Perhaps 50 to 100 thousand protesters took to the streets this weekend in Kiev, Ukraine, demanding that their President, Viktor Yanukovych, sign the agreement with the European Union. As we’ve been reporting, however, Yanukovych backed down last week, largely because of the economic backlash from Russia’s trade war.
The protests recall the 2004 Orange Revolution, where hundreds of thousands took to the streets. Those protests were centered in Kiev’s Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square) and are often just referred to as “Maidan.” In this article, published by the independent outlet The New Times, these recent protests are dubbed “Euromaidan.” – Ed.
On November 24 the entire center of the Ukrainian capital, from morning until late evening, was blocked by demonstrators demanding that the authorities sign the Association Agreement with the EU. But it was not like the Maidan of nine years ago. This time, nobody called on people to take to the streets. They just came by themselves having coordinated their actions in social networks. And they came, by the way, not on the weekend, but on November 21 – the day the Ukrainian Cabinet of Ministers officially announced that it had suspended preparation for the signing of an agreement with the EU. On the same evening, two to three thousand people gathered on the main square of the country. They did not have any party symbols in their hands , or a desire to change the government in their heads. Their only request to the authorities was a consistent course of the European integration of the country.
Then, of course, the movement was joined by the opposition leaders. Speaking from the podium at the European Square the leader of the “Fatherland” parliamentary faction, [Arseniy] Yatsenyuk, declared that the protesters’ demands were the impeachment of the president, the resignation of the Cabinet and the dissolution of parliament. But the majority of the protesters did not support these slogans and demands. “No need to set unrealistic targets. We should demand that they sign the agreement, that’s all. And it infuriates me that someone wants to present the whole situation as if we came here under the banners of these scumbags,” one of the participants of the meeting, a 25-year-old student Mikhail, told The New Times, referring to the opposition leaders.
Indeed, although before the weekend the opposition urged people to take to the streets on Sunday, most of them came to the rally without any party symbols, carrying just flags of Ukraine and the EU. For example, civil society activists urged the Polytechnic Institute students to come to the rally without any symbols and not to fall for provocations. Similar calls by “dissidents” opposed to the authorities’ decision to suspend the process of European integration appeared in social networks.
But even more surprising was how people behaved during the speeches by the opposition leaders at European Square. The absolute majority of those present just did not listen, and the speeches were occasionally interrupted with jeers and whistles.
The majority of Kiev residents who came to the rally were not students or pensioners, but working middle-aged citizens. Thousands of people came to the rally with their young children. Oleg Vasilenko, a 35-year-old businessman who spoke to The New Times, said that it was the first time ever that he participated in a protest rally. “I don’t give a shit about Yatsenyuk and who will keep on plundering the country in the next five years, the opposition or the government. All I want is for Ukraine to get on the European path of development. And all of my company, that is all the 12 people, came here. And each of us would agree to a second term for Yanukovych, if he signed the agreement,” said the businessman.
Were there any “professional protesters” at the Maidan, that is those who came here at the request of the opposition in exchange for 100 hryvnia (400 rubles)? Many Ukrainian and Russian media claimed they made up to 100% of those who came to the Maidan [protest]. Nonsense. The “professionals” did not exceed 20-30% of the total number of protesters.
Donetsk is “also for Europe”
In parallel with the pro-European citizens rally there was another rally in Kiev on Sunday in support of the government. About 10,000 people participated. Surprisingly, here too, nobody spoke against Ukraine’s European integration. The supporters of the government called for “building Europe in Ukraine” and in an interview with The New Times incoherently explained: “Actually, we are also for Europe, but on terms and conditions favorable for Ukraine.”
“No matter who they are – Russians, Germans, or anybody else – no one can tell us what to sign, and what not to,” Pavel, a 37-year-old coal miner from Donetsk, explained his position.
The ruling Party of Regions paid the same 100 hryvnia to its supporters to participate in the three-hour rally. The organizers entertained the demonstrators with performances by Ukrainian pop stars.
To avoid possible clashes the rallies by the government supporters and the opposition that took place a few hundred meters from each other were separated by a dense column of riot policemen and soldiers of the “Berkut” special forces outfit. Nobody attempted to attack the security forces from either side, the rallies in Kiev went on peacefully. The only incident was a half-hour clash between “Berkut” soldiers and radical nationalists from “Freedom” party in front of the cabinet building. The opposition activists wanted to overtake the government building and attempted to attack the law enforcers with tear gas. The “Berkut” responded in kind. Demonstrators started to throw stones and smoke bombs at the riot police. The “Berkut” did not exceed what was necessary to defend themselves, and no harsh reprisals or “whacking” followed.
After the clash that lasted about 30 minutes, the majority of opposition activists returned to European Square. The assault failed. The only result of the brawl was one seriously injured policeman, who was taken from the scene in an ambulance.
“Nobody wanted carnage. It’s just that everybody’s nerves are on edge,” explained one of the participants in the assault, 27-year-old Taras, hiding his face under a mask for a few hours after the incident.
The Maidan at night
Toward the evening the opposition activists started to install tents at the European Square, about 20 altogether. About 2-3 thousand people stayed to spend the night at the square. Another 200 or so stayed at the Maidan. Arseniy Yatsenyuk, the leader of the “Fatherland”, urged people to unite, but they did not listen.
Politicians went home, and the only deputy who stayed at the camp was the designated “commander,” Andrew Parubiy from the Fatherland.
At night a few hundred Berkut soldiers began to push people aside from the roadway on Kreschatik. A rather fierce fight ensued between them and the protesters, during which Parubiy broke five fingers. But even more surprising was the fact nobody even tried to completely disperse the protest rally. The protesters were pushed back from the roadway, and then the Berkut left. Only a dozen policemen were left to watch the protesters.
Why didn’t the authorities “finish off” the tent city? The protesters claim that Yanukovych did not dare to try to solve the problem only “by force”: if a forceful dispersal happened, the Ukrainian regime could forget about flirting with the EU once and for all.
Once the tent city resisted, the demonstrators cheered and began to contemplate possible next steps in a more positive key.
“Well, just imagine if Yanukovych dismisses the Cabinet, releases Yulia, signs the Agreement and thus wins the election ahead of time. In that case nobody would stand up against him,” pro-European activists speculated late on Sunday, while the tents were put up. By morning, despite a rather bitter fight with the Berkut, there was still plenty of optimism on European Square.
The dilemma for Yanukovych
What will happen in Kiev in the near future? Taras Berezovets, a political analyst and the president of Berta Communications, shared his opinion with The New Times:
“After this ‘Euromaidan’ in Kiev and a succession of smaller ‘euromaidans’ in the regions Yanukovych will have a choice. He either uses this as an excuse to attack the pro-Russian wing of the government, or moves to a scenario of using force.
The first option would imply that the Prime Minister Mykola Azarov would have to resign to be appointed to represent Ukraine in the Customs Union, and a package of laws on European integration would have to be adopted.
The second option, that is use of force, is much more likely. The removal of tents at night confirms it. The next step will be to initiate criminal cases against opposition activists by the Prosecutor’s office charging them with inciting riots in the capital. Many opposition leaders could find themselves under pressure, including Arseniy Yatsenyuk, Alexander Turchinov and Andrei Parubiy. It is noteworthy that Vitali Klitschko, the highest rated opponent of Yanukovych, did not make it on time to the ‘Euromaidan,’ supposedly due to a delayed arrival from Germany (the airport in Kiev did not accept the plane with Klitschko on board, and the plane had to land in Krivoy Rog – The New Times). So formal charges against him cannot be brought against him.
In case of the “use of force” scenario Ukraine would further disengage from the Association with the EU. In the worst case, Yanukovych may not even fly to Vilnius, not to become the target of criticism by the European leaders.