The new revolutionary Maidan on the central square of Kyiv looks like reincarnation of the Orange revolution nine years ago – the same place, almost the same time of year and the same determination of people stand until the end, until victory. “Razom i do kintsia” (“Together and till the end”) – the people chant regularly together with the national anthem. The revolutionary crowd is not as colorful and orange as it was in 2004, but it is very friendly, peaceful, organized, patriotic and determined to stand for their freedom and demands. I am proud of my people!
This new Maidan initially emerged as EuroMaidan – a civic protest against the rapid U-turn of Ukraine’s foreign policy. On November 21 the government officially suspended the process of the preparation to signing the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement (scheduled at the Eastern partnership summit in Vilnius on November 28-29). This unexpected move from the government, which had repeatedly advocated the European integration sparkled the first civic protest in the centre of Kyiv on November 22. Journalists, civic activists and students were at its core, chanting “Ukraine is Europe” and demanding President Yanukovych to reverse his decision.
According to opinion polls, the majority of Ukrainians (around 59%) believe that European integration should be the main vector of Ukraine’s development. But the government’s decision could at least arguably be justified in view of the huge economic pressure from Russia and the deplorable state of country’s economy. The establishment of a free trade zone with the EU which is an inherent part of the Association agreement may have indeed brought some losses to Ukraine’s economy, especially to the agriculture, as was the case in Latvia with its EU membership. Therefore, when I heard about the suspension of the agreement’s signing, I personally was disappointed, but not enough to take to the street… Furthermore, the proposed Association Agreement did not explicitly open the door to eventual Ukrainian membership, nor did it offer a visa-free regime with the EU, which many Ukrainians dream about.
Still, thousands of young people continued to camp on EuroMaidan. Many were furious about the abruptness of the government’s decision and the reluctance to allow the incarcerated ex-premier Yulia Tymoshenko to receive treatment in Europe, which was a de facto condition for the EU. Ukraine’s position was perceived by the protesters as the “insult” to the EU.
But the real trigger for the growth of protest occurred later. It was not exactly the suspension of European integration that infuriated me personally and millions of Ukrainians. In fact, after the Vilnius Summit EuroMaidan was gradually losing its power and determination. But on the night of November 30, something very atypical for Ukraine occurred – the peaceful students remaining on Maidan were violently beaten by special police forces “Berkut” unit at about 4am, under the pretext of clearing the central square for the erection of New Year Tree (the “yolka,” as it is known). This was apparently urgently needed in the early morning of Saturday, a month before the actual New Year! The absurdity of the official justification is obvious.
Protesters were absolutely peaceful, but were confronted with a very violent and bloody crackdown. Young girls were among the victims. The armed police officers were assaulting people all across the central square and Khreshatik, the main street, even when people tried to escape to the underground passages. Many victims have found shelter in the Mykhailivsky monastery, which Berkut was not allowed to enter. Innocent blood was shed. This was unprecedented in the modern history of Ukraine. Even 10 years of rule under the increasingly authoritarian Leonid Kuchma never saw such a brazen assault on peaceful demonstrators.
This act galvanized public anger. I, many of my friends, and thousands of others decided that this could not be tolerated – that Ukraine had reached the point of no return. On Sunday, December 1st, around half million people went out to the streets to the spectacular march. This launched a new Maidan assembly, with the main goals of securing the resignation of the government, especially the interior minister. Many protesters also demanded the impeachment of President Yanukovych.
The brutal beating of around 40 journalists in the evening of the 1st December, during the clashes between protesters and special police forces, also stoked the fire of public anger toward the regime. It is widely believed that clashes were provoked by a group of radical young people who threw stones at police and deliberately spoiled the predominantly peaceful protest. This, however, did not justify the violent and bloody beating of accredited journalists, who had cameras and badges.
After this incident it has become clear that if we, the Ukrainian people, don’t stop this violence now, if we fail to demand legal punishment for those who committed these crimes, Ukraine will become like Azerbaijan and Belarus, where all the peaceful protests are violently dispersed, where journalists are persecuted, arrested and beaten. The main demand of Maidan now is the resignation of Yanukovych. One can repeatedly hear chanting of thousands of voices – “Zeka – get!’”, which means “Criminal – out!” The “criminal” is Yanukovych, who was twice convicted for criminal offences in his youth. It is highly doubtful that Yanukovych will cede power peacefully. He has apparently adopted the repressive strategies of Putin and Lukashenka, with the former’s explicit support.
The revolution is taking place not only in Kyiv, but across central and western Ukraine. The small “Maidans” regularly take place virtually in all Ukraine’s cities, but in the eastern Ukraine, in places like Kharkiv and Donetsk, only few dozen people come. In contrast, in Lviv, Ternopil, Ivano-Frankivsk and other western towns, the number of protesters reaches thousands – many of whom took unpaid leave to travel to Kyiv to protest. I would argue that without the determination of the people from western Ukraine this revolution would not have been possible.
Many EU politicians express their solidarity and visit Maidan – German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, Elmar Brok, Jerzy Buzek, former Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili, former PM of Moldova Vlad Filat. Western diplomats have been visible observers – the US Ambassador has regularly gone to Maidan, though without making speeches. The U.S. Embassy earlier issued a statement calling on all parties to refrain from violence.
In brief, the protest that is staged now is more about the defense of democracy and freedom – and the change of the brutal regime – than European integration. Yanukovych crossed a red line after peaceful young people and dozens of journalists were violently beaten by police. This could not have occurred without his personal order. The Maidan 2013 has many features of the Orange Revolution – signing of anthems and patriotic songs, speeches by politicians and artists, free food and drinks for protesters sponsored by the people themselves, tents where people live, very positive and patriotic mood. As in 2004, protesters seized some administrative buildings serving as their headquarters – the Kyiv city administration building, the trade union hall, and the October Palace concert hall. This time the revolution is not completely non-violent, as blood has been already shed by the government. The protesters have erected barricades around the Maidan area and get ready for the assault of the police each night. The eviction from the Maidan could happen any night…
On Sunday, December 8th, another spectacular “Million’s March” was held in central Kyiv. It is estimated that the number of people reached one million, however, the protest remained absolutely peaceful. The protesters completely blocked the government’s building, and the demands remain the same. On Sunday evening, Lenin’s statue in central Kyiv was finally pulled down by demonstrators – an act I found long overdue. Though some people worried about the provocative nature of this act, others have compared it to the falling of Berlin Wall or the symbolic end of communism in Ukraine. During the spontaneous celebration at the site of the statue people chanted “Yanukovych – you are next!” That is, if he fails to start a dialogue with protesters or at least fulfill some of their demands.