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Protesters Are Dying in the Streets of Kiev

Violence between anti-government demonstrators and riot police is escalating in the Ukraine.

by Annabelle Chapman, Photos: Konstantin Chernichkin
23 January 2014, 1:45pm

The anti-government demonstrations in Kiev have taken a deadly turn, as fighting continued Wednesday between protesters and riot police in the now gas and smoke-strewn streets of the Ukrainian capital. In the morning, the BBC’s Ukrainian service published a video of a man lying in the snow. By nightfall, four other deaths had been reported. Ironically, news of the casualties – the first in a period of civil unrest that began two months ago – came on Ukraine’s Day of National Unity.

“I think this is the start of a civil war,” Yaroslav Hrytsak, a well-known historian from Lviv, said Wednesday night. Street battles continued in the area around Kiev’s Hrushchevskoho Street, as protesters armed with Molotov cocktails faced off with riot police. As both sides struggled for prevalence, protesters constructed a large trebuchet that looked like it would be more at home in a medieval siege than a protest in 2014 aimed at steering an ostensibly democratic country towards the EU.

Who are the civilians involved in the clashes? The media attributed the first signs of violence at the Euromaidan protests to “provocateurs”, people who didn't necessarily have any political motives beyond stirring up violence. More recently, a radical right-wing group called Right Sector (Pravy Sektor) – more extreme than the nationalist Freedom Party – has become associated with the running battles waged against riot police. However, as the Financial Times has reported, it is more complicated than that; lots of people in Kiev are angry and the Molotov throwing isn’t the preserve of the far right.

As the number of wounded rose to 300, the police appeared to have been targeting journalists again – a fact that seemed to escape one daring Polish TV reporter, who decided to walk right up to the riot cops and ask them some pertinent questions, such as, "Why are you doing this?" Dmytro Barkar, one of two Radio Svoboda reporters beaten and taken away by the police, says the cops tore off his helmet – which had “PRESS” written on it – and beat him on the head with their batons. As he was dragged into a police van, he says, “every policeman I met along the way welcomed me with his fist”.

Meanwhile, the search was on for another journalist, Igor Lutsenko, who had been kidnapped on Tuesday morning. He reappeared again late that evening, and has since described how his kidnappers took him into the forest and made it seem as if they were about to kill him. Yuri Verbytsky, a Euromaidan activist who had gone missing with him, was not found until the following day – dead.

Other reporters have decided not to stick around. On Tuesday, Vitali Portnikov, a well-known Ukrainian journalist, fled the country following repeated threats. That day, he had received a visit from a group of titushky – pro-government thugs. “Three men of a certain appearance are ringing the doorbell. They entered the porch without using the intercom,” he tweeted, adding six hours later that he was fine.

The Ukrainian authorities’ attitude to the press is summed up well by this short video, which shows a cop smashing the lens of the camera that is filming him:

The news of the first casualties came as a shock, given two previous months of largely peaceful protests. The man photographed lying in the snow was later identified as Serhiy Nihoyan, a 20-year old man whose parents had moved to Ukraine from Armenia. He came to the protests on the 8th of December from his native Dnipropetrovsk, in eastern Ukraine. This video shows him reciting “The Caucasus”, a poem by Ukraine’s most famous poet, Taras Shevchenko – with the barricades on Kiev’s Independence Square in the background.

“Once an Armenian film director [Sergei] Paradzhanov made a film that became the symbol of the Ukrainians,” tweeted Svyatoslav Vakarchuk, the lead singer of Okean Elzy, one of Ukraine’s most popular bands. He was referencing the 1964 film Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, which became a symbol of Ukrainian cultural resistance against Soviet rule. “Today, the Armenian [Serhiy] Nihoyan gave away his life, which became a symbol of Ukraine.”

By evening, the number of victims had risen to five, with reports saying that one man had been shot and another had fallen to his death. With no shortage of photos of Ukrainian cops aiming rifles at protesters, the question is whether they have begun using real bullets, not just rubber ones. Oleg Musiy, the coordinator of medical services at the protests, was quoted in the Kyiv Post saying that “it’s impossible” that Nikoyan’s fatal injuries were caused by rubber bullets. On Sunday, the Interior Ministry said that the police had permission to use firearms but had not used it, though photos on social media displaying an array of deadly looking shrapnel seemed to contradict that.

“Of course, we regret what happened, though we have nothing to do with it and call on people not to succumb to provocations,” said Ukraine’s Prime Minister, Mykola Azarov, as he denied the use of deadly weapons at a government meeting on Monday. He also said there were no grounds for accusing the cops, as those on Hrushevskoho Street do not have any firearms at all.

Since this fatal spate of violence began on Sunday, a real battle has played out for the allegiance of the riot police. One protester, a young girl, was photographed holding a poster offering to marry a Berkut officer who dared rally to the protesters’ side. Meanwhile, a 30-year-old banker, who is apparently obnoxiously wealthy, promised to pay cops a salary for six months if they “stopped beating people”. Police officers are afraid that they will be fired if they don’t obey orders; this guarantee would give them time to look for another job, he explained.

On Wednesday, Ukraine’s three opposition leaders – Vitali Klitschko, Arseniy Yatsenyuk and Oleh Tyahnybok – finally met with Yanukovych. The meeting lasted over three hours, but appeared to achieve little. “Viktor Yanukovich, you have 24 hours left,” warned Arseniy Yatseniuk, the leader of Fatherland, Ukraine’s biggest opposition party that evening. “Make a decision. I made mine.” A crowd of about 60,000 – a big turnout for a midweek rally – gathered on Independence Square, where a minute of silence was held to remember the victims.

Despite the drama, international reaction has been slow. Yesterday [Wednesday], the US Department of State announced that “the United States has already revoked visas of several people responsible for violence, and will continue to consider additional steps in response to the use of violence by any actors”. The EU has not agreed on similar measures, though some politicians are urging sanctions. Meanwhile, it has been reported that Ukraine’s PM Azarov has had his invitation to the elite World Economic Forum, currently taking place in Switzerland, withdrawn.

Five days into the clashes, Kiev is now experiencing a moment of calm, with a ceasefire. It was announced by Vitali Klitschko, a boxing champion and leader of the UDAR (“punch”) party and will last until 8PM local time. The opposition is meeting Yanukovych for more talks. But the situation in Kiev remains far from stable.

Follow Annabelle on Twitter: @AB_Chapman