Ukraine: The challenge ahead
The Ukrainian government’s decision to put the country’s European integration on hold was met by a spontaneous protest of middle class and students. Three days later the rally organised by political parties attracted the biggest turnout since 2004 Orange revolution events. Since then, the situation has spiralled.
Protests spread, but were partly downplayed by the civil activists, who claimed to head them, in order to avoid political demands. This gave the authorities ground to declare the events as taking place in support to their official pro-EU position.
On Friday, with the Vilnius summit having turned into an utter disaster for both the EU and Ukraine, neither activists nor politicians who returned from Vilnius to a “de-politicised” Maidan were able to deliver a credible call to the impressive crowd on what to do next. Frustrated and infuriated, many were leaving the square.
The tension was sensible at Maidan throughout the day, as special riot police Berkut were deployed to surround the square several times. Each time they left. At around 4 AM they came again to finally attack the protesters, when only hundreds of them stayed at the square. The clampdown was appalling. Those already hit down to the ground were continuously beaten, gender and age made no difference, journalists suffered as much as the protesters and those running away to nearby streets were chased down. Half an hour later, the communal services started the works on Christmas decoration in Kyiv’s central square with the construction of a huge Christmas tree and ice-skating rink.
The clampdown triggered enormous reaction from the public. Just a couple of hours after the events Kyiv-citizens started to gather up at Mykhaylivska Square, right upwards Maidan, and the cathedral, where a hundred of protesters found refuge from the Berkut’s massacre. By evening, the square was full with people, sorrow and anger, and the atmosphere in the city was electrified.
On Sunday, Kyiv citizens went to a demonstration the city has never seen before. Estimates ranged from 500,000 to one million people. The sea of people flooded the centre of the city. The soldiers, who stood along Maidan’s perimeter, ran away and the front lines of the protesters removed the metal shields, which prevented the square from the public. The workers’ trucks and excavators were led out from the square.
The sea splashed over Maidan. The square and the streets roared with calls for revolution in the country, a European choice and prison for President Viktor Yanukovych. The calls for action spread. Many walked towards the Presidential administration on Bankova Street. The speakers on the square continued with their talks, offering no real plausible plan for resolving the situation.
One of the excavators leaving the square was stopped near Bankova. At some point, a group of people led it to the metal fences and soldiers separating the building from the public. Clashes were instigated by radicalised youth. They carried on for five hours. Opposition leaders at Maidan were claiming them to be a provocation and urged people not to join it. Petro Poroshenko, an oligarch and a former minister in Azarov’s government, came to calm the protesters down but was chased away. The protesters split into two groups – a radicalised and aggressive one, and one trying to stop the clashes. The Administration’s courtyard hosted hundreds of Berkut riot police, who have been throwing gas and sonic grenades to the crowd from behind the backs of the 18-years old soldiers under its attack.
Berkut’s clampdown was the cruellest. Hundreds of protesters were smashed down and some were dragged to the administration’s courtyard and tortured. The ambulances collected unconscious people, some with their skulls crushed and other severe injuries. There is no official information about mortalities, but the public opinion has it that the truth is being conceived.
Following the events, Maidan became a field camp, like the one back in 2004. Politicians address the protesters from the stage, which at other times is occupied by musicians. During the day protesters go to blockade administrative buildings, demanding snap presidential and parliamentary elections, resignation of the Council of Ministers and responsibility for Berkut’s actions.
The opposition leaders claim the standing at Maidan and blockades are putting pressure on the authorities. The authorities so far think otherwise: the motion of no confidence to the Council of Ministers predictably has failed in the parliament. Activists face prison terms and ultimatums are delivered to the protesters. The authorities are most likely planning for a second clampdown, when a suitable moment arrives – preferably, when the numbers at Maidan will dwindle down and will be abandoned and leaderless such as last Friday.
Both the authorities and the opposition leaders, let alone “civil society activists” seem to be underestimating the nature and the mood of protests. Most people claim to be led to the streets after having been put against wall by Yanukovych and his government. At least a large part of them will take any negotiations as a usual imitation by Yanukovych to exploit the opposition’s weakness and buy time. The demand for those who can act in a more sizeable way is certainly high.
It could be the time when the infamous post-Soviet games of politics and European integration face the reality of the country’s life. The country’s troubles and tumours have opened and are continuing to worsen. In fact, the demands of those who take part in protests even call for changing the corrupt and vicious matrix built-up by the post-Soviet elite in 22 years. Yanukovych certainly has no intention to accept the protesters’ demands. Opposition leaders face a real crisis of confidence from the people they claim to represent, and, being used to the games, are struggling to get a grip over the harsh reality of the situation they are facing.
For the moment, Ukraine is plunged into a severe political crisis and confrontation, dire economic situation and social tension, which, potentially, can bring country to the brink of collapse. Vladimir Putin is the man most interested in this scenario, as his view of Ukraine’s independence was always special. The protesters are determined to stand up for their country’s independence and change from the post-Soviet corrupt quasi-state, but they have no clear plans and increasingly doubt their leaders. The challenge they face ahead is indeed difficult.
Yegor Vasylyev is an analyst specialising in politics and transition of post-Soviet states. He holds an LLM in European Law from the London School of Economics and Political Science, where he was a British Chevening Scholar in 2009-2010, following five years in the Ukrainian civil service. .