A corrupt leader, relying on police and military for support, was in power. So the protesters who took to the streets, and were beaten back by riot police, must represent the people and democracy, right? No, not necessarily, and Ukraine is an example of how that simplistic logic doesn’t always hold.
The overthrow of the Ukrainian government led by President Viktor Yanukovich is not something to celebrate. There should be no sympathy for the corrupt and illiberal Yanukovich, but that doesn’t make his opponents democrats. Bad as he was (it’s probably fair to speak of him in the past tense now), Yanukovich was in power thanks to a democratic election. The protesters in Kiev’s Maidan did not represent a mobilisation of the masses of Ukraine – it’s fairly clear that they were supported mainly in the western region of the country, with many in the east and south opposed if not hostile to them (and it’s not evident at all whether a majority of the country as a whole supported the protesters). Yanukovich’s government did adopt illiberal laws, limiting freedom of speech and assembly and placing fewer constraints on executive power, but that did not make him a ‘dictator’, as some overblown descriptions have it. This was not a popular uprising, nor was the overthrow of the government required because normal democratic channels were closed.
We shouldn’t be naive about street protests, whether in Ukraine, the Middle East or in the West. Just because a group is protesting a corrupt government, that doesn’t mean that group has have progressive or liberty-favouring ideas. In Kiev, the protesters included neo-Nazis, nationalists and cranks (as well as genuine liberals).
Furthermore, people do have a right to protest, to assemble and speak out, but they do not have a right to occupy a public space on a permanent, ongoing basis. Groups that set up such camps - even Occupy types in the West - are effectively throwing down a challenge to the government about who runs society. Such a challenge might be necessary at times, especially if the occupiers have the mass of people behind them and there is no alternative, but those who do so shouldn’t be shocked when they are eventually confronted by the police or military. As it happens, street occupiers sometimes know full well what they are in for: at times they are an unrepresentative minority that seeks to prod the government into responding in a heavy-handed, repressive manner in order to gain sympathy and support that they are not able to achieve through public debate or the ballot box.
In Ukraine, the dismissal of a democratically elected leader and the overriding of the constitution through street protests establishes a questionable precedent. This may come into play in the future, given the lack of unity among the different factions that comprise the protesters. As George Friedman of Stratfor perceptively notes: ‘The precedent has been set… that governments and regimes can be changed by a legalistic sleight of hand. At some point, a large crowd will gather and occupy buildings. If the government opens fire, it is run by monsters… But if the government allows itself to be paralysed by demonstrators, then how can it carry out its constitutional responsibilities?’