Social Movements in Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia in Times of War

Social Movements in Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia in Times of War

Svetlana Erpyleva, Research Centre for East European Studies, University of Bremen / Public Sociology Laboratory; Denys Gorbach, Sciences Po, Paris; Seongcheol Kim, University of Bremen; Heiko Pleines, Research Centre for East European Studies, University of Bremen
Fand statt
In Präsenz
Vom - Bis
08.06.2023 - 09.06.2023
Oksana Chorna, Research Centre for East European Studies, University of Bremen

What is the impact of the full-scale war on the societies directly involved in the conflict? Researchers of Eastern Europe gathered in Bremen to analyze how the war has affected social movements in Ukraine – a state that has been at war for more than nine years – in the aggressor state Russia as well as in Belarus, the state whose leadership currently supports the unprovoked aggression of the Kremlin.

The conference started with a discussion of Euromaidan through the prism of the concept of eventfulness. MARK BEISSINGER (Princeton) set the tone with his talk about the meaning of this concept, its heuristic benefit, and its possible applications for analyzing the 2014 revolution in Ukraine.

TAMARA MARTSENYUK (Lüneburg/Kyiv), in turn, shifted gears and offered an analysis of the Euromaidan revolution from a gender politics perspective. She showed the multitude of frames through which femininity was approached by the Euromaidan participants, as well as the varying roles assigned to, and claimed by, women during this event and afterward. Martsenyuk explained that Euromaidan became a critical juncture that opened a number of avenues for gender politics in Ukraine, both progressive and regressive politically.

The discussion turned back to the topic of eventfulness with OLEG ZHURAVLEV (Florence), who approached the concept in a more empirical fashion. For Zhuravlev, the eventful revolution of Euromaidan is the product of a legitimacy crisis common to all the post-Soviet societies. He drew conclusions on the impact of the Ukrainian revolution of 2014 on the policies of the Russian leadership, arguing that the latter underwent a politicization in reaction to Euromaidan that has culminated in the full-scale invasion.

The second panel shifted the focus to post-Maidan Ukrainian civil society. KSENIA GATSKOVA (Nuremberg) argued that engagement in conventional NGOs, compared to spontaneous, short-term, and anonymous participation in mass protests, requires explicit commitment and responsibility. Using large-scale surveys, Gatskova demonstrated that the issue of trust differs significantly among people engaged in protests and NGOs: While for the former group, trust is maintained within the circle of the family, for the latter it spreads further.

SUSANN WORSCHECH (Frankfurt an der Oder), on the other hand, connected the stages of development of the Ukrainian civil society with the protests in the country. Following political scientist and sociologist Charles Tilly, she considers three revolutionary cycles: the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Orange Revolution, and the Euromaidan. She highlighted that important changes took place in each cycle. For instance, after Euromaidan, civil society activists broadened their scope of action, supplying the armed forces and aiding internally displaced people in reaction to Russian military aggression since 2014.

In this context, OKSANA CHORNA (Bremen) presented a research agenda for the study of relations between civil society and the state under conditions of war. She stressed the importance of differentiating between organized civil society and volunteers.

Finally, EDUARD KLEIN (Bremen) demonstrated the ambiguities and complexity of civil society engagement in anti-corruption activism but presented a positive overall picture of clear progress.

The third panel featured two presentations on industrial relations, based on years of field research at the workplace level in Ukraine. OKSANA DUTCHAK (Frankfurt am Main) presented her research on the gendered and informalized nature of work in public kindergartens, characterized by chronic under-staffing and under-investment. The presentation of DENYS GORBACH (Paris) was on a window manufacturing enterprise in the informal sector in Kryvyi Rih, characterized by everyday bargaining between employer and employee. Both presentations underscored the challenges of securing basic labor rights in contemporary Ukraine.

The fourth panel was devoted to analyzing the agency of Ukrainians during the ongoing war. ALONA LIASHEVA (Bremen) demonstrated the multiplicity of motivations behind domestic support for the war effort and the desire for Ukrainian victory in the war. Based on interviews conducted after February 2022, she identified five different attitudes to the conflict, ranging from the full replication of the official narrative of the Ukrainian government to assigning responsibility for the war to NATO or the US on par with Russia. Often, narratives are simply apolitical: The war is seen through the optics of private life engagements and disengagements.

From the political attitudes of those remaining in Ukraine, the discussion then shifted to the survival strategies of Ukrainian refugees. ANASTASIA RIABCHUK (Paris) presented the preliminary results of her research on Ukrainians in France. She argued that diaspora social networks, despite their informal nature, are often a factor defining the trajectories of refugees.

YULIYA YURCHENKO’s (London) talk was of a slightly different tone; she focused on the counterproductive role played by the various ‘pacifist’ social movements in Western Europe. She argued that their position on the war is problematic since it refuses agency to Ukrainians, presenting them as simple pawns in geopolitical games.

The issue of the agency of Ukrainians during the ongoing war was treated by EMMA MATEO (New York), who drew on an open database of interviews with Ukrainian IDPs to highlight the intensity of mutual aid and self-organization.

The activist roundtable brought together representatives of trade union-based activists and Ukraine solidarity networks. It started with a short presentation by its moderator – the protest researcher LARISSA MEIER (Bielefeld) – of the field research jointly conducted with her colleagues at the University of Bielefeld. The study, which examined the parallel rallies for ‘peace’ and ‘solidarity with Ukraine’ in central Berlin in February 2023, found that the surveyed participants of the two demonstrations exhibited diametrically opposing profiles in terms of attitudes toward the causes of the war and the steps needed to end it as well as the degree of trust in German political institutions. The presentation provided an opening impetus for bringing protest researchers and actors into dialogue with each other.

With that, the floor was handed over to three presenters. First, HANNA PEREKHODA (Lausanne) introduced her group Comité Ukraine Suisse, which seeks to oppose Switzerland’s role in indirectly enabling the financing of Russia’s war. Second, TARAS SALAMANIUK (Berlin) spoke of his experiences as a teacher in welcome classes for Ukrainian refugee youth in the German capital, including the subtle racism in attempts to regulate native language use. Finally, ARTEM TIDVA (Kyiv) presented his grouping Social Movement, which engages in alliance building with left-wing civic and independent trade union initiatives abroad.

Another panel was devoted to the phenomenon of de facto states. NATALIA SAVELYEVA (Madison) presented the results of her analysis of the war in Donbas since 2014. Essentially, she argued that by 2022, the Donbas region had become a political and economic problem for Russia, prompting the Kremlin to launch a ‘short and victorious war’ to resolve this issue.

ALEXANDRU LEŞANU (independent historian) focused not on the causes but on the consequences of the Russian war on Ukraine for the de facto state of Transnistria. He argued that, unexpectedly, the full-scale invasion of Ukraine by Russia has created prospects for a positive outcome for the frozen conflict in Transnistria for two reasons. First, in 2022 Ukraine closed its border with Transnistria, which both actors were previously using for smuggling goods. Since then, all Transnistrian trade has had to pass through Moldovan customs. Furthermore, there is still Russian gas flowing through Ukraine via Transnistria, making this gas pipeline the only physical infrastructure connecting Transnistria to Russia. If the agreement between Ukraine and Russia on the gas transit will not be extended, Transnistrian dependence on Moldova will further increase.

The largest anti-government protests in the history of Belarus that took place in 2020 were also discussed at the conference. OLGA DRYNDOVA (Bremen) presented her analysis of long-term changes in Belarusian society. She argued that over the past decade, there has been a gradual decline in so-called paternalistic values (reliance on the state to solve problems) among Belarusians. Furthermore, external democracy promotion by Western organizations targeting seemingly non-politicized actors, such as feminist or environmentalist groups, acted as catalysts for democratic education among many Belarusian people. Thus, the apparent depoliticization of democracy promotion contributed to the politicization of Belarusian society and the emergence of large-scale anti-government mobilization in August 2020.

ALESIA RUDNIK (Karlstadt) addressed the unique nature of the mobilization itself, focusing on the role of Telegram as a key mediator for the Belarusian protests. She argued that with the help of Telegram, ordinary activists began to see themselves as political actors, serving as disseminators to one another.

The analysis of the Belarusian protests would not be complete without examining the strategies used by the state to preserve its power. STAS GORELIK (Washington, D.C./Bremen) addressed this issue in relation to Belarus and Russia, focusing on pro-government rallies. Based on data from survey experiments in Russia and Belarus, he argued that these rallies sometimes signal the opposite – a lack of electoral support for the autocrats.

Finally, Panel 7 looked at opposition and protest movements in Russia. All four presenters agreed that repression of dissent has reached a qualitatively new level in Russia, with ILYA MATVEEV (Berkeley/Bremen) pointing to a comparison with Nazi Germany concerning the integration of formerly independent trade unions and their joint support for the regime and the war. SVETLANA ERPYLEVA (Bremen) highlighted the degree of frustration among protesters by documenting that they did not present concrete demands to the state authorities. JAN MATTI DOLLBAUM (Bremen) showed that the ‘systemic opposition’, i.e. political parties that are still allowed to participate in elections, not only follow the regime’s rhetoric but in some cases even outdo its cheerleading for the war.

While Svetlana Erpyleva and Ilya Matveev had already described the phenomenon of mass arrests of antiwar protesters, RENATA MUSTAFINA (Paris) highlighted that while this is often treated as the end of the protest story, court proceedings are the next step. According to her, by now already the lawyers of the accused are arrested for their activities – something that fits into the bleak picture presented at the panel.

The fruitful and extensive discussions that followed each panel confirmed the relevance of the topics presented. However, the reflection on the conference left me personally with some questions. First, is the conventional way to study Ukraine, Russia, and Belarus together still valid? The societies of three countries are experiencing the Russian war on Ukraine in very different ways, and any conclusions on social movements in Russia, for example, can hardly be confirmed by researchers focusing on Ukraine. Second, is the research by Russian scholars of the societies previously or currently colonized by Russia accepted without critical questioning? Socialized in Russia, such academics often continue to see the world through the lens of Russian imperialism, use mainly Russian language sources and stay blind to the perspectives internal to the societies they study. As an example, the word ‘Byelorussia’ – the Russian preferred way of calling Belarus in English, which indirectly relates to it as a part of Russia – was used repeatedly by one Russian researcher at the conference. The third question is whether the research on Russia focused on titular Russian nationals still can be accepted as comprehensive. Specifically now during the Russian war on Ukraine, the experiences of different ethnic groups within Russia cannot be equated. However, mainstream research continues to ignore the experiences of these minorities within Russia.

With its large number of presentations focused on Ukraine, the conference showed some positive trends in decolonizing research on Eastern Europe, traditionally centered on Russia. Unfortunately, without the Russian war on Ukraine, the changes would be even slower.

Conference overview:

Panel 1: Euromaidan as eventful revolution

moderation: Denys Gorbach

Mark Beissinger (Princeton University): Layers of eventfulness in the Euromaidan revolution

Tamara Martsenyuk (National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy / Leuphana University of Lüneburg): Gender and revolution in Ukraine: Women’s participation in Euromaidan protests of 2013–2014

Oleg Zhuravlev (Scuola Normale Superiore / Public Sociology Laboratory): Euromaidan in post-soviet comparative perspective: revolution and crisis of legitimacy

Panel 2: Changing contours of post-Maidan civil society

moderation: Michael Richter

Kseniia Gatskova (Institute for Employment Research, Nuremberg): Third sector in Ukraine before and after the Euromaidan

Susann Worschech (European University Viadrina, Frankfurt an der Oder): From self-organization to resilience: broadening the path to civic responsibility

Eduard Klein (Research Centre for East European Studies, University of Bremen): A decade of anti-corruption in Ukraine: What has been achieved and what is (still) to be done?

Oksana Chorna (Research Centre for East European Studies, University of Bremen): Patterns of cooperation between the state and civil society

Panel 3: Labor reforms and labor protest in Ukraine

moderation: Seongcheol Kim

Oksana Dutchak (Goethe University Frankfurt): ‘You have no money and no one appreciates you’. Labor power reproduction and informality in Ukrainian public kindergartens

Denys Gorbach (Sciences Po, Paris): The post-Soviet culture of industrial conflict: A Chastnik enterprise as a state of exception

Panel 4: Social movements as self-help organizations during the war

moderation: Denys Gorbach

Alona Liasheva (Research Centre for East European Studies, University of Bremen / Commons: Journal of Social Criticism, Lviv): Behind the unity of Ukrainian resistance: understanding of causes and outcomes of Russian full-scale war against Ukraine

Anastasia Riabchuk (INALCO Paris): Invisible networks that catch: Contextualising the situation of Ukrainians fleeing the war into older mobility networks to the EU

Yuliya Yurchenko (University of Greenwich, London): Trans-national solidarity networks and Russo-Ukrainian war: cracks, healing, bonds

Emma Mateo (Columbia University, New York): Networks of support and agency in wartime Ukraine

Roundtable with activist voices from Ukraine and the Ukrainian diaspora

moderation and opening input: Larissa Meier

Hanna Perekhoda (Lausanne); Taras Salamaniuk (Berlin); Artem Tidva (Kyiv)

Panel 5: Political economy and civil resistance in the separatist republics

moderation: Svetlana Erpyleva

Natalia Savelyeva (University of Wisconsin-Madison / Public Sociology Laboratory): Ukrainian unrecognized republics before the Russian invasion: politics, economics, and possible futures

Alexandru Leşanu (independent historian): The economic prospects of the Transnistrian peace settlement after the Russian invasion of Ukraine

Panel 6: Trade unions, protest, and civil society under threat in Belarus

moderation: Heiko Pleines

Olga Dryndova (Research Centre for East European Studies, University of Bremen): Protests-2020 in Belarus and democracy promotion of the EU

Stas Gorelik (George Washington University / Research Centre for East European Studies, University of Bremen): Pro-government rallies and autocrats’ lack of electoral support. Survey evidence from Belarus and Russia

Alesia Rudnik (Karlstad University): Was Telegram a key mediator in the Belarusian protest 2020? Perspectives from the inside

Panel 7: Prospects for anti-war protests in Russia

moderation: Heiko Pleines

Jan Matti Dollbaum (University of Bremen): The anti-war movement and Russia’s opposition parties: any rhetorical intersections?

Svetlana Erpyleva (Research Centre for East European Studies, University of Bremen / Public Sociology Laboratory): The 2022 anti-war street protests in Russia: features and prospects

Ilya Matveev (University of California Berkeley / Research Centre for East European Studies, University of Bremen): Prospects for labour protests in a sanctioned economy

Renata Mustafina (Sciences Po Paris): Navigating repressive legality in the times of war