This is not a Ukrainian Civil War
Despite the temporary truce, clashes in Kyiv continue and this confrontation has gone beyond Hrushevskoho Street. There are not only mass clashes between anti-government protesters and police in the area near the Dynamo stadium, but also there is an open war against activists by the authorities. Apparent use of gangs against protesters and ordinary citizens, kidnapping and torture of activists, targeted shooting at medics and reporters by riot police – this is an incomplete list of what authorities are doing on the Kyiv streets this past week.
What is happening in Kyiv?
A small area in front of Dynamo stadium has become a place for a military operation. Never before in Ukraine were there clashes with police on the streets; never before were protesters killed. During the week of confrontation, four protesters have been killed, two of them shot dead on Hrushevskoho Street. About 40 journalists and hundreds of protesters have been injured. Four protesters lost an eye, and one had to have his arm amputated. As witnesses say, the riot police were shooting at protesters, especially journalists and medics, aiming at the head. The unrest started on January 19th, and since then on Hrushevskoho Street tires have been burning, Molotov cocktails are thrown and riot police stand their ground.
The situation has escalated by the fact that injured activists can be taken from hospitals by riot police or unidentified people in civilian clothes at any time. On January 21, for example, one of the civic leaders of Maidan, Igor Lutsenko and injured protester Yuri Verbitsky, whom Lutsenko brought to the hospital for examination, were kidnapped. Later Yuri’s body was found in a forest near Kyiv with signs of torture. He was neither a civic activist nor a political party member. Working as a seismologist, he was a mountain climber and came to the Independence square to support the protests. As Lutsenko told reporters, they were taken out of the town, severely beaten and tortured, but Yuri was beaten even more because their kidnappers found out that he is from Lviv in Western Ukraine. Lutsenko believes that his kidnappers cooperated with the police.
Photo of 21-year-old Serhiy Nihoyan, one of the first protesters killed in clashes with police.
Photo by Olga Bogachevska
People are kidnapped on the streets, often caught behind the barricades of Maidan at night. The scenarios of the abduction are very similar and there are dozens of people detained in this way. Photographer Marian Havryliv was shoved into a paddy wagon by riot police along with 20 other men. Protesters were taken to the woods, forced to undress, beaten and kicked into the snow. Subsequently, they all were taken to the local police precinct. And on Friday, January 24th, Havryliv was sentenced to two months detention as a member of mass riots, though he was only taking pictures.
A shocking video appeared on the internet on Thursday January 23rd. The video shows several members of the Berkut riot police abuse and torture a naked man on a Kyiv street, near the area of the protests. They force a naked protester to go out from the paddy wagon into the frost only in socks, beat him and take pictures and videos on mobile phones. In a very short time this video got more than two millions views, and received huge publicity on the internet. The protester on the video was recognized as Maidan guard Mykhaylo Havrylyak, he has been found and was taken to Euromaidan. This brave man immediately became a national hero. Even though not every major national TV channel in Ukraine has shown this video.
17 activists of the “AutoMaidan” were also arrested and were handed given two month sentences. A few days earlier, these activists in cars were attacked by riot police in downtown Kyiv, their cars were brutally smashed. The information about missing persons or new beaten activists appears several times each day. Such an open hunt for activists and protesters started after January 19th, when mass clashes between anti-government protesters and police began.
Why the unrest on Hrushevskoho Street?
For two months people on the Independence Square were waiting for their demands to be heard and executed. It was a peaceful protest, unprecedented in its duration, number of participants and the degree of self-organisation. From the very beginning, people were gathering not around some politicians, but around the idea to change the future of Ukraine for the better. At the same time, protesters have delegated power to the three opposition leaders, hoping that the politicians have necessary leverage over the president and that they can speak with Yanukovych as equals. There were meetings and pseudo-round tables, but no problems were resolved. Therefore, public discontent was growing.
On January 16th, the Ukrainian parliament adopted laws that significantly limited the human rights and freedoms of citizens. These laws were passed in an unconstitutional manner, without prior discussion by the parliament and by hand voting with full violationofvoting procedures. According to these draconian laws, any person in Ukraine could be arrested for “participation in peaceful gatherings wearing a helmet or uniform clothing” or sentenced and sent to prison for 15 years because of “mass disruptions”. Any protester from EuroMaidan, activist or journalist potentially could be arrested and sentenced. Such inhumane laws led to public outrage.
During the rally on January 19th, people were coming with one feeling: now or never; the day has come. They expected a response and a new plan of action from the opposition leaders. The protesters wanted to hear the name of a leader who would head the protests and take responsibility for everything that happens. On Independence Square people began to chant “We need a leader!” Arseniy Yatsenyuk (one of the opposition leaders) responded, “There is a leader! The Ukrainian nation is a leader”. It was the first time when the people in the crowd booed the three oppositions openly. Public discontent devolved into clashes which have played out in Kyiv over the last week.
In the early hours of clashes on Hrushevskoho Street on January 19th, there was an active involvement of radical protesters and radical groups, such as the ultra-right organisation called “Right Sector”, who provoked clashes with police. The confrontation between radicals and riot police, however, quickly grew into people’s anger toward the Ukrainian government and the president himself. Now on Hrushevskoho Street there are people of different backgrounds, different professions and from different regions. They say: “We are fed up with the criminal authorities and we will stand until the end.”
Vitali Klitschko, head of the opposition party UDAR took on the role of conditional leader in the early days of the confrontation. However, people today feel frustration at the square more and more. They are tired of listening to the three opposition leaders who are unable to coordinate their actions and words. Some people are outraged that the activists on Hrushevskoho Street were called provocateurs by the opposition.
What might be next?
The hardest question for today which actually has no direct answer is “What is next?” Everything is changing and developing very rapidly and unpredictably. On Saturday January 25th, after a third round of negotiations, President Yanukovych offered the prime minister’s chair to Arseniy Yatsenyuk and a vice prime minister position for Klitschko. The president also said he is ready to release all arrested and imprisoned involved in the EuroMaidan and Hrushevskoho Street. He also proposed that the laws adopted on January 16th be discussed and need further elaboration. In return, the protesters should leave downtown Kyiv.
The opposition leaders responded that they do not accept the offer and that the negotiations are continuing. From the EuroMaidan stage Yatsenyuk, Klitschko and Oleh Tyahnybok announced that they do not believe Yanukovych and have delivered their demands. First, the prisoners of Maidan be released. Second, a law on amnesty. The third requirement outlined was that the draconian laws be abolished. The fourth demand is a new Ukrainian government and a return to the Constitution of 2004, therefore a return to a parliamentary-presidential republic. Accordingly, the position of the president will be neutralised.
Yatsenyuk also said from the stage that the opposition is not afraid of responsibility. “We do not believe in their word. We believe only in actions and results. No step back! Everything will be decided on Tuesday in Verkhovna Rada (parliament)” Yatsenyuk said.
It should be noted that on Tuesday January 28th, the parliament will meet for a special session. The status quo will, thus, continue until then. Most people on the streets and most bloggers on Facebook don’t believe Yanukovych. People support the negotiations between opposition and the authorities. But at the same time, people understand that such a proposition for Klitschko and Yatsenyuk was not a concession, but desperate attempt of the authorities to retain power. Almost everyone agrees that the negotiations should continue. Still, protesters want to get real guaranties that the hunting and persecution on Maidaners will stop; that all sentenced and arrested will be released and that after the dispersal of the Maidan all the activists won’t be hunted or persecuted.
What is happening in the regions?
Active confrontation in Kyiv has pushed activists to more radical actions in the regions. Between January 23rd and 26th, anti-government activists have taken over main government buildings – regional state administrations – in ten regions in northern, western and central Ukraine. In 11 other regions, there are mass protests near the regional state administration buildings or an attempt to take them over. In Kyiv, the Agricultural Ministry building was also occupied by protesters. On Sunday January 26th, mass protests and attempts to take over the governor buildings occured in Zaporizhia, Dnipropetrovsk, Kirovohrad and Sumy. In fact, the only place without active protests or mass attacks are Crimea, Kherson, Donetsk and Luhansk. The government finally realised that their grip has begun to weaken.
According to procedure in Ukraine, the heads of the regional state administration are appointed by the president and most of the governors today are from the ruling Party of Regions. So this unrest in the regions is directed against the president’s henchmen and their politics. Regional Euromaidan activists require the governors to resign and in the occupied administrations people create the so-called “People’s Council”, following the example of the People’s Council of Ukraine (“Narodna Rada”), which the opposition members of parliament have declared on January 22nd.
The Lviv Regional Council decided to recognise the People’s Council of Ukraine as the body authorised to represent the people of Ukraine. Ternopil and Ivano-Frankivsk regional councils decided to ban the activity and symbols of the Party of Regions and the Communist Party in their regions.
Deep political crisis
If two months ago, protesters would have been satisfied with the resignation of Vitaliy Zakharchenko, the Interior Minister, it has now become crystal clear that the people will not stop until the whole government resigns, including President Yanukovych.
One the main problem in negotiation process is that the president does not understand the attitudes of people and talks with the opposition and protesters as terrorists. Yanukovych himself said on Friday that during the confrontation on Hrushevskoho Street, police officers acted legally and the real danger comes from the radical actions of protesters. Prime Minister Mykola Azarov also called the protesters “terrorists” and “extremists”.
Meanwhile, Ukrainians still rely on international sanctions against President Yanukovych and his family, ministers, senior officials and related oligarchs. It is not only about the abolition of visas and entry bans to the European Union and the United States, but also the seizure of accounts and the prohibition of transactions. Europe, however, is still not ready for such radical steps. But the “deep concern” expressed by Western officials, in contrast, does not bother Yanukovych. Such political procrastination could lead to more complex problems inside the country. The most important is to understand: this is not a civil war in Ukraine. The citizens are not killing each other. This is a situation where the Ukrainian government tortures and kills Ukrainian citizens.
The only one thing that is crystal clear now is that Ukraine is in a deep political crisis, and President Yanukovych does not want to make any real concessions to the people on the street.
Anna Kotaleichuk is a Ukrainian journalist and a New Eastern Europe contributor