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.”
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.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA weighed in on Ukraine’s troubles during the State of the Union address, stating that “all people have the right to express themselves freely and peacefully and to have a say in their country’s future.” U.S. officials have restricted visas for Ukrainian officials involved in violence against protesters.
Russian President Vladimir Putin criticized foreign involvement, saying Ukrainians were “capable of solving this on their own.” Yet some accuse Russia of using its flow of natural gas to Ukraine as a political bargaining tool: The Kremlin cut supply to Ukraine in the winters of 2006 and 2009.
On Jan. 30, the Kremlin announced that it was halting its touted financial aid package until a new government was formed in Ukraine, signaling growing pressure from Russia for Yanukovych to resolve the conflict without massive concessions. And EU and U.S. officials began putting together their own aid package, in an effort to counter Putin.
“There’s a real possibility that Putin could come in after the Olympics are over and quash this thing,” Eide said. “Ukraine’s a big deal, and this could go any way in the next few months.” Many Ukrainians carry bitter memories of life under Soviet rule and say they will fight the intimidation.
Protest leaders continue to press for their demands, including the resignation of President Yanukovych, the release of former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko from prison, and free and fair presidential elections next year. Opposition leader Vitali Klitschko, a former world champion boxer, has played a key role in the protests, leading to talk of a presidential bid in March 2015.
“Ukraine is not Russia,” Eide points out. “There’s a spirit here. You don’t see it very often, but it’s coming out now.”
When Christian leaders decided to hand out copies of the Gospel of John in Ukrainian to the thousands of people congregating in Kiev’s Independence Square, they were met with opposition: Some of the older pastors in the area believed that the protestors wouldn’t value the printed Word and would burn it in their bonfires.
They were wrong: In only a few hours’ time, the group passed out 10,000 copies to both protesters and riot police and eventually handed out 90,000 more.
“People were grabbing them and kissing the Scripture,” Sergey Rakhuba said. “People understand that this is a critical time, and as we say in Ukraine, people are a lot closer to God when there is turmoil next door.”
Rakhuba, who grew up in the eastern Ukrainian city of Zaphorizhia, is president of Russian Ministries. He says many older pastors are against the protest movement, while younger Christians say they cannot submit to a corrupt government. During a recent roundtable gathering of local Christian leaders in Kiev, attendees agreed on a few crucial points: They condemned the violence on both sides as well as the anti-constitutional laws adopted by the government on Jan. 16.
“Some have called Ukraine the Bible Belt of the former Soviet Union,” said Mission to the World worker Jonathan Eide. “Now this country has come to the question of hope and the difficult task of separating political hope and spiritual hope.”
A large interchurch prayer tent in the heart of the protests offers answers to these questions, inviting people in for prayer, meals, and warm clothing.
Local pastors are encouraged by the openness the uprising has created but are concerned about the future of ministry in the region. “If the government were to prevail in Ukraine, it would be a huge threat to religious freedom not just in Ukraine but in the entire region,” Rakhuba said. “It would be the last nail in the ideological strategy of neighboring President Putin to grab control over the entire region.” —J.N.