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JOKES ASIDE: Protesters warm themselves beside a bonfire as they guard barricades at Independence Square in Kiev.
Associated Press/Photo by Sergei Grits
JOKES ASIDE: Protesters warm themselves beside a bonfire as they guard barricades at Independence Square in Kiev.

Winter at the barricades

Ukraine | Cold and snow haven’t cooled the anger of Ukraine’s dug-in protesters

Issue: "Getting paid not aid," Feb. 22, 2014

When Ukraine’s largely peaceful anti-government protests turned violent last November, President Viktor Yanukovych attempted to explain away the extreme response of riot police: He could not have protestors in the city center delaying setup for the Christmas tree and ice skating rink. Those comments became the focal point of jokes, but a new joke is going around: How long does it take a Ukrainian to change a light bulb? Two weeks. How long does it take him to build a barricade? Fifteen minutes.

Kiev’s protests have escalated into a movement with military-style camps, barricades massive enough to keep out tanks, and a full-scale takeover of the capital’s main square and government buildings throughout the country.

After months of demonstrations that have at times attracted hundreds of thousands of people, Ukraine’s protests are no laughing matter: At least six people were killed during violent clashes between police and protesters in January. And the government has confiscated cell phone numbers of tens of thousands of protesters in the square, sending them this message: “Dear subscriber: You are registered as a participant in a mass disturbance.” 

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The trouble began in November when Yanukovych, democratically elected in 2010, backed out of a free trade deal with the European Union in favor of a $15 billion bailout from Russia. Nine days later, riot police violently attacked a peaceful gathering in Maidan, Kiev’s city square, fueling anti-government sentiment. Even as those protests began to die down, Yanukovych pushed through draconian laws Jan. 16 to limit political dissent and free speech. Violence escalated: Some protesters began throwing Molotov cocktails and bricks while riot police started firing rubber bullets.

The president offered concessions, including the resignation of the prime minister and his cabinet, and repeal of the anti-protest laws. But the protestors remain, charging that the concessions are too little, too late. Ukraine’s first president, Leonid Kravchuk, warned that the country “is on the brink of civil war.” A walk through Kiev’s city center proves that is a real possibility.

JONATHAN EIDE, a church planter with Mission to the World who has lived in Kiev for 11 years, says Ukraine’s 2004 Orange Revolution was a Mardi Gras street party compared to the “menacing-looking fellows” and militaristic atmosphere he meets on a stroll from his office through snow-covered streets and the city center on to the Dnieper River. At the first barricade he sees rows of towering canvas army tents, each with a chimney and piles of wood outside. Streets into the activist-controlled areas are blocked with massive barricades made of scrap metal, barrels, and bags of snow that women and children helped fill. Eide says the barricades are 12-foot-high pyramids, and one would require a day’s labor by a hundred men to dismantle. Nearby, a group of about 20 men are drilling with makeshift shields and helmets.

Closer to the city square, Eide passes another large barricade, more guards, barrels with smoldering fire, and then Maidan proper at the city center, with its mini-city sprouted on the most prized real estate in golden-domed Kiev. Pots of steaming borscht, trays of sandwiches, and boxes of cookies lure hungry protesters who have braved zero-degree temperatures to be part of the demonstrations. One must be part of the inner circle to get into the activist-occupied government buildings nearby.

A man on stage is one of many slated to speak throughout each day. He begins in Ukrainian and then apologizes for having to switch over to Russian. He is from Donetsk—a city in Ukraine’s Russian-speaking east. “Donetsk is for you!” he tells the crowd. “I know everyone says we’re this Russian city in Ukraine, but it’s not true.”

UKRAINE IS DEEPLY DIVIDED between the Ukrainian-speaking west and the Russian-leaning east—Yanukovych’s power base—and not everyone supports the protests. Some believe submission to the current government is a duty and alliance with Russia a necessity. 

Deep mistrust characterizes the anti-government movement. Ukrainians—who gained their independence when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991—are quick to point out that the “Euromaidan” protest is not about alliances with the EU as much as it is about promoting democracy and fighting corruption. 

Kiev resident Artyom Kluchnikov says he is most concerned about the police. “Those who are to uphold the law now are breaking the law constantly,” he said. “There are some members of the police force who believe that independent Ukraine is nonsense and that Ukraine needs to be part of great Russia.” Street thugs allegedly paid by the government compound the mistrust. Kluchnikov says activist-controlled Maidan is one of the safest areas of the city. 

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