Digital activities in Ukraine are playing an active role in protests of the government. Three years ago cell phones, computers and social media played an important role in all the Arab countries experiencing protests against autocratic dictatorships. Since November cell phones, computers and social media have played a big role in protests against the government in Ukraine. It’s a battle for controlling networks and that’s what the digital cycle is all about. In Egypt the Mubarak government had cell phone networks shut down. That’s autocratic government control of a network.
In December 2013, Ukraine government forces broke into one of the political parties (the Fatherland Party) that played a leading role in protests and confiscated some of their computer equipment. Apparently the government believed the party was in control of a communication network that organized protest activities and wanted to find out more.
By the third week in January, 2014 targeted text messages were sent to protesters near the scene of violent clashes in Kiev. All three Ukrainian cell phone companies made statements saying they were not the source of these text messages. The government (interior ministry) also claims not to have sent the messages, but somebody had to send them. One of the cell phone providers said, “We know there is equipment, so-called ‘pirate base stations’, which allow SMS (text message) distribution or calls to all mobile telephone numbers of all operators within a particular area.” That kind of digital activity is untraceable.
The protesters come from a variety of places some of which are outside of Kiev. The protesters have mentioned they use Facebook to communicate about what is going on and where the focus of conflict is occurring and when. Social media, cell phones and computers are the digital tools being used on the fly to communicate with networks of people. The protests use these networks to focus their activities and spread the world about locations and times. By the end of February protesters were saying they wanted to bring down the President and were successful.
During the 2010 election of President Viktor Yanukovych cell phones played a significant role in bringing unprecedented levels of openness and transparency to the electoral process.
In Ukraine digital tools are used for activism as both government forces and protesters improvise ways to control communication networks. Long-term control isn’t necessary as the ‘pirate base stations’ make obvious. They just need to control a network long enough to carry out a tactic and then move on. But activism, while it gets a lot of attention during this time of conflict, is a small part of how digital technology is penetrating Ukraine culture.
According to internet worldstats the population of Ukraine is almost 45 million people and in 2012 a little over a third of them were internet users and about 2 and a half million of them were Facebook subscribers. Mobile phones have caught on much faster due to privatization of telecommunications and competition. In 2013, 89 percent of the people in Ukraine had cell phones, and about 13 percent of those people have access to mobile broadband and use the internet on their cell phones.
The political struggle now going on in Ukraine is not about technology per se, it’s about the government’s ability to control the distribution of social and economic opportunity throughout Ukraine. In the last few years Viktor Yanukovych has replaced many of the oligarchs who had grabbed Ukraine’s material assets in the years after independence, with his own family members. The shift from a centralized government that owns all the industrial features of the economy to a free market economy has been difficult. Protesters pressed President Yanukovych to leave office because they felt his handling of the economy was corrupt, especially when he didn’t pursue a deal with the European Union that would have supported more social equity. Instead Yanukivych took a deal with Russia for a 12 billion dollar grant.
The government and economy are increasingly dominated by a group of young businessmen who are friends of Mr. yanukovych’s eldest son, Oleksandr. These young men have replaced the previous oligarchs within the government and are widely known as part of the Yanukovych family. The exact ownership of companies and industries is not clearly understood and some believe much of the wealth might now be in the hands of President Yanukovych’s real family. Many of the young businessmen are from Mr. Yanukovych’s home region in the east called, Donetsk. They now hold all of the economic positions in the government and the powerful interior minister’s position as well.
As the political struggle plays out the economy is awkwardly becoming technically modern in spurts as digital infrastructure is applied to society. The process started during the raucous 1990s when oligarchs were grabbing sectors of the newly decentralized economy. There are 22 colocation data centers in Ukraine 15 of which are in Kiev and 2 are in Odessa. Way back in 1996 the ITUR fiber optic cable connected countries bordering the Black Sea. That cable linked Turkey, Ukraine, Russia, and reached over to Italy, which connected Ukraine with Western Europe. Another fiber optic cable ran north and south linking Kiev and Odessa, so the backbone of Ukraine’s internet connections was constructed early on.
Ukraine has developed a strong information technology (IT) sector. IT is a growth sector of the Ukrainian economy that is unfolding year by year and therefore is available more broadly than the distribution of industrial assets from the post-soviet economy. Export of Ukrainian IT services reached one billion U.S. dollars in 2011, and by 2012 it was approaching a billion and a half dollars. The IT industry in Ukraine continues to grow. About half of the IT services are products for the domestic market and half are software development for export. According to the World Bank, Ukraine will be the 6th largest IT exporter in the world by 2015. So Ukraine has a nascent digital economy growing which has little to do with the oligarchs and their asset grab. It’s a substantial global industry. In 2013 worldwide IT outsourcing was valued at 288 billion dollars.
The online media in Ukraine is reported by Freedom House (dot) org to be generally diverse and independent from government control. As I noted earlier, social media and cell phone use are deeply involved in the ongoing power struggle. Ukraine’s digital development is also tied to that political struggle on an international basis. E-commerce in Ukraine has begun to expand and both Western and Russian merchants are interested. In 2012 Ukrainian e-commerce reached $1.6 billion. In 2013 the Moscow-based management company Flint Management opened a venture fund for the purpose of developing e-commerce in Ukraine. The fund is partnering with Russian and Ukrainian e-commerce pioneers who know the logistics and fulfillment side of local and international e-commerce as well as the financial and payment systems. At the same time California-based e-commerce company, Modnique, which specializes in fashion and luxury items is very active on social media and successful in the Ukraine and Russian e-commerce markets. The difference between success and failure in these markets are the details of payment methods, logistics, fulfillment and delivery. Modnique focuses attention on these details and has managed to arrange networks in both Ukraine and Russia for these purposes.
The political and economic struggle for Ukraine’s digital and political future has been going on from 1991 onward. In 2003 Land of Lakes dairy cooperative in the United States supported a digital market information project for farmers. The project became the Ukraine Agricultural Marketing Project and was designed to link farmers to markets for their crops. The project continues to offer regional information about fruit and vegetable prices in the countries surrounding Ukraine although Land Of Lakes is no longer involved.
These digital innovations offer some promise of economic development broadly distributed throughout Ukrainian society. Ukraine’s political struggles continue as Parliament voted on February 22nd to release previous prime minister, Yulia Tymoshenko and impeach President Viktor Yanukovych who promptly fleed Kiev. These developments seem like a success for the protestors who battled with government forces in Kiev, but it’s a complex situation. The protesters were supported by many of the oligarchs who were removed from government by Viktor Yanukovych. The parliament has quickly replaced both their speaker and the government interior minister. The struggle for control of Ukraine’s economic assets and the political support to manage them for profits is now an open power struggle and the oligarchs are in a position to reclaim political control.
In this power struggle digital platforms are important. Information and communication technologies (ICTs) have a vital role in the political process with social networks playing a key role. With online media and social networks independent from state control, they had a significant role in the 2005 Orange Revolution and they are expanding that role in today’s political drama.