Protest in Donetsk, Ukraine (April 7, 2014) Image courtesy of Andrew Butko.

Protest in Donetsk, Ukraine (April 7, 2014)
Image courtesy of Andrew Butko.

Over the past several months, Ukraine has been subjected to intense turmoil as ethnic Russian elements in the country have agitated for increased autonomy after the fall of the pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych’s government in February 2014. The Russian separatist movement within Ukraine reached its crescendo with the March 16th referendum in which more than 95% of Crimean voters expressed a desire to leave Ukraine and become part of Russia. In response, the Russian government quickly approved the accession of Crimea into the Russian Federation and began consolidating control of formerly Ukrainian civil institutions and military installations. As the Russian annexation of Crimea became a fait accompli, Russian-speaking communities in other parts of eastern Ukraine began agitating for independence and incorporation into Russia.

Media reports indicated that Russian-speaking citizens of Ukraine demonstrating for sovereignty and autonomy were, in many instances, joined by Russian provocateurs, firebrands and rabble-rousers. According to these reports, the Russians were attempting to foment instability within the region so as to create casus belli for further Russian intervention in Ukraine. Soon these activists began occupying city halls, police headquarters and other governmental offices in the hopes that Russian President Vladimir Putin would intervene on their behalf as he had in Crimea.

While this crisis is still unfolding as this column is written, the matter of the separatist activists working in concert with elements of the Russian state raises a series of interesting questions regarding the nature, purpose and outcome of activism in the Ukrainian crisis.

 Grassroots or State-Sponsored Activism?

A crucial question related to the separatist demonstrations concerns the foundational nature of the protests. Are the participants, as suggested by Putin, simply “local citizens” engaging in acts of political dissent? Or are those engaged in the demonstrations acting under the orders of the Russian government, who Ukranian Interior Minister Arsen Avakov accuses of “ordering and paying for another wave of separatist turmoil in the country’s east”.

Political activists who take to the streets demanding their rights, contesting entrenched structures of power and challenging the status quo are often viewed as authentic agents of dissent. However, if the Ukrainian separatists are instructed and funded by the Russian government, then it problematizes the nature of these activists who may no longer function as authentic agents of dissent but rather as instruments of state power. In effect, this raises the question whether grassroots activists operating on their own volition are substantively different from state-sponsored activists operating under bureaucratic dictate.

Activists and political dissenters are traditionally viewed as oppositional to normalized and hegemonic institutions of state power. Clearly, if the state is able to expropriate acts of political dissent and employ them as a means of state power, then the very essence of contentious political action is drawn into doubt. Similar questions have been raised when purportedly grassroots political action is the product of corporations seeking to alter bad press, raise stock prices or generate product buzz, as in the cases of SeaWorld, Samsung and Wal-Mart among others.

This practice of “astroturfing”, whereby institutions falsely create the appearance of grassroots activism to project popular support, is widely panned as little more than propaganda. While governments, such as China, Russia, Israel and the United States, have used astroturfing in the past, often times this sort of faux-activism is restricted to the online world of websites, blogs, and social media.

In many ways, the pro-separatist demonstrations by Russian-speaking activists in Ukraine combine elements of classic grassroots contentious politics with elements of state-sponsored astroturfing. Undoubtedly, many Russian-speaking Ukrainians participating in pro-separatist demonstrations are voicing real concerns about their political position and representation in the post-Yanukovych Ukraine. However, Moscow is clearly providing ideological direction, logistical support, financial resources, military power and protest leadership to aid the separatists. As such, the ongoing demonstrations in Ukraine provide an opportunity to explore how grassroots activism and state-sponsored activism can intersect not simply in a virtual environment, but also on the ground through protests and other forms of contentious political actions.

Despite criticism by Mr. Avakov and White House Press Secretary Jay Carney, evidence suggesting that some of the Ukrainian separatist protesters were paid by Russia should not demean all contentious politics in the Ukraine crisis as little more than state-sponsored astroturfing. Rather, in analyzing and understanding the activism at play in the Ukrainian separatist movement, it is critical to connect and problematize the more traditionally authentic forms of grassroots political action represented by the ordinary men and women at the barricades and public protests with the undeniable involvement of the Russian state. As NPR’s Ari Shapiro reported, “Bad-Ass Grannies”, Ukrainian women over the age of 65, are participating in the protests at Slovyansk and its entirely plausible that these babushkas were paid by Russia to stand there; however, it is entirely believable that they were the first to volunteer for the front lines.

Over time, the Ukraine political crisis will be further analyzed and assessed to better understand how contentious politics and political activism have been marshaled and manipulated by both the people and the state. Maintaining a keen focus on the interplay between state-sponsored activism and grassroots activism while the demonstrations continue to unfold will hopefully enable a more rich and robust analysis in the future.

Originally published by Anthropology News.

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