The student-occupied Education and Science Ministry in Kiev last week was like a scene out of Ten Days That Shook the World: Evoking the revolutionary organizations that took over St. Petersburg’s Smolny Institute in 1917, students from a variety of left-leaning groups hammered out radical demands under the chandelier in the neoclassical assembly hall, breaking for meals of pickled vegetables and open-faced sandwiches. Outside the hall, a dozen self-defense volunteers with improvised helmets, breastplates and billy clubs were patrolling the building and its perimeter.
“We’ve been expecting Svoboda will try to kick us out,” said Ilya Vlasiuk, an activist who was guarding the sealed offices on the second floor, referring to to the ultranationalist party whose militant wing has attacked progressive activists, including Vlasiuk, at the Euromaidan demonstrations around Independence Square.
Although students played a crucial role in the initial Euromaidan movement, their role decreased after police beat protesters on November 30 and other segments of society came out to call for an end to the corruption and police brutality of Viktor Yanukovich’s government. Meanwhile, ultranationalists and neo-Nazis from groups like Svoboda and Right Sector took over Euromaidan’s self-defense forces, and leaders linked to these two groups were appointed to high-ranking security positions in the new government. Svoboda MP Iryna Farion was being considered for education and science minister this week, according to a leaked list published by the news site Zik, a move the student occupation strongly opposed.
Instead, a student-approved candidate was appointed minister. The successful student occupation of the Education Ministry—the first such event in post-Soviet Ukraine—has raised the possibility that a progressive student movement could provide an alternative voice to the right-wing dominance of street protest and parliamentary politics in Ukraine.
With no left-wing party in parliament, progressive activism “is much weaker at this point” than the far-right trend, Volodymyr Ischenko, deputy director of the Center for Society Research and an editor of the progressive journal Spilne (Commons), told The Nation at a roundtable on the Ukrainian crisis organized in Brussels by the Postglobalization Initiative. But the student movement “is one of the points where it may be possible to create this counterbalance,” he said.
On February 21, several hundred students from at least three Kiev universities representing organizations including the Direct Action Student Union, Student Coordinating Council and Pushback marched on the Education Ministry, a light-orange neoclassical building in downtown Kiev. After minister Dmitry Tabachnik and his deputy Yevgeny Sulima, whom students accused of repressing student activism both during and before the Euromaidan protests, refused to come out and meet with them, they took control of the building. (The ministry’s security was not in place following the political upheaval.) They soon put forth demands including the dismissal of Tabachnik and Sulima, student approval of the new candidates for the position, an audit of the ministry and regular online publication of its financial transactions. A final key demand was the adoption of a reform bill—one of several proposed—that would transfer many functions of the Education Ministry, including the development of government standards and the accreditation of academic institutions, to a new independent agency.