In Ukraine, an uprising divided

The fight in Ukraine is no longer a simple contest between the EU and Russia. And that's trouble for the opposition.

KYIV — His nickname is “The Bear,” and he looks the part. Past several layers of security, on the second floor of the protester-occupied Trade Union Building in central Kyiv, he’s in his den napping. Roused, he opens one eye and grumbles to a visitor to come back in an hour. It will be some five hours before The Bear is awake and ready to talk.

His actual name is Anatoliy Stepanovich Medvid and he describes himself as head of “safety, security and defense” for Euromaidan: the name given to the anti-government movement that has, since mid-November, held parts of the Ukrainian capital under siege. He is enormous: tall and thick and sturdy—and dressed almost entirely in black. If you were a film director, looking to cast the role of “head of security” for an amorphous anti-government force, you would look for someone just like him. Medvid says he used to serve in the military. Where has he fought? “Different countries.” Such as? “African countries.”

When asked about security in Kiev—where, in recent weeks, protesters and police have united in deadly clashes and hundreds have been injured— Medvid confirms reports that protesters are starting to go missing. “A culture of fear is spreading,” he says. Asked about newer allegations, that the opposition is being crippled by bitter infighting, The Bear grimaces. “We don’t have that. We don’t have infighting.” A number of sallow-faced young men who are perched around the room listen quietly—chewing thick brown bread with slices of boiled meat.

The whole thing seems almost comically gangster. Only when this reporter puts away her notebook does The Bear break character. He smiles, spreads his arms wide, throws back his head, and says “Superstar!” His entourage laughs, and everyone relaxes.

There’s reason to unwind, if only a bit. The last few days have been somewhat calmer in Kyiv—following a raucous last week, which saw demonstrations turn deadly as protesters and government forces exchanged bullets and Molotov cocktails. But as protests stretch into their third month, new and internal divisions reveal themselves. Everyone on the Maidan (the Ukrainian word for “square,” here referring to Kyiv’s occupied Independence Square) wants President Yanukovych out. But then what?

Already, some onlookers are forecasting a descent into civil war. Protesters have a rich set of foes with which to contend. There are normal police, special Berkut forces, titushki thugs-for-hire, and reportedly government-backed infiltrators. But the Bear is disingenuous when he says that anti-government forces are all getting along just fine.

When the uprising started in November, after Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych rejected a planned Association Agreement with the European Union and instead struck an aid deal with Russia, there was a strong sense of united government opposition. Tens of thousands of protesters flooded into the square, united in their purpose. That has since dulled somewhat. Pro-EU sentiment has become a secondary motivator for protesters, who now want the dissolution of government more than EU membership. Moreover, while opposition parties were largely absent in the early days, they now play a key—and sometimes divisive—role on the Maidan. “We don’t like them,” one student protestor tells Maclean’s, of the opposition parties; but in order to topple Yanukovych, “we need them.” This isn’t a straightforward contest between Brussels and Moscow anymore.

At the same time, a number of radical groups have revealed themselves on the square. The most visible of these is Spilna Sprava. Over the last two weeks, the group occupied Kiev’s Energy, Justice and Agriculture Ministries—but has since been forced out by more compromise-minded politicians, some of whom accuse Spilna Sprava of being a government-supported fifth column. Soviet-esque intrigue abounds.

Others worry about a rightward political shift on the Maidan. In recent weeks, attention has focused on a relatively new group of revolutionaries called Right Sector. An amalgam of right-wing organizations, Right Sector is run largely by young Russian-speaking men with nationalist sympathies. They are not pro-EU, but are strongly anti-government. And while they form only a small minority, Right Sector members have drawn the ire of Maidan moderates by engaging in violent clashes with police: pelting officers with stones and Molotov cocktails, and fielding rubber bullets in return. Some activists tell Maclean’s that the group’s influence is overstated—but others insist that it is mounting. Recently, Right Sector leader Andriy Tarasenko warned of an impending Ukrainian “guerrilla war.” When asked by Maclean’s about rumours that the group plans to form a political party, Right Sector representative Volodymyr Tarasenko grinned: “They are good rumours. I like them.”

All the while, and as demonstrations drag on, a growing anti-government stronghold braces itself. Back at Opposition HQ, The Bear looks on as his visitor packs up and turns to leave his makeshift office. “Wait,” he says. And then The Bear smiles and offers “a present” wrapped in a green cloth sack. It’s a large black gas mask.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.