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Thoughts from Kyiv – 19.02.2014

[infobox title=’Thoughts from Kyiv’]Thoughts from Kyiv is brought to you by Mychailo WynnyckyjAssociate Professor of the Department of Sociology and Kyiv-Mohyla Business School, Director of the Doctoral School, National University of “Kyiv-Mohyla Academy”. Below are his thoughts and writings on the situation in Ukraine. [/infobox]

With almost 30 confirmed dead after last night’s clashes, and hundreds injured; with trains and road transport into the capital effectively stopped today (airports are still open, but many believe this is temporary), many Ukrainians have started to seriously discuss how long it will be before Yanukovych declares a “state of emergency” (i.e. “martial law”). Indeed according to media reports, several paratrooper units of the Ukrainian Army have already been transported to a base near Kyiv, but have not yet been deployed. Today, the chairman of Ukraine’s Joint Chiefs of Staff (General Volodymyr Zamana) was “promoted” to Assistant Secretary of the National Security Council, while the (apparently more loyal) Crimean-native, Admiral Yuriy Ilyin was appointed in his place. To many (including Ukraine’s opposition leaders), these moves suggest an imminent crackdown – i.e. martial law.

However to me, it is becoming increasingly clear that there will be no official declaration of martial law in Ukraine in the next few days. This is good news, but not in the same way as the announcement of the opposition leaders who came out of their negotiations with the President tonight having achieved a promise of a cease fire. Few in Kyiv doubt that the “peace” on Maidan (which includes the occasional tossing of Molotov cocktails by both sides) is temporary. Although Yatseniuk claims that a declaration of martial law was planned for tonight, and that the opposition was able to convince Yanukovych to delay, I believe Ukraine’s regime is planning to crack down on the protesters in Kyiv in a much more sinister way.

As strange as it may sound (given its evident lawlessness in substance), the Yanukovych regime has been careful to justify each of its actions in terms of legal formality. According to the letter of the law, any declaration of martial law by the President requires a confirmatory vote in Parliament within 2 days, and at this point it is unclear whether the Party of Regions faction would be able to muster sufficient votes for such a decision (according to reports, several Regions’ MP’s hurriedly left the country today). Certainly, given the public statement issued by Rinat Akhmetov yesterday, condemning the use of force to quash demonstrations, one doubts that the 50+ MP’s loyal to Ukraine’s richest individual would unquestioningly support martial law. Many Party of Regions members who are elected members of local councils (e.g. in Odesa, Chernivtsi, Chernihiv) announced their resignation from the party today.

A crackdown is coming, but I don’t think it will not come in the form of martial law. The card that is about to be played is the “anti-terrorism” card: specifically, the enactment of Article 15 of the Law of Ukraine “On combatting terrorism” (http://zakon4.rada.gov.ua/laws/show/638-15). According to this legislation, the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) can, if it suspects an imminent or ongoing act of terrorism, commandeer the resources and personnel of any other ministry (including the Interior Ministry and the Armed Forces of Ukraine) for the purposes of neutralizing the terrorist threat. Within the area defined as being under threat of an imminent or ongoing terrorist act (limits to the size of such a region are not specified), the SBU and other forces that have been temporarily commandeered for the anti-terrorist operation may:

  1. Limit the presence and passage of individuals (vehicles and pedestrians) into and within the defined area/region
  2. Close or limit the operations of businesses
  3. Detain individuals without due process until the terrorist threat has been neutralized
  4. Search individuals and vehicles located in the defined area/region without a warrant
  5. Use live rounds, in addition to rubber bullets and other crowd control devices
  6. Enter without a warrant, any and all buildings (offices, residences, etc.) where suspected terrorists or their financiers may be located for the purpose of their arrest/seizure
  7. Limit the rights of the press to information within the defined area/region under threat of terrorism
  8. Limit the use of communications devices (telephones, television, Internet) until the terrorist threat has been neutralized.

These powers are effectively equivalent to martial law, but unlike a Presidential decree instituting a “state of emergency”, launching an anti-terrorist operation in a particular area/region does not require approval of Parliament.

During yesterday’s partial clearing of demonstrators from Kyiv’s city center, the riot police first announced that their impending raid on Independence Square was an “anti-terrorist operation”. Today, the website of the Security Service of Ukraine officially stated that the SBU has “begun preparations for an anti-terrorist operation on the territory of Ukraine” (http://www.sbu.gov.ua/sbu/control/uk/publish/article?art_id=122101&cat_id=39574).

Also today, regime spokespeople began to repeatedly refer to the protesters as “terrorists”. The Russian media immediately picked up on this discourse, broadcasting it to its domestic, eastern Ukrainian, and international audiences at every opportunity. Not enough time has passed for the new “Ukrainian terrorist” meme to have become a staple in the media yet, but given how quickly the Kyiv protesters became “extremists” and “fascists”, I have little doubt that western media will quickly fall into line during the next few days. Clearly it is in Putin’s interests to have Ukraine portrayed as a den of terrorist activity – as a threat to global stability that needs to be neutralized as soon as possible.

The problem with the “den of terrorism” image that seems to have been planned for Kyiv’s Maidan is that it is only believable if the protests are localized in Ukraine’s capital. The world can be encouraged to believe that Independence Square in Kyiv has been occupied by terrorists/extremists; it might even be possible to convince the uninformed in the West that a whole region called western Ukraine had become a terrorist haven. But today, Ukraine’s revolution went local again – demonstrators attacked Security Service offices, police stations, Party of Regions offices, and administrative buildings in the central and northern regions of the country (e.g. Khmelnytsky, Sumy, and throughout the 7 western region oblasts). Violence broke out in Odesa and Dnipropetrovsk where pro-government thugs attacked peaceful Euromaidan supporters. These developments point to growing anarchy in Ukraine, but they do not really add to the veracity of the case for terrorism.

I spent a few hours on Independence Square today. Honestly – I couldn’t find a single terrorist! I saw lots of young and middle aged, determined people who were genuinely trying to show brave faces, but in reality are fully cognizant of the futility of their fight against several thousand armed interior ministry fighters and Berkut special troops. Morale on Maidan is kept up by the many thousands of local Kyiv residents who have showered the protesters with support (food, medicine, clothing), and by the newly arrived demonstrators from the western regions (those who were able to get through before the roads and rail lines into Kyiv were closed). The fact that fires continue to burn on the perimeter of the protests tonight is testament to the fact that Maidan has massive support from the Kyiv population: this afternoon, every street in the city center today was filled with locals walking to Maidan with food, tires and firewood; while I was at Maidan, an announcement sounded “please don’t bring any more kovbasa (sausages); we have more meat than we can eat!”

Based on what I saw today, if anyone is to be called a terrorist, it is not the protesters, but rather the Berkut snipers they face. Let me describe the scene I encountered at approx. 5:30 pm today. During a brief interlude in the fighting, one of the front line demonstrators ventured into the ash and debris covered no-man’s land – a strip separating the line of protesters from the line of riot police approximately 10-20 meters wide. He was searching for firewood and tires that could be added to his barricade fire; he did not approach the police line; he was not at all aggressive. Suddenly, a riot police officer emerged from behind the Independence Monument (the “stella”) with his pump-action shot gun. He fired, and the young man who had been carrying tires in no-man’s land fell. Seconds later, three protesters had jumped over the barricades to retrieve their wounded colleague. Medics were called. I can only hope that the bullet was rubber…

This was the first time in my life that I had witnessed a real act of war. I hope never to see another one, but on the other hand, I should confess: getting to Maidan was scarier than actually being there. The twin threats of “titushky” attacks, and of random harassment by police, are very real in Kyiv. Being in the middle of a war zone (after last night, Maidan is nothing less) is very real as well, but there is a feeling of righteousness when you’re there. And you feel invincible. Maidan is a simple place: there’s us, and there’s them. We’re good, they’re evil. That means we’ll win, and they’ll lose. Nothing could be simpler, and more comforting.

In two previous notes, following former Putin advisor Ilarionov, I predicted that the end-game of Ukraine’s revolution will be played out before the end of the Sochi Games. I still believe this. During the coming weekend we will see whether Yanukovych’s dream of quashing Ukraine’s “terrorists” will have any chance of becoming realized. I’m convinced he’s doomed to fail. The only question now is how many innocent lives will be lost because of this thug’s refusal to accept his own inevitable downfall.

God help us!

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