Inside Ukraine's revolution -

Inside Ukraine’s revolution

How a street protest sparked a remarkable uprising that has left a nation in limbo. Michael Petrou reports from Kyiv.

Ed Ou/Reportage by Getty Images

Ed Ou/Reportage by Getty Images

Kyiv’s Independence Square, days after a popular protest movement finally toppled President Viktor Yanukovych, is a blood-and-soot-streaked warzone, a shrine to the fallen, a celebration, and a place to wonder and worry about what might possibly lie ahead for a revolution whose strength and speed has surprised even those who made it happen.

Protesters had been calling for Yanukovych’s ouster for months, but few believed he could be defeated so completely—forced not just from office, but from his very home, leaving bemused and scornful citizens to tramp like tourists though his private spa and take photographs of his fancy toilet.

Civil unrest against Yanukovych began in November, in response to his decision to back away from an association agreement with the European Union in favour of closer economic ties with Russia. The movement was dubbed “Euro-Maidan,” meaning European Square, because most of the demonstrations took place in Independence Square in central Kyiv.

There might have been moments over the past three months when Yanukovych could have clung to power had he made concessions to the protesters—by reversing his decision on the EU agreement, or perhaps by agreeing to early elections. Instead, Yanukovych ordered increased repression against them. With every act of brutality, the resolution of the protesters, along with the severity of their demands, grew. Now Yanukovych is just another fallen autocrat who has skulked into hiding, his face on wanted posters, his reputation shredded beyond repair. While his departure has brought a sense of relief and pride to much of Ukraine, the country remains in a state of political and economic limbo.

Although he could not have known it at the time, Yanukovych’s presidency started to unravel on Nov. 30, when Berkut special police units attacked demonstrators with clubs, tear gas and stun grenades. Valory Kazlov, an information technology worker from Lutsk in western Ukraine who came to Kyiv to join the protest movement, describes that assault as a galvanizing moment. “It all changed,” he says, standing at a barricade wearing a tactical vest, elbow pads, and a short, weapon-like shovel slung from his belt. “People understood that the problem is larger than European association. People saw the violence with their own eyes—so many people, peaceful protesters, beaten. These were young students, 17 years old. This is unacceptable.”

Clashes with police steadily escalated. More activists flooded Independence Square. They formed “self defence” units, arming themselves with batons, pipes and Molotov cocktails. They erected tents and barricades of bricks and burning tires on the square and in nearby streets, and they attacked and sometimes took nearby government buildings. Demonstrations flared in other Ukrainian cities. More regional government officers were occupied. What began as a movement in support of Ukraine’s integration into Europe was growing into an uprising against Yanukovych’s government.

Any chance Yanukovych might have held on, and escaped exile or prison, vanished last week in two days of street battles, choking black smoke and sniper fire that left some 100 people, mostly protesters, dead. Yanukovych and those who followed his orders gambled that with enough force the protesters could be decisively crushed. They were wrong. Fighters among the protesters, some now armed with guns, were more determined and better organized than police had expected, and refused to back down. Their fight drew more activists. Volunteer doctors operated on the wounded in a nearby hotel and church. Helena Livanska, a 54-year-old mobile communications worker, was in the square when one of the first police grenades exploded nearby. No one expected the shooting, she says. But instead of leaving, she telephoned her husband and told him to bring medical supplies downtown. She brought more herself the next day.

“We expected people to be more afraid,” says Petro Koval, who was in the thick of fighting against the special police. He holds a metal pipe around which he has wrapped coils of clear packing tape to give it some grip. Blood has seeped into the layers of tape, turning it a faint and dirty red. He’s not sure whose blood it is. “Instead they became braver.”

Throughout the demonstrations, members of Ukraine’s official political opposition have had an ambivalent relationship with activists on the ground. At times they appeared to lead, or at least enthuse, some street protesters. Other times they were clearly out of touch with them. At no point was this more evident than on Friday, when three opposition politicians—former boxing champion Vitali Klitschko, Arseniy Yatsenyuk and Oleh Tyahnybok—signed a deal with Yanukovych that was mediated by several European foreign ministers and designed to bring the crisis to an end.

The agreement would have guaranteed new presidential elections by December and restored an earlier constitution limiting the president’s power. Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski was caught on film urging opposition delegates to accept the deal: “If you don’t support this, you’ll have martial law, you’ll have the army, you’ll all be dead.”

Many demonstrators in the square were not convinced. Volodomyr Voitsekhivskiy, a member of a civilian self-defence unit, called the agreement a “betrayal.” Shortly after it was signed, an open coffin containing the body of a dead activist was carried through the square. “Heroes never die!” the crowd shouted, and they called for an end to Yanukovych’s “bandit” government.

There was another coffin when opposition politicians who signed the deal appeared on the Maidan stage that night to try to sell it to those on the ground. “My comrade was shot and our leaders shake the hand of a murderer. It’s disgraceful!” shouted one protester who grabbed the microphone. He threatened an armed attack if Yanukovych was not gone the next day.

These tensions, this undiminished anger, prepared the ground for one of the most extraordinary and transformative days in Ukraine’s post-Soviet history.

By Saturday morning, the police had simply melted away, leaving the Ukrainian capital in the hands of civilian self-defence units and ordinary civilians who could now freely wander through spaces where days earlier they might have been shot. Despite the disappearance of the of?cial state security apparatus, there was no looting or widespread disorder. Banks and official buildings such as the parliament were now guarded by men with crude weapons, makeshift body armour and hardhats.

They looked tough—like power-seeking street thugs or soccer hooligans—but in person were polite, often articulate and without swagger. The beefy man sitting around a barrel fire with fuel for Molotov cocktails close at hand might have been a white-collar professional with three kids at home. Explaining why he guarded a barricade, one man said, “I’m a businessman. I see the government’s corruption every day.”

With no police around them, the protesters’ anger could flow directly at Yanukovych. But he was gone, fled overnight in a swirl of rumours, his whereabouts unknown. So anti-government protesters seized his offices in Kyiv and, along with thousands of ordinary citizens, stormed his private estate on the outskirts of Kyiv.

Here they found the ostentatious decadence dictators seem genetically predisposed to covet: luxury cars, a replica galleon, and what was either a zoo or a private exotic livestock farm. “I came because I wanted to see the president’s land and what he bought for himself with our money,” Elena Medvedeva, told Maclean’s.

Politicians in parliament put their collective finger to the wind and scrambled to catch up. They voted to impeach Yanukovych, adding a layer of formality to a seemingly irreversible fact on the ground.

Also on Saturday, jailed opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko was released from her prison in eastern Ukraine. She came straight to Kyiv and the Maidan, where tens of thousands gathered that night. Looking a little weak, her blond braid wrapped around her head as she hunched forward in a wheelchair because of a back injury, Tymoshenko delivered a powerful speech. She called the protesters the best of Ukraine. Many cheered; others scoffed. Tymoshenko was prime minister from 2007 to 2010, and is viewed by some here as a tarnished member of the old political order.

It was an emotional evening, full of triumph and mourning. Another coffin and body was carried through the crowd. “Glory!” they chanted, and again the familiar refrain: “Heroes never die.”

Watching in the crowd late that night was Helena Livanska, the woman who brought medicine to wounded activists during the fighting two days before. We’re celebrating an incomplete victory, she said. Tasks remained. There was still a new government to form, a country to set right. “I’m happy Yanukovych is gone,” she said. “I’m sad we paid such a high price.”

Ukraine’s future, even in the immediate term, is uncertain and will likely be turbulent. Parliament has appointed an interim acting president, former speaker Oleksandr Turchynov, who will remain in office until presidential elections are held on May 25. Klitschko, the boxing champion, has confirmed he will run.

In the meantime, Turchynov has given parliament until late this week to form a national unity government. Parliament has voted in favour of trying Yanukovych at the International Criminal Court. And the country’s interim interior minister, Arsen Avakov, says a criminal case has been opened against him “based on the mass murder of civilians.”

Even Yanukovych’s former political allies in the Party of Regions are deserting him. Party leader Oleksandr Yefremov made a public statement in which he blamed Yanukovych and his entourage for the violence Ukraine has suffered. The country, he said, had been lied to and betrayed.

In an interview with Maclean’s, Borys Kolesnikov, a Party of Regions deputy from Donetsk Oblast in eastern Ukraine, said he couldn’t comment on the legality of the Euro-Maidan protests because he’s not a lawyer. He said the most important thing now was to move past the crisis. Owner and president of the HC Donbass hockey team in the Kontinental Hockey League, Kolesnikov was happier to discuss the 1972 Canada-Soviet hockey series, and his HC Donbass goalie, Canadian Michael Leighton.

Volodymyr Ariev, an anti-Yanukovych member of parliament, told Maclean’s Ukraine needs “a technical government, not a political one” to deal with the country’s struggling economy. “We need to make painful reforms immediately. We’re a country starting from zero. It’s like a new independence.”

Compounding Ukraine’s severe financial trouble is its now fraying relationship with Russia. Yanukovych rejected an association agreement with the European Union in large part because Russia offered a $15-billion loan. It has provided $3 billion and frozen the rest. “Russia recognizes that they are making a purchase with that money, and what they are purchasing is influence,” says Jeffrey Mankoff, a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

Without Yanukovych as president, Russia can no longer count on the same level of influence. Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev says Ukraine’s new authorities took power because of an “armed mutiny”—which isn’t a description he’d likely give a government Russia is keen to continue funding. The European Union and International Monetary Fund may provide some assistance. Prime Minster Stephen Harper announced this week that a Canadian delegation, including Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird, would be traveling to Kyiv, suggesting help from Ottawa may be forthcoming. But no aid package can disguise the enormous financial challenges Ukraine’s new government faces.

Added to these are social ones. Support for Euro-Maidan is not uniform across Ukraine. Many Ukrainians with familial and cultural ties to Russia, especially in the east and south of the country, worry that this revolution is a chauvinistic nationalist one, and that they will be victims of it. “I speak Russian. They don’t like that. I don’t want to be repressed because of my language. I’m afraid. Now there’s no police to protect us,’” says Yuliya Savichuk, a Yanukovych supporter who runs a luggage store in the residential Left Bank region of Kyiv.

Ariev, the member of parliament, suggested that if Yanukovych’s supporters could see the opulence of his home, they would understand why he had to go. Savichuk, who has watched footage of the place, shrugs. “He didn’t steal anything from me,” she says.

But the new government’s greatest challenge may come from the street protesters who brought it to power. Demonstrators still occupy Independence Square. Their barricades remain throughout central Kyiv. Some are being reinforced. Those guarding them have bats and piles of bricks nearby. They smoothly change shifts every six hours.

They say they need to stay in the streets to pressure their politicians to change, and to change Ukraine’s political system. For many activists, signing the association agreement with the European Union was never about cultural envy, a desire to make Ukraine a replica of France or Germany. It was about forcing Ukraine to adopt regulations and political norms that would make the country and its politics more transparent and just.

“The agreement was a mechanism to overcome and change the corrupt system,” explains one protester. Another says closer ties to Europe would force Ukraine to improve its record on human rights. Euro-Maidan activists don’t fully trust that their politicians have accepted this.

“Parliament is a means of representing the will of the people. There is a huge cultural difference between people in the streets and people in parliament. They don’t really understand what’s going on,” says Kazlov, the IT worker guarding a barricade near Independence Square. But he says Ukrainians are now more willing to hold their politicians to account. Like citizens of other countries that have stood against their government, suffered and died for it, and ultimately prevailed, they are not afraid to act again.

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