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Ukraine Protests: A View from the Frontline

As the political standoff in Kiev continues, a woman in the protest movement explains her hopes and fears for the future.

In early October, I visited Kiev for the first time. During my stay, I observed the tensions at the heart of this complex state that straddles the borders between very different political worlds. There was the routine bribery required in dealing with the police force, a palpable sense of dejection among the young a decade on from the Orange Revolution that they hoped would bring genuine democracy to their country, and a long shadow cast by the Soviet experience.

In the capital’s main square, the Maidan – or Independence Square – young people milled about in the already bitterly cold evening air. Yet though it seemed like business as usual, there remained an undertow of tension. Lining one side of Khreshchatyk Street was a long-term protest camp manned by supporters of imprisoned ex-prime minister, Yulia Tymoshenko. When I pointed it out, a Ukrainian simply said dismissively, “It will make no difference.”

I passed a statue near the main square. On it was written: ленин. Even my limited knowledge of the Cyrillic alphabet told me this was a statue of the revolutionary leader himself, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin. It struck me as odd that this likeness should still stand at the very center of the Ukrainian nation, 22 years after its independence from the Soviet Union.

I was not surprised to hear that it had become a focus for the anger of protesters in Kiev on December 8. I spoke to many young people and business and cultural leaders, who betrayed a sense of deflation. The Ukrainian system had failed to deliver on promises — former President Yushchenko had retired quietly to his dacha and allowed Viktor Yanukovich, elected in 2010, to ride roughshod over the rule of law in an attempt to consolidate his power.

A New Revolution?

What is currently happening in Kiev, whether it really is another revolution, and what the crowds involved want, are questions I put to Kate Galytska, a young woman who has been deeply involved in both the protests and in attempts to bring them to wider attention.

“This protest differs a lot from the one we had nine years ago. We didn’t have that much access to the Internet back then,” Galytska explains. “Nobody believes regular TV channels now, everybody is watching Internet TV, which was organized on the first day of the protests.”

One such outlet for footage of the protests is #Babylon’13, a Facebook initiative set up by young activists to record the events taking place. But the explosion of Internet and social media technology doesn’t necessarily mean that the crowds on the Maidan are better informed this time around. Rumors can spread like wildfire, and rumors are not always right. For example, on December 6, there was talk that Yanukovich had signed a treaty aimed at joining the Russian-led Customs Union, spurring people onto the streets.

A lack of trust is all-pervasive in Ukraine, and it permeates these protests. It is a country in which the police seem to be protecting the state and their own pockets rather than the people, and it is a country where only 3.2% fully trust their political parties, either incumbent or opposition, as highlighted in Leonard Lifar’s Fair Observer article, Ukraine: Echoes of the Orange Revolution.

“I do believe that all those guys who were throwing rocks on the soldiers were paid to do so,” says Galytska of the rock-throwing protesters of December 1. She suggested that it was the work of men associated with Dmytro Korchinsky, a right-wing political leader alleged to be financed by Moscow as an agent provocateur at protest events.

Forces For Change?

With the events of the Arab Uprisings still fresh in the global consciousness, along with the question of which side security personnel take in such standoffs, the Ukrainian situation offers a similarly murky case.

“The only guys I felt sorry for were the soldiers,” explains Galytska. “They are just young guys on obligatory military service, taken from the Crimea (which is 1,000km away) to Kiev, with no chance to leave for fear of court martial. Protesters take care of them – bringing them coffee and tea, snacks and cigarettes, and making fires so they can warm up.” 

But this comradely picture is offset by darker fears. Galytska speaks of “real fighters” who lie in wait behind the lines of boy soldiers, offering the muscle that will keep the system protected. “I fear that it will end badly, and there will be a night when the Berkut soldiers will enter the Maidan,” says Galytska. “We all know what they are capable of,” she adds darkly.

The Berkut are the special forces soldiers, brought in at times of real crisis. They are tough, they obey orders and, according to Galytska, they were earning good money (€400) on the night of November 30, when they beat mainly student protesters in the Maidan. “They live in terrible conditions, €400 is huge money for them,” she says.

What Future?

Among the musicians, politicians, and activists who have thronged the stage set up in the Maidan since the protests began was one named Lyapis Trubetskoy. They are a Belarussian punk-rock band, who were banned from playing in their own country in 2011 for criticizing the regime of Alexander Lukashenko.

Their presence here, rather than a Belarussian rally in Minsk, was illustrative of the line Ukraine straddles. On one side are the largely authoritarian regimes of Russia, Kazakhstan and Belarus — and on the other, the promise of EU integration. For now, such bands can continue to play and shout in the Maidan in Kiev, but for how long?

The real tragedy for Ukraine is that the current state of its politics and its economy is driving its brightest hopes for the future abroad. The estimated population growth rate is -3.1% — a decline by 150,000 a year — and much of that figure is due to migration.

The death rate is also outstripping the birth rate, revealing an aging population — one that has an increasingly bleak view of the future. This is deeply entwined with an economic outlook that has been viewed as catastrophic, with the country slipping close to bankruptcy.   

Young people like Galytska may soon be faced with a tough choice between staying and leaving. “This is what I fear most,” Galytska says, “my roots are here.” The key for the protesters appears to be that it remains peaceful and that it brings change. But what kind of change is less than clear.

“It is not a protest to get into the EU,” says Galytska. “For us it is a chance to impeach Yanukovich.” But she then stresses that there is no clear opposition leader who unites the protesters. “For the moment, opposition leaders are the tool for the protesting crowd, and not vice versa,” she says, and frustrations are building at a political opposition that so far appears incapable of taking the fight to the government.

“We feel that every weekend, when there is a million crowd on the Maidan, and opposition leaders are doing nothing, the moment is lost,” says Galytska.

She is one voice among many hundreds of thousands, and hers is an urban, connected and Western-looking voice. There are many in Ukraine who clearly do not share her vision. But for now she still feels her voice matters. The question for Ukraine is whether those at the top will start to listen.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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