Democracy Lab

The Fight for the Maidan

How long can Ukraine's protesters hold out against Yanukovych's thugs?

KIEV, Ukraine — By any measure, the anti-government demonstration in the center of Ukraine's capital, Kiev, is remarkable. According to the opposition, the protests have brought nearly a million people out onto the streets, all determined to take on the government forces that tried, and failed, to crush the protests early on the morning of Dec. 11.

I, like tens of thousands of others, arrived Sunday morning (Dec. 8) by subway to the Independence Square ("Maidan Nezalezhnosty" in Ukrainian) metro station. Three of the station's four escalators were packed with demonstrators of all ages, ranging from students, to couples with small children, to pensioners. Most had Ukrainian flags wrapped around their shoulders or ribbons in blue and yellow, the national colors. As the escalators carried them up towards the Maidan, they looked at each other with a visible pride, smiling at their compatriots and knowing they were not just demonstrating, but embarking on an adventure that may determine how they and their children live in the future.

The square, affectionately dubbed "the Maidan" has been the focus of the huge demonstrations that erupted at the end of November, when Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych reneged at the last moment from signing a deal with the European Union. The agreement would have brought Ukraine closer to Europe than ever before. Since then, diplomats have reported that Yanukovych still intends to sign the deal, even as he reportedly holds secret meetings with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Many still believe that when Yanukovych flies to Russia on Dec. 17, Ukraine will be brought into the Kremlin-led Customs Union, or will commit to join it down the road.

In the meantime, Yanukovych has cracked down on the Maidan's protests with a brutality unseen since Ukraine won independence in 1991. Though he swore off police raids after the Dec. 11 attack and has agreed to grant amnesty to the protesters who were detained that morning, the Maidan's demonstrators continue to rebuild barricades and prepare for another confrontation. They are still suspicious, which is unsurprising given Yanukovych's spotty record on fulfilling promises.

The majority of Ukrainians have come to see the deal as not only an opportunity to rebuild, through free trade accords, their shattered economy, but to defend their country's fragile standards on democracy, human rights, and freedom of the press, which have all diminished under Yanukovych's increasingly authoritarian and brutal rule. On Dec. 8, the opposition compiled a joint list of demands that prioritizes the resignation of Yanukovych and his government, the release of the jailed activists, and the prosecution of those who ordered the attack against the peaceful demonstrators. The opposition also wants a new Ukrainian government to sign the EU agreement.

Despite their determination, the protesters are well aware of the consequences their actions might have. Speaking to the Maidan on Dec. 8, the three leaders of the opposition parties -- Arseniy Yatseniuk, Oleh Tyahnebok, and world heavyweight boxing champion Vitaly Klytchko -- emphasized that if the demonstrators were unsuccessful and the government remained in place, they could all expect nasty repercussions from the authorities, including beatings and jail. Another speaker, Yuri Lutsenko (a former minister of the interior who was jailed by the Yanukovych regime), said that Yanukovych had crossed a line. He said: "We only have two options: either we win or we go to jail."

Indeed, the weeks-long demonstration has been characterized by persistent conflict between protesters and members of the Ukrainian police. On the night of Nov. 29-30, Yanukovych's paramilitary police units raided a peaceful demonstration, and more than 150 of the injured needed hospital treatment. The opposition says that more than 14 demonstrators have vanished without trace. Most recently, the opposition reported that the police raid on Dec. 11 left around 100 protesters badly injured, though there is no way to verify the specific numbers.

Yanukovych deployed the formidable "Berkut" paramilitary unit to police government buildings ahead of Dec. 8's protest. Blocking off the streets with commandeered buses, the paramilitaries stood in ranks to hold off protesters, carrying large metal shields, uniformed in superhero-style body armor and helmets with visors and gas masks. Their truncheons and gas sprays were visible and pistols, sheathed under bulletproof vests, were standard. The Berkut presented an aggressive sight, while ordinary cops, wearing much inferior helmets and bulletproof vests, and stationed in less sensitive sites around the capital, looked sheepish and embarrassed when confronted by protestors.

Police block off a street during the Dec. 11 raid.

Ex-military protesters and women's groups have taken to standing between the protesters and police as "human shields" to stave off conflict. One woman told a policeman in his early twenties: "I've come here because I don't want a repeat of last week, when the blood of innocent people was shed. I'm old enough to be your own mother, and I don't want to see you hurt. Are you going to beat me and the others here?" The young man just looked downwards without saying anything, but it was clear there were a million places he would rather have been.

Undaunted by the police presence, the protesters quickly constructed fortified camps and continue to occupy government buildings. With the help of ex-military demonstrators, the activists erected efficient, well-structured camps around the square. Electric saws and six-inch nails saw timber turned into impressive barricades, with the camps ringed by barbed wire.

A middle-aged man, Igor, and his 16-year-old son, Oleksandr, watched their fellow activists build the camp. He explained: "I have lived most of my life in Kiev, but I am in fact Russian.... This is my home.... I want my children to grow up in a democratic country where they can feel safe and have their voices heard and know they are part of Europe not the sort of Asiatic despotism Putin is trying to impose on Russia and extend here." Pointing to his son, Igor said: "We are staying here all night to show our support."

Hundreds, or perhaps thousands, of Kiev residents have joined Igor and Oleksandr in showing support by delivering food, hot drinks, clothing, and donating cash to carefully-monitored pay points in order to feed demonstrators and keep them warm.

A volunteer distributes hot food to protesters on the Maidan.

The Euromaidan protests are not only targeting Yanukovych, but are also kindling anti-Russian sentiment as the protesters strive to move away from their colonial past and toward a European future. That evening, news rippled through the crowd that a group of young protesters had toppled and destroyed the capital's last remaining statue of Lenin -- something that for years had been a hated symbol of not only the former communist authorities, but of the influence of pro-Russian groups who insisted on keeping the statue in place, describing it as a "cultural monument." In truth, for the few remaining pro-Russian supporters in Kiev, the red marble monument had become an important connection to the former colonial master in the Kremlin of whose return they still dreamed.

One of the demonstrators, Svyatoslav, a Kiev academic, watched as activists shattered the remains of the Lenin monument, and commented, "We have to press home our advantage quickly. We cannot string this out, but must keep up the momentum while there are a million people prepared to come out on the streets. If the Maidan dwindles to 50,000, we are finished. This time it won't be like after the Orange Revolution of 2004. This time if Yanukovych and his criminals remain in power, they will be ruthless. There will be arrests and killings, no doubt."

The protesters delivered a large chunk to be displayed on the stage on the Maidan. The sight was greeted with what have now become a few of the routine slogans and responses used among protesters: "Glory to Ukraine!" answered with a deafening "Glory to heroes!" Another slogan that has caught on in the past weeks and reflects the protesters' hardening attitude is "Death to our enemy."

I have been reporting on Ukraine for more than two decades, and during the almost constant political turmoil, few voices have spoken for the use of violence. Political leaders and activists alone have always repeated, mantra-like, "Anything but violence. We must not do anything that leads to bloodshed." In light of Ukraine's bloody 20th century history -- which includes the deaths of 5 million in a forced famine, 7 million during World War II at the hands of Hitler and Stalin, and a few hundred thousand in mass executions during the communist period -- the Ukrainians' shying away from violence becomes understandable.

Ukrainians are also aware that any conflict with the authorities might lead to a wider civil conflict involving the east of their country and Crimea, where ethnic Russians and pro-Moscow sentiment is prevalent. In Crimea, ethnic Russians outnumber the Ukrainians, and the region houses the Russian Black Sea Fleet and its considerable maritime and infantry forces. Many observers believe Moscow would seize any pretext to initiate a seizure of the peninsula using the pretext of protecting Russians, as they did several years ago in the breakaway Georgian province of Ossetia.

But even knowing this, I have been told by many ordinary protesters -- and in private by some with positions of influence in the opposition -- that there is no way out except to counter force with force, though that practically guarantees bloodshed. The protesters say that they are willing to challenge any forces that might be sent against them. As one of the opposition leaders, Arseniy Yatseniuk, said: "We are ready to defend the Maidan."

And when around 2,000 police and special troops, clad in body armor and wielding truncheons, stormed the Maidan early on Wednesday morning, the protesters stepped up to the task. The troops managed to destroy many of the camps and seemed poised to retake control of the Maidan -- but demonstrators rallied around the stage and stood their ground, as thousands of supporters streamed in from all directions to encircle the troops and halt the takeover. Since then, there has been an uneasy standoff between protesters and police, and tensions are high in anticipation of the next government raid. Regardless of Yanukovych's promises, some still expect police to raid this weekend to disrupt the protests scheduled ahead of Yanukovych's Dec. 17 trip to Russia.

The Maidan has become a warzone, as the demonstrators begin strategizing for their next battle. Andrey Parubiy, an opposition member of parliament who has been in charge of the camp for more than three weeks, said that because of the Wednesday attack, 4,000 volunteers -- including many military veterans and former members of the police and special troops -- will be assigned to units to defend the encampment. On Wednesday, many of these volunteers helped beat back the security forces that attempted to reclaim the Kiev Town Hall, which remains in protesters' hands. Parubiy's men also used timber, scaffolding, rubbish dumpsters, barbed wire, and snow-filled bags to fortify the camp after the attack.

Parubiy's volunteers pose in front of a reinforced barricade.

"If the security forces attack again they will find that people are not as willing to put their heads under truncheons, and we may not show the restraint we used before," Parubiy said. "These volunteers are very capable in defending and, if necessary, to go on the offense. The security forces will be surprised by some of the plans we have drawn up, which include a novel type of water bomb."

One demonstrator and former soldier, Mikhail, noted that government snipers had been spotted on rooftops ahead of the attack. "We don't know what they were up there for. The authorities would claim it was a routine precaution -- but it isn't. They know protesters have never used weapons," Mikhail explained. "Many of us think the snipers might be used to shoot one of their own security forces to give a pretext for using violence against protesters. Or they might simply shoot at protesters to terrorize them. We know they have people who would be prepared to kill innocents."

Mikhail said that many want to take a more aggressive stance towards the authorities but that "so far, wiser heads have prevailed in calming anger." But he warned that keeping the relative peace might be impossible if the government steps up the violence.

Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images

Askold Krushelnycky

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