Ukraine: inside the pro-EU protest camp

You can throw bone-chilling below zero degree weather at Kiev’s pro-EU protestors.

You can unleash thousands of riot police and the National Guard to clear barricades separating their protest camp in downtown Kiev from the rest of Ukraine ruled by their despised president.

You can even balk at their demands, as Viktor Yanukovich has done for weeks. But so far, you can’t break their resolve.

Thousands of anti-government protestors continue to fill Kiev’s main square, emboldened by hurdles much higher than the 2-meter ice walls they built on Wednesday to protect their small part of Ukraine – a central Kiev square free of a president’s rule that has epitomised autocracy, institutionalised corruption and kleptocracy.

On Saturday afternoon, pro-EU crowds swelled from weekday-levels of below 10,000 to tens of thousands. The pro-presidential party held a rally of some 10,000 nearby on European Square, but pro-EU protestors planned to muster more than one million on Sunday.

Standing atop a 2-meter barricade built of snow-filled sacks that separates protesters on Kiev’s main square from riot police and Yanukovich’s rule, Valery Serputkov, a 29-year old private entrepreneur, said: “On this side of our ice wall you have Yanukovich’s regime of slavery and corruption that robs our country and our future. On our side, life is beautiful. We are one family, building our view of Ukraine in solidarity, supporting each other rather than scrapping for survival.”

A few metres away within this self-functioning city within a capital, protestors erected make-shift street signs to direct crowds towards tents, booths and seized buildings where they can get donated food, medical aid and rest from the cold weather.

While rallies are the main activity in evenings, during daytime protestors keep themselves busy pitching new tents, cooking food above bonfires, cleaning seized buildings and the square from snow and slush, as well as collecting trash.

“Look at how smoothly everything functions without these cronies on the other side … our square is even cleaner than on the other side,” he said “This is the kind of Ukraine we want,” said Serputkov, a plumber from western Ukraine.

While opposition politicians and some wealthy business interests are backing the pro-EU protests, it becomes evident after spending a just a few hours on Kiev’s main square that they are not the core backbone of the movement. It is instead a grass roots drive by average citizens, self-organizing themselves into various roles for a common cause.

While thousands of hardcore pro-EU western Ukrainian protestors maintain a permanent presence on Kiev’s streets during daytime, cosmopolitan residents of Kiev, even mid-aged affluent lawyers, consultants and businessmen, join them on the capital’s main square after work hours.

“We have been standing on the square overnight for about a week,” one successful Kiev businessman well-known among foreign investors said.

Speaking on condition of anonymity so as not to alarm clients, he added: “Even though my business has done very well under Yanukovich’s rule, I can’t bear taking anymore what he is doing to this country. It would be best if this protest does not end in compromise, but with Yanukovich being forced out of office before the 2015 presidential elections.”

The protestors are backed by a newly-emerging civic society not present in the 2004 Orange Revolution and prior protests.

“I have been very impressed by the way they have handled these demonstrations,” EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton in a Ukrainian television interview aired Thursday.

One thing holding together this small, almost utopian world on Ukraine’s main square is a loose yet strongly united grouping of non-governmental organisations, musicians and journalists.

“We are witnessing a new generation rising up and demanding their voice be heard, that their rights and interests be taken into account, and a sober strategy be developed for their country’s future,” said Oleh Rybachuk, a former senior official turned civic activist.

“This is not the product of political technologists,” added Rybachuk.

Kiev-based New Citizen, headed by Rybachuk, promotes civic activism. It played a big role in getting the protest up and running weeks ago when Yanukovich backed out of signing far-reaching association and free trade agreements with the EU, shifting instead towards reviving relations with Russia. He claims the organisation didn’t use western donor grants for this work. Instead, the protestors have relied on domestic donations from a mushrooming middle class, volunteers and more recently opposition parties to fuel its operation.

“What’s happening here, with people uniting and showing civil life and democracy is possible when the regime is put aside gives me so much hope for the future,” said Olena Vodorytsova, a 39-year hotel room cleaner from Zhytomyr who on Thursday arrived at the protest camp.

Unlike the 2004 Orange Revolution, missing this time from Kiev’s streets – sidelined in jail but still very much a powerful nemesis for Yanukovich – is the charismatic figure of Yulia Tymoshenko.

Like a wizard waving a magic wand, the 52-year-old rallied up to a million pro-democracy protestors in 2004 putting pressure on authorities to reverse a marred presidential contest, in turn stripping Yanukovich of his first shot at the presidential chair.

She was imprisoned two years ago on charges widely condemned in the west as “selective justice” after narrowly losing the 2010 presidential contest to Yanukovich.

“We obviously miss Yulia Tymoshenko as a leader, but it’s amazing… the people here have risen up themselves filling the void. I am so proud of our people,” said Vodorytsova.

Looking beyond the barricades of snow-filled sacks towards government buildings, she added: “Let those in Yanukovich’s regime try living on my 1,000 hryvnia monthly salary. Let them imprison themselves and their spoiled children instead of sending the riot police out to beat our children.

“What’s happening here shows we don’t need them.”

Related reading:
Rival demonstrations head for Kiev as Ukraine crisis talks fail, FT
Ukraine business keen to go west, FT
Guest post: Ukraine’s choice of Faustian bargains, beyondbrics
Podcast: world weekly – protests in Ukraine

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