have constant protests but in places like Ukraine you have almost no protests!”

Dyczok: And that’s not true.

Onuch: Yes. A decade and a half down the line we see that that’s not the case. So it is fascinating to me how I’m having this particular conversation with you right now. I don’t think it’s a negative thing necessarily but I think it can become a negative thing. And again just circling back to this idea of what Beissinger calls “a negative collation.” If you have a multitude of grievances and claims which we certainly saw and that I, and Gwen Sasse, and others have written about that after the Euromaidan, if you have people thinking that a hundred different things are wrong and that they would like to a hundred things change, it’s very difficult for whatever regime comes to power—whether it’s the most effective, efficient, and democratic or the least—to accomplish all of those things. That I think is the problem.

The two big demands and the two main master narratives from the Euromaidan and the protests were the signed the EU association agreement to get closer ties with the EU—which has been accomplished—and the secondly, the ousting of Yanukovych. The variety of anti-corruption policy change, decentralization, regional integration, and avoiding the divisive nature of Ukrainian regionalism were all things that come out into the fore in the later years. They were all there and those were probably the things that motivated, and certainly in my research people told me those are the things that motivated them to joint the protest events, but it’s difficult to address all of them. So I think whenever you have these mass mobilizations where different segments of society come out for different reasons, it is almost nearly impossible to address all of those grievances and claims. So I wouldn’t be surprised if there are more protests. Once you see that protests can be somewhat successful, why would you not try it again?

Dyczok: So an effective strategy?

Onuch: It could be. I mean, it has been somewhat effective and it has proved to be somewhat effective in the past. So in between electoral cycles when you have a limited capacity to engage in politics as an ordinary citizen participating in things like protests events, like boycotts, like petitions on the other side of the spectrum, are the avenues that you can take to create change.

Dyczok: But they’re a little more boring than taking to the streets. Sorry to interrupt but something I wanted to ask you that you highlight in your work, in this most recent article, and in other work, is the performative aspect of these protests. Because something that occurred again in the protests of the fall—maybe a little less so—but certainly during the Euromaidan, there was a very visual and artistic dimension to the protests. It was not just taking to the streets and chanting, there were all sorts of creative ways of sending messages and constructing these images. Can you talk a little bit about the performative and creative sides of how these activists actually try to get their massage to larger society, to political elites, and how is that interesting in Ukraine.

Onuch: Absolutely, this is a long history of including the arts, visual and literature, and music in Ukraine and various protest events, by activists. Generally speaking, the march into the street or the standing protests in the square that is in itself is a performance. It is very visual, even the chanting itself. But in terms of the use of various creative tactics or creative repertoires that have proved very successful in the past in Ukraine. Both during the Orange Revolution and the Euromaidan the turning to peaceful, direct but peaceful and creative tactics, such as painting helmets or singing songs, or various theatrical type protests have proven very successful, because, as Charles Tilly and others, such as famed activist SRDA Popovych from Serbia have notes, you make people think when they are confronted with something different and creative. And if you can involve humor in that, or some kind of sarcasm, humor, parity of the political events, that is even better. Because it relaxes people and protest stops being something extremely scary and risky, even though it is.

Dyczok: It becomes fun.

Onuch: It becomes fun and it makes people think. You know, what does a helmet mean? When it is painted in traditional symbols and flowers.  Just the case of painting the piano and …

Dyczok: That was great!

Onuch: Right, that changes the tone of the protest. Both, on the protesters’ side and people who are observing the protest, and for those who are in power, it is very difficult, unfortunately they proved they could in the case of Ukraine in 2014, but it is a lot more difficult to repress people, when they are singing, playing games, painting in the street, or performing a theatrical theme. So, it has a variety of useful elements to use creativity and art in protest.

Dyczok: That leads me to the next I wanted to ask you about – media representations of protest. Particularly, when you have something visual or dramatic that captures media’s attention, what does the impact of media attention on protest, both domestically and internationally? If international media pays attention to a protest does that gives it more legitimacy, more power, makes it more successful? Is there relationship between media coverage and the protests?

Onuch: So, I think this is not something is tested empirically. And I feel like I’m on thin ice here because you are the media expert. But in terms of protests both my research and broader scholarship point that media framing is extremely important. So, being able to use the media to your advantage and when you are not able to access mainstream media, to set up others types of media, such as online media, in the case of Ukraine: Espresso, Hromadske, etc. That was very important, not just in Ukraine but in various protests across the world. So, getting your message across as many people as possible is very important. And certainly international media attention helps getting support from both national and foreign policy makers. And also, citizens abroad, diasporas abroad can join in the protest or show support in various ways now with the advancement of social media that is even further the case. But the media is often wrong, when reporting on protest. And just to give you a few examples. During the Euromaidan, international media was talking a lot about “this is a millennials protest, a hashtag revolution entirely mobilized by social media.” It seemed to be the case.

Dyczok: That’s what it looked like.

Onuch: Absolutely, that’s what seemed to be the case. And certainly millennials are more social media present, and they were probably tweeting and posting a lot more. But then when we went and surveyed individuals, that just simply wasn’t the case. We did find that the majority of individuals were present on the EuroMaidan, on the square itself during the EuroMaidan, they were getting most of their information from traditional news media. From the television. And that was actually very important for them in understanding where the protests are, and how the protests look like. But what motivated them was their individual, personal social networks and ties. So the idea that they were connected to family and friends. That family and friends were going mobilized individuals to mobilize and go out to the square.

Dyczok: That’s that excellent article, sorry to interrupt, but just to inform our listeners, it was published in Problems of Post Communism, where your research showed that mobilization is not just about seeing something on FaceBook. But it’s about social networks. (EuroMaidan Protests in Ukraine: Social Media Versus Social Networks. Problems of Post­Communism, vol. 62: 1–19, 2015. Available at )

There’s one other thing I wanted to ask you about. You do very interesting research, and you publish a lot. I’m wondering what’s the scholarship in Ukraine like on these issues, protests and social movements? Are scholars in Ukraine conducting research and publishing on this? Perhaps you collaborate with some of them?

Onuch: There is more and more scholarship coming out of Ukraine, but it’s not necessarily getting the attention it deserves. Also, it’s coming from different ideological perspectives, perhaps. But there are a few individuals who are from Ukraine, some of them work abroad, some of them are based in Ukraine, who I think have contributed quite a bit to the study of activism and protests in Ukraine. One individual is Olena Nikolayenko at Fordham University. She’s just recently published a book with Cambridge University Press on youth activism in the region. But she’s published a lot on Ukraine, and she’s working now on the use of social media. Another very interesting scholar is Tanya Lukot. She works on the use of social media to mobilize individuals, and she focuses on the EuroMaidan in her doctoral work. Volodymyr Ishchenko and his team monitor protest events. There’s a slight ideological tinge to their research, but to the best of my knowledge, they’re doing some of the best protest event monitoring in Ukraine. And Volodymyr is based in Kyiv. There are a few others, such as Inna Potarska. She works on left activism, and feminist activism. She’s done quite a bit of really interesting research. She’s worked with people like Tamara Martsenyuk, who also works on gender. Actually, Tamara and I are thinking of writing a book entirely dedicated to feminist activism and protest in Ukraine. There are, obviously, scholars who have written on this in the past. But this would be an updated version.

Dyczok: Thank you for that. Partly why I asked about this is I was wondering whether people who organize protests, do they look to scholars like yourself and others, to learn how to do it more effectively? Is there a link between scholarship and activism?

Onuch: Oh gosh, wouldn’t every single political scientist want the answer to that question to be ‘yes!’ I have, over the last 15 years, developed relationships with certain activists and politicians. Whenever I’m in Kyiv I go and tell them what my most recent finding are, and that of my colleagues, not only my own research, and see what they grab on to and run with, and what they don’t. What I was surprised with some individuals that turned into activist in 2013-2014, I think that’s the best way I can put that, who perhaps were working in a different field, and they became either NGO leaders, or are known as ‘the father of the revolution,’ [reference to Mustafa Mayyem who was a journalist, made a FB post on 21 November 2013 calling people to meet at Kyiv’s central square to protest against then President Yanukovych’s decision to not sign the EU Association Agreement, that was the first night of protests that grew into the EuroMaidan]. I was surprised that they did not know the landscape of protest and activism in Ukraine. When I or others interviewed them, or spoke to them, they seemed to think that they were doing everything anew. And they weren’t.

Dyczok: Of course not.

Onuch: Even calling this past EuroMaidan the ‘Revolution of Dignity.’ That’s actually what observers, activists, and participants of the Orange Revolution [2004] referred to. If you look to the original analysis of the orange Revolution, people spoke about dignity a lot. People also spoke about dignity during the ‘Revolution on the Granite’ the student’s revolution.

Dyczok: Back in 1990.

Onuch: So even just the discourse, there’s some continuity there. And it was evident that these individuals [in 2013] were just not aware of it. I think the oddest thing that they weren’t aware of is the extent of activist mobilization in the lead up to the Orange Revolution. How there were islands of activism all across Ukraine. This last group was a little too focussed on Kyiv, and forgot about the very important islands, not to mention only L’viv in Western Ukraine. But in Kharkiv. And in places like Sumy. And Odesa. That historically have had very important and strong activist networks. And, of course, very few people remember that there were very important Unions and workers movements in the Donbas.

Dyczok: Absolutely.

Onuch: That there were workers’ strikes in the 1990s in the Donbas that were, unfortunately, quelled in various ways. But that’s what surprised me about some of the people who probably if we went out in New York City, or in Toronto, or major cities in Europe, and asked, ‘do you know about the EuroMaidan?’ They would mention a few names. And those individuals. And those individuals could not, I think, talk about the history of activism or protest in Ukraine. But, perhaps, it’s not necessary.

Dyczok: But is sounds like you’re saying that each time they’re re-inventing the wheel. So, perhaps, it would be a good idea to have a series of workshops or conferences about mobilization led by Dr. Olga Onuch from Manchester University and Oxford University, who has this wonderful expertise and insight. We’re running out of time, is there anything I haven’t asked you that you would like to add?

Onuch: I think the one thing I would like to add is that I really would love it if everybody stopped focussing on social media as the answer to mobilization.

Dyczok: I absolutely agree!

Onuch: It’s important, but it’s not enough. It’s a great important tool, it’s a lot of data to analyse. But it’s not enough to mobilize nearly a million people into the streets. There’s a few other things that need to happen. And many scholars, not only myself, have written about that.

Dyczok: I absolutely agree. And I think I see a new book coming out of Dr. Olga Onuch about perhaps patterns of mobilization, a ‘how to’ for activists, or something else new and creative. Thank you so much for finding the time to speak to us, and I look forward to reading your new publications. This is Marta Dyczok for Hromadske Radio. We will post links to all the articles that Dr. Onuch has written so that you can read up on them. Thank you so much for listening. Thank you for joining us, Dr. Onuch.

Onuch: Thank you for having me.


Waiting. It’s part of life. We all feel differently about it. A Kyiv band called Lilovyi, which means lilac coloured, recently released a song titled, “Its Worth Waiting” (Варто чекати)  Here’s how they expressed it musically. Enjoy!


Next week we’ll be back with more commentary on events in Ukraine, so tune in again for another edition of Ukraine Calling. We would be happy to receive any feedback from you. Write to us at: [email protected]. This is Oksana Smerechuk in Kyiv. Thanks so much for listening.

Interview transcribed by Marta Dyczok, Caroline Gawlik, Larysa Iarovenko, and Ilona Sviezhentseva. Music by Marta Dyczok. E-mail distribution by Ilona Sviezhentseva. Sound engineers Timothy Glasgow and Andriy Izdryk. Special thanks to CHRW Western Radio for use of their studio and technical support. Web support Kyrylo Loukerenko.