Ukraine’s Revolution – Update 14 Dec 2013

Dec 15th, 2013 | By | Category: Civil Society, Human Rights, In Depth, News, Ukraine

Yesterday afternoon, for the first time since I began calling Kyiv home 12 years ago, I seriously considered evacuating my family from Ukraine’s capital. In the end, my brave wife and I decided not to leave Kyiv – we spent the afternoon today on Independence Square, and walking around the city center, observing and talking to the many “guests” who had come to visit the capital.

I have always believed Kyiv to have massive potential as a tourist city, but (naively?) I thought this potential would be realized by tourists coming from other countries. Today, the number of guests from Ukraine’s regions on the streets of the capital was unprecedented. Independence Square was filled with Ukrainian-speaking westerners: people who have travelled to Kyiv from Lviv, Ternopil, Ivano-Frankivsk, and smaller cities in the west of the country to support the Euromaidan. Meanwhile, just outside the barricades, groups of Russian-speaking young men from Donetsk, Dnipropetrovsk, Zaporizhzhia and other eastern cities roamed the streets, often making fun of the Euromaidan slogans, but clearly uncomfortable, and worried that someone might recognize them.

Besides language, the main difference between the political tourists from east and west is that the latter have come to Kyiv voluntarily, in their own cars, or on busses that their local communities had organized for them; their eastern counterparts have been bussed in by the Party of Regions (under threat of losing their jobs – according to multiple reports), and have received instructions to not to leave the pro-Presidential demonstration on European Square without permission. The fact that many in fact did leave was obvious: firstly, political tourists from the eastern regions were readily recognizable in Kyiv (please excuse the somewhat discriminatory observation), and secondly, by the time the final speaker on the Party of Regions program, Parliamentary faction leader Alexander Yefremov, took to the stage on European Square at approx. 4pm, the square was half empty.

The program of the Party of Regions demonstration was somewhat comical. I watched the very long (20 minutes) and boring speech by Parliamentarian Oleh Tsariov on Ukraine’s First National TV channel (the state-owned broadcaster). He attempted to ridicule the Euromaidan demonstrators’ chant “Khto ne skache, toy Moskal”, but many in the crowd misunderstood, and actually started jumping. The chant that Tsariov was ridiculing originates from the “Ultras” wing of the Ukrainian National Football fan club, and roughly translates as “who is not jumping is a Russky” (“Moskal” is a term that connotes Russians, but is about as demeaning as “Yankee” or “Newfee”). During the original Euromaidan demonstrations (prior to November 30), the chant was popular among students, and playfully used by them as a way of keeping warm. Clearly, some Party of Regions Parliamentarians missed the young peoples’ humour. Indeed the Russian identity seems to be no laughing matter to some of them: immediately after declaring his support for the President’s gradual Eurointegration strategy, one Party of Regions Parliamentarian actually encouraged the demonstrators to chant “Putin! Putin!”…

Even less humourous was the scandalous lie proclaimed at today’s pro-Presidential demonstration by Prime Minister Azarov. After explaining (yet again) to the completely uninterested people standing in front of the stage, that the country’s economy would have experienced massive losses if Ukraine had signed the Free Trade Agreement with the EU in Vilnius, he went on to proclaim that many in Ukraine would like to see a visa-free regime with Europe, but this is impossible because… (get this!) in order to simplify border-crossing procedures, the EU has demanded that Ukraine legalize same-sex marriages. Journalists immediately contacted the EU ambassador in Kyiv, Jan Tombinski, who clarified that no such requirement has ever been tabled in any negotiation. The very concept of linking visa regimes to national legislation on what constitutes marriage is ridiculous. Indeed, one could dismiss Azarov’s statement as a joke, if it had not been proclaimed at a very public demonstration, and if the person speaking did not occupy the second highest government post in Ukraine…

Under the circumstances, one might be tempted to believe that the leadership of Ukraine has simply lost its mind. The reality is that the regime has begun to crack. A classic division between “doves” and “hawks” seems to have formed around Yanukovych, and in my opinion this is both a sign of the beginning of the end of the regime, and a sign of extreme danger. On the one hand, there are thousands of political tourists in Ukraine’s capital – some here voluntarily, to make a statement; others bussed in by Ukraine’s political parties. On the other hand, the Ministry of the Interior has mobilized its forces (regular police, crowd control troops, “Berkut” riot-police) throughout the country, and has brought all possible manpower to the capital. The situation is tense, and is likely to develop during the next few days along one of two scenarios.

The “doves’ scenario” seems to involve the Interior Ministry forces maintaining a distance from demonstrators: a “no man’s land” on the 200 meter stretch of thoroughfare that separates Independence Square (the Euromaidan) from European Square (the Party of Regions’ demonstration) was established this morning, but many simply walked around the police cordon using side streets where police presence was minimal. If peace can be maintained again tomorrow, according to the doves, the President’s image and negotiating position will be strengthened on Monday.

Today, Ukraine’s Prosecutor General announced that four mid-level government officials will be prosecuted for ordering the violent clearing of the Euromaidan students by riot-police on November 30. Deputy Secretary of the National Security Council Sivkovych, Kyiv city administrator (acting mayor) Popov, Kyiv police chief Koryak, and his deputy Fedchuk have been chosen to play the role of sacrificial lambs for the regime. Clearly, as with the inaction of police today, the Prosecutor General’s press conference was targeted at those who would doubt the peaceful intentions of the regime, and its willingness to resolve the current crisis using “dovish” methods.

But there are several problems with the doves’ scenario. Firstly, punishing mid-level officials is unlikely to be enough of a concession for the protesters on Independence Square – many are calling for the personal prosecution of Berkut police officers who beat students, and more importantly, few believe that the four identified officials would have ordered the November 30 attacks without sanction from Ukraine’s highest authorities. Indeed according to a leaked report from the prosecutor’s office, acting Kyiv mayor Popov testified to investigators that he received orders by telephone from Security Council Secretary Kliuyev (a member of Yanukovych’s inner circle) to set up the huge Christmas tree on Independence Square that night, and that given the accompanying statement that Sivkovych was to command the operation, this instruction was clearly understood to be an order to clear the area of demonstrators.

The other problem with the doves’ scenario is that it is based on Yanukovych actually caring about his image – both domestically and internationally. After the events of December 11, when the regime attempted to forcefully remove the demonstrators from Independence Square while high ranking foreign policy officials from the EU and US were in Kyiv, there is little doubt that Yanukovych cares little about what the West thinks of him. With respect to domestic supporters, whatever legitimacy the Party of Regions’ demonstration today may have been intended to show, was completely nullified by the countless TV interviews (broadcast on practically every station) with the regime’s political tourists – none of them could explain why they had come to Kyiv, and many openly admitted that they were paid to come.

Finally, even if Yanukovych keeps his word, and the moratorium on the use of force that he promised yesterday, is maintained this weekend, in the medium term, a peaceful resolution to the current crisis can only come about through negotiations, and that process will require significant further concessions from the regime. Ukraine’s President is unlikely to be prepared to make the concessions that will inevitably be required of him, e.g.: resignation of the Azarov government, prosecution of Interior Minister Zakharchenko (a close personal friend of the President), enacting Constitutional changes that will limit the President’s powers, etc. So the “dove’s scenario” may merely delay the inevitable: a bloody crackdown.

It would seem that the “hawks” within the President’s inner circle would like nothing better than to see an immediate end to the demeaning (to the regime) demonstrations. They have certainly encouraged Yanukovych to pull enough troops into Kyiv to quash the protest: approximately 5000 riot-police (the entire complement of “Berkut”, “Tiger”, “Sokil” and other elite units still loyal to the regime – squads from western Ukraine have refused to travel to the capital); approximately 15 thousand Interior Ministry troops (trained for crowd control) from all over the country; additional law enforcement and traffic police from the eastern and southern regions. It is questionable whether these police forces will actually follow orders if commanded to attack peaceful demonstrators, but if a riot between Euromaidan and Party of Regions protestors were staged (and duly filmed for domestic and international TV audiences), the likelihood of obedience would be high.

Clearly, if this scenario is to be played out, it would have to happen quickly. Because Kyiv-based police have had personal contact with protesters during the past 3 weeks, their loyalty under questionably legal circumstances is not likely. The energy of the protests on Independence Square (particularly tonight, during the concert by Ukraine’s most popular rock band “Okean Elzy”) is infectious. Stories of protestors feeding hungry police, warming them, exchanging phone numbers, etc. are widespread, and have certainly increased the likelihood of Kyiv-based police switching sides if called upon to act forcefully against the Euromaidan. If the “hawks’ scenario” is to be realized, it will have to happen during the next few days, so that the “revolutionary disease” that has affected the capital’s police does not spread to other forces that have been brought to Kyiv, and are still loyal to the regime.

The main problem with the “hawks’ scenario” can be summed up in two words: “then what?” A crackdown on the current protests will inevitably only result in more demonstrators descending on Kyiv. Indeed, each time the regime has resorted to violence during the past few weeks, the scale of civil disobedience has expanded. So, if escalation of protests is to be avoided, Yanukovych would have to resort to declaring a state of emergency (martial law) in order to fully quash the crisis. But such a move would require both loyalty from Parliamentarians in the Party of Regions (possibly problematic given defections that occurred after the November 30 violence), and from the Ukrainian Army. Enforcing a state of emergency exclusively with Interior Ministry troops would almost certainly be impossible. Whether the loyalty of the Army could be counted on is unknown.

The US Secretary of Defense made a telephone call last Thursday to Ukraine’s Defense Minister, and today, US Senator John McCain, ranking member of the Armed Services Committee, arrived in Kyiv. Clearly, the US administration is very concerned about the prospects of the “hawks’ scenario” being enacted. If the Ukrainian Army becomes involved in enforcing a state of emergency, inevitably there will be defections (particularly in the western and central regions). If things get out of hand, Ukraine’s three eastern oblasts (Kharkiv, Luhansk and Donetsk) and the autonomous republic of Crimea, could “invite” Russian troops to help enforce order. According to this nightmare scenario armed conflict would erupt along a north-south line stretching from Poltava to Zaporizhzhia, and then turning west to Odesa. Such a division of the country would inevitably degenerate into a Syria-style civil war – on the door step of the European Union!

Tonight, notwithstanding the fact that power was cut to our neighborhood (Podil district) for short periods twice, and that the same occurred in the area around Independence Square, I am optimistic that the “doves” are winning over the “hawks”. Yesterday, the last of the 9 demonstrators, arrested on clearly trumped up charges after the December 1 violence, was released from confinement. During the “round table” discussions, in the presence of Ukraine’s archbishops, former Presidents, opposition leaders, and high-ranking government officials, Yanukovych promised a moratorium on the use of force against demonstrators. Today, the regime announced its first concessions: four government officials were charged with ordering the attack on peaceful student protests on November 30 (clearly not enough, but a first step towards an admission of guilt).

Last night, while I was giving an informal lecture at “Euromaidan University”, I was interrupted by singing: outside, approximately 200 Interior Ministry troops had gathered on the small square near Dynamo stadium for a change of shift. They stood at attention in full riot gear, and sang the Ukrainian national anthem. That very fact gives one hope that at a crucial moment (if it comes), these young men will remember that they swore an oath to serve the Ukrainian people, not the country’s questionably legitimate leadership.

In the meantime, as everyone in Kyiv hopes for the best, the stand-off between the protestors on Independence Square and the regime continues with no end in sight. The Euromaidan is in no hurry to disperse, and many of the Party of Region’s demonstrators who stood for several hours today listening to their political leaders, ended the day enjoying the concert by Okean Elzy on the territory of their supposed opponents. There, the political tourists from the south and east of Ukraine were fed and entertained. Maybe tomorrow, some of them will switch sides. But even if that does not happen, on Monday they will return to their regions with a very positive impression of the Euromaidan, and they may just tell their compatriots at home that the information being fed to them by Russian and regional media (to say the least) is inaccurate.

One final note to those who are still confused about what exactly has prompted millions of Ukrainians to take to the streets in protest. KyivPost Deputy Editor Katya Gorchinskaya captured the essence of the Euromaidan in her short article “Birth of a Nation” . Originally, this started with a small protest against the Yanukovych government’s change of heart regarding the Ukraine-EU Association Agreement. Since then, things have changed dramatically: the regime has attacked peaceful demonstrators in the center of Ukraine’s capital three times (Nov. 30, Dec. 1, Dec. 11). This fact has consolidated Ukraine’s people in protest: people want personal dignity, rules-based government, and peace. They don’t believe that their current government (President, executive, and Parliament) can secure these simple demands, and therefore they must go. It’s really that simple…

The only problem is that the government does not want to go. And it’s resorting to all possible methods to at least remain in office, if not in power. From their side it too is really that simple. So, the stand-off continues.

God help us!

Mychailo Wynnyckyj PhD
Kyiv-Mohyla Academy

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One Comment to “Ukraine’s Revolution – Update 14 Dec 2013”

  1. […] So a quick search through other sights quickly showed me that the “ultras” photo, while not definitively linked to soccer ultras, likely has some tie to them. A December counter-protest organized by the Party of Regions (President Yanukovich’s party) was described by one witness as farcical as they attempted to mock the Maidan protests not far away (from […]

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