Sunday 24 November 2013

Back to the streets

(As published in The Independent)

It started quietly and sombrely on Sunday, on a misty morning in a small park opposite one of Ukraine’s oldest universities.

Earlier this week the country’s opposition, media and civil-society activists had come together to call for mass protest against a government decision to abandon a historic trade and political integration agreement with the European Union. The agreement would have seen the former Soviet state move a step closer to the West and away from overbearing Russian influence.

And Ukraine responded. By noon the surrounding streets were clogged.
Clearly, a bigger venue was required. Tens of thousands of demonstrators headed for Maidan, Kiev’s main square and the scene of Ukraine’s 2004 Orange Revolution. Nine years on, almost to the day, the square retains its association with dissent.

They marched slowly but with increasing confidence as their numbers swelled. A huge Ukrainian flag, followed by a huge EU flag, swept past a statue of Vladimir Lenin and onto Khreschatyk, Kiev’s eight-lane central thoroughfare. Protesters clad in blue and yellow, the colour of both EU and Ukraine flags, sang as they moved down the street. Despite the rain, all were clearly elated at the scale of the demonstration.

A group of young students from a Kiev university sang traditional Ukrainian songs as they formed a marching column. Three of them held aloft a banner which read, in English, ‘No Putin No Cry’.

They, like many other Ukrainians, believe that Russian President Vladimir Putin is seeking to reconstitute the Russian-led Soviet Union by creating a rival trading bloc and compelling former Soviet countries to join.

It was, according to Ukrainian leaders, Russian pressure that forced Kiev to abandon a deal with the EU that had been years in the making. The decision was made shortly after President Yanukovych travelled to Moscow for secret talks earlier this month.

Threats of a Russia-Ukraine trade war and hiked gas prices have been cited as the main reasons for cancelling negotiations by a government ranked as one of the 30 most corrupt in the world.

But for ordinary Ukrainians, association with Europe means much more than potential profits or losses.

By one o’clock, over a hundred thousand demonstrators from all over Ukraine had gathered in and around the appropriately named ‘European Square’ to listen to the speeches of those who had called them there.

“Do you want to live in the Soviet Union?” Irena Karpa, a well-known Ukrainian musician, asked the crowd. “No!” came the response.

But there was particularly loud applause for Vitalii Portnikov, a journalist, when he said: “Europe is not about money, it’s about human rights, rights for everybody.”

This sentiment was echoed by a number of protesters who spoke to The Independent. Anatolii, a 43 year-old Kiev resident, said: “Everyone who wants to live in a better Ukraine should be here today. This is about people coming together to achieve one aim – to be free, independent and proud of our country.”

Ostap, 30, left the city of Lviv, some 370 miles from Kiev, at 2am on Saturday morning with three friends to join the demonstration. “We’re conscientious patriots and supporting Ukraine, we’re ready to defend our rights – and obligations” they said.

Oleksei and Irina, a couple in their late fifties, had travelled from Poltava region, 120 miles from Kiev, and said they were determined to demonstrate for “a European choice for Ukraine”. They joined thousands of others who raised their hands when asked to vote for President Yanukovych’s impeachment.

Alarmed at the size of the protest, the government appears to be taking increasingly authoritarian steps to prevent a repeat of 2004’s peaceful revolution. Current President Viktor Yanukovych saw his then fraudulent election victory overturned that year by peaceful demonstrations, although he was elected again in 2010.

None of Ukraine’s mainstream television channels showed footage of the protest, and instead reported on a pro-government demonstration across town. Although the number of demonstrators there was no more than 1,000, a police spokesperson claimed both demonstrations were ‘similar in size’.

Meanwhile, heavyweight world boxing champion and opposition Presidential candidate Vitalii Klitschko found his plane diverted as he attempted to return to Kiev from a business trip.

A spokesperson for his party said that he had been forced to land in a city several hundred miles from Kiev and the authorities had refused to allow him to leave the plane.

Riot police also used tear-gas to disperse some protesters who gathered outside government buildings. A police spokesperson said they had attempted to storm the Cabinet of Ministers’ building.

The sheer size of Sunday’s protests will give a lift to European officials, some of whom still hope to salvage the Association Agreement. It looked as though Putin had managed to completely outmanoeuvre the bloc by undoing agreements with both Armenia and Ukraine ahead of a crucial summit in Vilnius next week, where the EU had hoped to expand its influence eastwards.

They were handed a further boost on Friday when jailed former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko called on European leaders to sign an agreement without her release. Her imprisonment had been a sticking point for both sides, with the EU demanding her release as part of a move towards ending ‘selective justice’ in Ukraine.