Hundreds of Thousands of Protesters Are Taking Over Kiev
Unrest mounts in the Ukrainian capital as peace gives way to violence.
This weekend, the street protests that have been taking place in Kiev for weeks arrived at a dramatic crux, as peaceful public dissent escalated into full-on violence. The Ukrainian capital has played host to an increasingly spectacular turn out of demonstrators since Friday, when president Viktor Yanukovych refused to sign a deal that would have brought the country closer to full EU membership. Unfortunately, those demonstrators – unhappy at Yanukovych's implicit decision to pursue closer relations with Vladimir Putin's Russia – have been met with a stern crackdown from riot police.
As EU leaders gathered in Vilnius, Lithuania on the 28th of November, many Ukrainians and politicians alike still hoped that Yanukovych would sign the integration pact with the EU. But he left the summit empty-handed.
“We expected more,” said the German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Thursday night in Vilnius, as she rebuked Yanukovych over a glass of champagne. In response, the Ukrainian premier muttered something about how the country was mired in a tough economic situation and had been left alone with Putin for three and a half years. The original clip, which is no longer available for copyright reasons, received over 90,000 views on YouTube.
As soon as it became clear that Yanukovych wasn't keen on strengthening the country's bond with Europe, it seemed inevitable that things would get nasty in Kiev. And sure enough, they did. As the Economist put it: “Thugs and thieves always prefer to act in the early hours of the morning. So did Viktor Yanukovych, Ukraine’s president.” At 4AM on Saturday, truncheon wielding riot police piled into the ranks of protesters that had been accumulating in the capital's Independence Square, leaving many people injured. As the area was cleared by force, some sought refuge in the yard of Kiev's blue St Michael's Cathedral.
Undeterred, the Ukrainian public were back on the streets on Sunday for what amounted to the biggest demonstration yet. The turnout is difficult to estimate; some Western news outlets have put it at about 350,000, some domestic media cite figures several times higher. Things turned violent in the afternoon, as radical demonstrators armed with clubs and gas canisters arrived on Bankova Street to do battle with riot police, themselves tooled up with tear gas and flash grenades. In the clashes – which, at one point, saw protesters driving a hijacked bulldozer into lines of riot police – over a hundred people were hospitalised, including several journalists who were attacked and wounded by cops. One young reporter from Poland, Paweł Pieniążek, described how he was beaten over the head several times by police, his press card apparently not carrying much weight in this instance.
Who is starting this violence? Ukraine's pro-European demonstrations were peaceful at their inception, and – until this weekend – had largely remained so. There are rumours that the clashes have been caused by provocateurs known as titushki, who arrive with the intention of stirring up anger and fighting cops. It is unclear where they come from or what their motivations are. Many of the peaceful protesters who've been caught up in the violence have openly questioned whether the titushki are, in fact, being guided by pro-government forces.
Though paranoia spreads quickly in situations such as these, there seems to be a belief among those gathered in Kiev that violence on the streets is in the authorities' interest. It could, they argue, give Yanukovych all the pretext he needs to initiate a further crackdown. As such, well-known activists and musicians are pleading with the crowds to remain non-violent. These sentiments have been echoed by the foreign ministers of Poland and Sweden, who initiated the EU's Eastern Partnership policy in 2009: “We urge all to keep protests in Kiev peaceful,” they wrote in a statement on Sunday. “All” perhaps meaning not just the protesters, but also doubling as a subtle nod to the Ukrainian authorities. Too subtle, some would say, amid calls for the EU to impose sanctions.
In another twist of irony – remember how he applauded the demonstrators last week? – Yanukovych expressed concern at the crackdown in the early hours of Saturday. “I condemn the actions that led to forceful confrontation and suffering of people,” he wrote in a statement on his official website, adding that he and the protesters are “united in the choice of our common European future”. The question remains an obvious one: If this is the case, then why didn't Yanukovych sign the deal the previous day in Vilnius?
On Monday morning parts of central Kiev were under the control of the protesters, who have adopted the main City Hall building as their base; smashing the windows and painting it with the slogan "Revolution HQ". Many have chosen to block the entrances to government buildings to stop officials from getting to work. Others claim they will not leave the buildings that they've occupied until the government is removed from power.
For now, small bands of riot police remain in central Kiev, clustered around the presidential administration, where – on Sunday – more than 100 police were injured. Ukraine's interior ministry has said that a total of 150 riot police and other officials have been injured in the clashes, as have 165 protesters.
Social media continues to play a major role, with Ukraine's biggest internet provider, Viola, setting up Wi-Fi points across the city and urging users to remove their personal network passwords to open up coverage for civil access. On Sunday, there were rumours that a state of emergency would be introduced – though a government spokesman said this morning that this option hasn't been discussed by the authorities.
Cracks are appearing in Yanukovych's camp. A few MPs from his party reportedly resigned over the weekend. Arseniy Yatseniuk, one of the leaders of the opposition, is calling on the prime minister and his government to resign by the 3rd of December. This is unlikely to happen, but anti-government Ukrainians – desperate for the modernising effects they believe EU membership will bring – hope that Yanukovych's allies in the ruling Party of Regions will continue defecting to the pro-European side, eventually forming a majority.
After yesterday's record turnout, the protests are set to continue into this week. Today is the 12th day of what has been dubbed the "Euromaidan" campaign; a portmanteau combining the protesters' continental ambitions with Maidan, the Ukrainian name for Kiev's Independence Square. However, the online news site Ukrainska Pravda is running with a more dramatic headline: “Eurorevolution – day two”.
Follow Annabelle on Twitter: (@AB_Chapman)