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Protesters Are Dying in the Streets of Kiev

Though there's currently a ceasefire between the riot cops and the anti-government protesters, the last few days in Kiev have been marked by violence, deaths, and threats against journalists.

by Annabelle Chapman
Jan 23 2014, 3:45pm

All photos by Konstantin Chernichkin

The anti-government demonstrations in Kiev have taken a deadly turn, as the news on Wednesday was dominated by fights between protesters and riot police in the gas and smoke-strewn streets of the Ukrainian capital. In the morning, the BBC posted 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 and public intellectual, said Wednesday night on Ukrainian public radio. Street battles continued in the area around Kiev’s Hrushevskoho Street, as protesters armed with Molotov cocktails faced off with riot police. As the two sides struggled, some protesters constructed a 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 toward the European Union.

Who are the civilians involved in the clashes? The media attributed the first signs of violence at the Euromaidan protests—as this uprising has become known—to “provocateurs,” meaning people who didn't necessarily have any political motives and just wanted to stir up violence. More recently, a radical right-wing group called Right Sector (Pravy Sektor in Ukranian) has become associated with the running battles waged against the cops. 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 sole domain of the far right.

The news of the first casualties came as a shock, given the past two months of largely peaceful protests. The man photographed lying in the snow was later identified as Serhiy Nihoyan, a 20-year-old whose parents had moved to Ukraine from Armenia. He came to the protests on December 8 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.

Nihoyan has quickly become a martyr of sorts for the Euromaidan movement. “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 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 abandoned rubber bullets for real ones. Oleg Musiy, the coordinator of medical services at the protests, was quoted in the Kyiv Post saying that “it’s impossible” that Nihoyan’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 done so, though photos shared on social media displaying an array of deadly looking debris 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 Ukrainian 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 of being behind the killings, as officers on Hrushevskoho Street don't have any firearms at all.

Some activists are apparently (and maybe half-jokingly) trying to win the riot police over. One young female protester was photographed holding a poster that said she'd marry an officer who dared rally to the protesters’ side. A 30-year-old banker 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, and this guarantee would give them time to look for another job, he explained to a newspaper.

On Wednesday, Ukraine’s three opposition leaders—Vitali Klitschko, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, and Oleh Tyahnybok—finally met with President Viktor Yanukovych. The meeting lasted over three hours, but appeared to achieve little. “Viktor Yanukovich, you have 24 hours left,” warned Yatseniuk, the head of 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—had gathered on Independence Square to hear speeches and hold a minute of silence was held to remember the fallen.

As the estimated number of wounded rose to 300, the police appear to be targeting journalists again—a fact that seemed to escape one daring Polish TV reporter, who decided to walk right up to some riot cops and ask them questions like, "Why are you doing this?" Dmytro Barkar, one of two radio reporters who were beaten and taken away by the police, claims the cops tore off his helmet—which had “PRESS” written on it—and beat him on the head with their batons. He told Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty that as he was dragged into a police van, “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 titushkypro-government thugs. “Three men of a certain appearance are ringing the doorbell. They entered the porch without using the intercom,” he tweeted. (Six hours later he reported that 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's filming him:

Despite the drama, international reaction has been slow. On 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 undertaken similar measures, though some politicians are urging sanctions. Meanwhile, it has been reported that Prime Minister Azarov has had his invitation to the World Economic Forum, currently taking place in Switzerland, withdrawn.

Five days into the clashes, Kiev is now experiencing a moment of calm thanks to a ceasefire announced by Vitali Klitschko, a boxing champion and leader of the UDAR (“punch”) party and will last until 8 PM 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

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