Andrij “Andy” Ihnatov is the president of Ukranian non-governmental organization Maidan International, a key player in the Ukranian Orange Revolution. Started in 2002, Maidan is one of two key political websites in Ukraine. And Andy tells us that the other key site – Ukrainska Pravda – was one of the proximate causes of the Orange Revolution.
As Andy puts it, “2002 is the year the Ukranian transition to democracy stalled”. The government became increasingly corrupt and less transparent. And media was increasingly either censored by the government or self-censored – “media was operating in a mode so as not to outrage the government”. With rare exceptions, there was very little investigative journalism, especially journalism willing to challenge the government.
One exception to this was Ukrainska Pravda, a group website led by independent journalist George Gongadze. Gongadze attracted the attention of Leonid Kuchma’s government by publishing a story about a referendum that was fraudulently amended, giving increased powers to a centralized government. As Andy puts it, “The website was only being read by a few thousand people in the country. Marginal. But it became a daily newspaper for President Kuchma.”
In September 2002, Gongadze disappeared and was later found dead, and beheaded. Evidence pointed to government involvement and the government found itself involved in “Kutchma-Gate” as the government was questioned regarding their role in the death of Gongadze.
As the scandal broke, Ukrainska Pravda found itself as the leading political site in the country, and the cybercafes were packed with people looking for alternative sources of information.
Maidan grew out of a movement – “Ukraine without Kuchma” – that was born, in part, in reaction to the killing of Gongadze. Maidan served as the information arm of the movement, maintaining a group weblog with 70 volunteer authors that helped spread information from different parts of the country and mobilize protests against the Kuchma government.
In a nod to Zephyr Teachout, who’s organized today’s meeting, Andy mentioned that the Ukranians were closely watching the Howard Dean campaign, MoveOn.org and other US attempts that were attempting to use the net to mobilize political dissent.
Kuchma’s government tried to respond to online activism, attempting to take over an online forum – “Talks” – by posting hundreds of irrelavent, off-topic messages. It worked, briefly, but the forum responded by starting to moderate those discussions.
While Internet penetration was low in the Ukraine during the Orange revolution – perhaps 3-4% – the users of the net were largely influencers – journalists, government employees, people who worked with international agencies. Stefan Iwaskewycz, a Ukranian American blogger spent time in a rural village in Ukraine during the Orange Revolution points out that the Internet connected to an existing information network. Small villages in the Ukraine have small newspapers that are often better trusted than national newspapers, which are sometimes seen as propoganda organs. If a single journalist associated with that local newspaper was able to get access to the Internet, that information could be disemminated to rural communities.
Maidan continues its work in Ukraine after the revolution and has been organizing online campaigns and protests about police corruption and about zoning. In both cases, Maidan is soliciting complaints online and using their visibility to force ministers to take them seriously – in the case of zoning services, a local governor has taken to responding to complaints on TV as well as online.
Jeremy Drucker from Transitions Online (a fantastic source of information about countries of the former Soviet Union), points out that Ukraine was not a totalitarian state, but one with political debate and dissention, even if there were strong restrictions on media. It might be unrealistic to expect the Internet to have as transformative effect on a fully closed state, like Belarus.
I find myself wondering if there’s an Internet and politics “sweet spot” – nations where there’s some openness and debate, but real constraints on what can and can’t be said, where the Internet is an especially effective disruptive tool for democracy. In mature democracies, we might not expect the Internet to be a profound force for change as there are so many other ways to disseminate fact and opinion. In nations where control over information is quite thorough, net usage is almost always heavily controlled, meaning it’s less likely to act as a transformative force. In nations that are somewhere between – in nations like Ukraine – access to information worldwide and the ability to amplify it may well be able to be a major force for social change.
A side note: Andy mentioned a site – 3dway.org – is one of the few sites effectively publishing indepedent information from Belarus. According to the Maidan site, some of the organizers of Third Way have been having major difficulties with the Belarussian KGB as a result of their site.