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In Ukraine, Protests Highlight 'Generational Rift'

  • Claire Bigg

Students take part in a rally to support EU integration in Kyiv on November 26.

Students take part in a rally to support EU integration in Kyiv on November 26.

Rallies against Kyiv's decision to shelve a landmark pact with the European Union are gaining momentum in Ukraine, with students emerging as the backbone of the protests.

Students have been skipping classes to protest President Viktor Yanukovych's abrupt policy U-turn away from Europe in favor of closer ties with Russia. The decision came just days before he was expected to sign the pact at a summit in Vilnius on November 29.

Tens of thousands of students across the country rallied on November 27 for a seventh consecutive day, banging on drums, chanting pro-European slogans, and calling on Yanukovych to reverse course and sign the pact.

In the western city of Lviv, a center of the protests, as many as 30,000 students took to the streets on November 26.

Borys Poshivak, a 23-year-old agriculture student and one of the leaders of the Lviv rallies, said that students feel European. "They want Ukraine to become a full-fledged member of the European family. They simply want to live with dignity."

No Memory Of The Soviet Union

The demonstrations have brought to the forefront a new generation of protesters that grew up in an independent Ukraine and have faint -- if any -- memories of the Soviet Union. They see themselves as Europeans, they are disillusioned with politics as usual, and they feel increasingly at odds with establishment opposition figures.


"We are now witnessing a generational rift in Ukraine," says Yaroslav Hrytsak, a Lviv-based historian. "Young Ukrainians resemble young Italians, Czech, Poles, or Germans more than they resemble Ukrainians who are 50 and older. This generation has a stronger desire for European integration and fewer regional divides than their seniors."
The western city of Lviv has emerged a center of the student-led pro-EU rallies.

The western city of Lviv has emerged a center of the student-led pro-EU rallies.

The rallies in the Ukrainian capital have seen the largest turnout since the 2004 Orange Revolution that ousted Yanukovych after an electoral victory denounced as rigged.

They are particularly poignant since they are taking place on the anniversary of the Orange Revolution and on the same Independence Square, Maidan Nezalezhnosti, where the events unfolded nine years ago.

The fresh wave of protests has been dubbed "EuroMaidan."

Agree On The Goals, Disagree On The Methods

But while the demonstrators are united by a common desire for European integration, they are deeply divided over the methods.

On the one side, students and other mostly young demonstrators are conducting a civic protest that they don't want to see hijacked by political parties. On the other side, older opposition activists describe the rallies as political and have brandished party banners and flags.

So far, most of the opposition leaders have refused to heed the students' requests to get rid of party symbols.

Oleh Tyahnybok, the leader of the ultranationalist All-Ukrainian Union Svoboda party, said he thought it was very much in the authorities' interest to stage a protest with no political banners. "They just want to discourage people," he said. "Those who have no banners have no political demands. But isn't the demand that the Association Agreement be signed a political demand?"

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The divide is most visible in Kyiv, where both camps have been holding geographically separate rallies in spite of a joint statement proclaiming their unity.

Despite subzero temperatures, students have vowed to remain camped out on squares at least until the Vilnius summit ends on November 29. They have formed their own security patrol tasked with preventing clashes and making sure no political banners are unfurled.

Coordinating committees have been set up, with volunteers distributing blankets, food, and warm clothes donated by supporters. In Kyiv, the coordinating committee also organizes private accommodation for demonstrators travelling from other cities.

The protest has drawn comparison to the international Occupy movement, with its strong social-media base, its denunciation of social and economic inequality, and its distrust of traditional politics.

"This year's Maidan looks more like the Occupy movement than like the 2004 Maidan," historian Hrytsak says. "It's largely apolitical due to a strong mistrust toward politicians, and its driving force is creative youth, people who currently are studying or who graduated from university in the past 10 years. What they are talking about is the European choice, not the victory of this or that political force in Ukraine."

RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service correspondent Natalya Sedletska contributed to this report
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    Claire Bigg

    Claire Bigg covers Russia, Ukraine, and the post-Soviet world, with a focus on human rights, civil society, and social issues. Send story tips to​


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