Thoughts from Kyiv – Updates in Kyiv

[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]

Yesterday, Ukrainians counted their dead and wounded. There is really not much point in recounting events from the streets of Kyiv on 20.02.2014 – the international networks all have their correspondents here, and they were closer to the scene all day than I. Call me a coward (or simply a father of 4 small children), but I had no intention of going anywhere near the city center yesterday. I did venture outside for a while (we live two subway stops from Maidan), to run some errands in an area away from the city center. This gave me an opportunity to personally experience the day’s very early afternoon rush hour (around 2pm), during which every single car seemed to want to fill up its tank before going home: 40-50 car queues at gas stations were a common response to rumors of imminent petrol shortages. The sudden day time rush hour was fed by another rumor, circulated via radio and internet: apparently the regime had plans to close the bridges across the Dnipro river to traffic. Indeed traffic was limited to one lane, but the bridges were not closed completely. Nevertheless, by 6 pm (usually peak traffic period), major roads were basically empty: Kyiv residents had all made it home by that time. And they had stopped at their local grocery stores along the way, clearing them of basically all staples.

Yesterday was a day of shock. Speaking with my neighbors, and with friends, all anyone could share was shock and panic. Clearly these emotions were understandable given that the last time Ukraine’s capital had seen large numbers of dead on its streets was WWII. But today the mood changed to sadness and anger. When my wife and I went to Maidan today, it was clear that the people there were locals (from Kyiv) who had come to mourn. Many were crying. All were grim faced. There was no singing on Maidan today. Most restaurants, cafes and stores in Kyiv were closed.

However, if I were to describe the mood on Maidan today in a single word it would be “determined”. We brought drinking water to one of the trauma points that have been set up. At Ukrainian House we saw a Range Rover (luxury car that costs over 120 thousand dollars in Ukraine) with Dnipropetrovsk license plates being unloaded – more drinking water for the wounded and needy. Incidentally, the guards that had once stood at the entrance to Ukrainian House are now gone – no point in playing war when a real war has started. On the other hand the building no longer hosts the Open University, or the Student Organizations’ Coordination Center – just an exceptionally efficient trauma center for wounded and sleeping area for demonstrators. As we walked out of the building, I heard one of the fighters standing on the steps saying to his buddies that he thought he heard gunfire – it turned out that a truckload of firewood was being unloaded a few steps away, and wood dropping on the ground sounded like a rifle fire. People are tense…

When a line of uniformed and fully armed police officers from Lviv marched up to the stage on Independence Square, and it was announced that these trained officers had joined the Maidan Self-Defense forces, the cheers were louder than any I had heard ever before. The arrival of armed reinforcements was followed by an announcement from the stage from one of the medics: first aid courses are being offered to all Self-Defense units so that people learn how to deal with excessive blood loss. Apparently if more of the fighters had been trained in basic first aid, several deaths could have been avoided during the fighting on the 19th. If fighting resumes (so it was said from the stage) first aid skills will be needed. Next, a man from Kharkiv took the microphone and demonstrated a bloody shield on which one of his buddies had died after being shot by government snipers near October Palace. He also showed a grenade to the crowd, and promised to go back to Kharkiv after “our victory” and shove it into a bodily orifice of Kharkiv Governor Mikhaylo Dobkin – a Yanukovych supporter who organized the wearing of “Berkut” T-shirts by oblast legislators several weeks ago, and recently declared that all protesters on Maidan should be shot.

Not surprisingly, given this atmosphere, when information on the contents of the “deal” signed today between Yanukovych and the three opposition leaders was made available, many on the Maidan were not pleased. Negotiation and compromise were not compatible with their social mood. They were particularly displeased with the prospects of having to wait for Presidential elections until December 2014. By evening, the mood was extremely tense and emotional.

According to the announced plan for tonight, a funeral service for the men who lost their lives yesterday in battles against the regime was supposed to be held. The three opposition party leaders (Yatseniuk, Klitschko, Tiahnybok), Poroshenko and other politicians were invited onto the stage together with priests. The crowd (40-50 thousand people) whistled at them, and demanded explanations regarding today’s “deal” with Yanukovych. Most people in the crowd were, to put it mildly, not happy that an agreement was signed with the person they see as responsible for 77 dead and several hundred injured civilians. The funeral service was interrupted when one of the coffins was brought directly to the front of the stage during Klitschko’s speech, and the crowd began shouting “who will answer for this?!” When Klitschko descended from the stage he was confronted by a demonstrator who asked “how could you shake the hand of that murderer?”. Klitschko later apologized for his actions (for shaking hands with Yanukovych and for negotiating a deal with him) from the stage, but justified his actions as having been aimed at maintaining peace.

The deal in question was negotiated with the assistance of three representatives of the EU (the German and Polish Foreign Ministers and a high-ranking French official) and one from Russia. Prior to its signing, the opposition leaders met with the Maidan Council, many of whose members expressed serious concerns as to the acceptability of the very prospect of signing a deal with Yanukovych. However, the Europeans insisted vehemently that a negotiated agreement was the only way to avoid more bloodshed. Polish Foreign Minister Sikorski was caught on video telling one of the Maidan Council members (Prof. Haran from Kyiv-Mohyla Academy) “If you don’t sign this deal you will all be dead.” In a statement that reminded me of PM Chamberlain’s famous “I bring you peace in our time” Sikorski then sent out the following message on Twitter: “Good compromise for Ukraine. Gives peace a chance. Opens the way to reform and to Europe. Poland and EU support it.” Clearly Mr. Sikorski missed the social mood on the Maidan.

This mood was caught precisely tonight when a “Sotnia” (unit) commander who had personally fought with riot police during the past days, forced his way onto the stage. His short emotional speech, during which he stressed that his unit was very well armed, ended with an ultimatum to the opposition leaders: either force the President’s resignation by 10 am tomorrow, and renounce your deal with Yanukovych (according to which an election is scheduled for 10 months from now), or this commander’s Sotnia will advance (“storm”) the government quarter. Dmytro Yarosh from the Right Sector then came onto the stage and proclaimed essentially the same thing. It should be noted that this morning, over 1000 Interior Ministry troops were withdrawn from the government quarter, and this afternoon those troops who were from southern Ukraine were transported home. However, significant numbers of well armed government troops remain inside the Presidential Administration and Cabinet of Ministers buildings. If attacked by a crowd from the Maidan, they are likely to defend themselves.

Several days ago, MP Lesya Orobets posted a very clear warning to Ukraine’s opposition leaders on her Facebook page: negotiations with Yanukovych will be seen as a sham (or worse – treachery) if Maidan is not included in talks. Unfortunately no one heeded her warning. And regardless of the fact that today, in the wake of the signing ceremony in the Presidential Administration, the opposition was able to gather enough votes to pass four key decisions:

  1. To rescind the Constitutional Court’s decision from 2010, and to reinstate the Constitutional amendments adopted in 2004 in the wake of the Orange Revolution. This version of the Constitution limits the power of the Presidency by largely subordinating the executive branch to a Parliamentary majority.
  2. To institute blanket immunity from prosecution to all participants in recent anti-government activities and violence
  3. To remove Acting Minister of the Interior Zakharchenko from office.
  4. To release former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko from jail.

Before any of the above becomes law, these bills need to be signed by Yanukovych. Whether he will actually do so still remains an open question.

Certainly, the most important of today’s Parliamentary decisions is the Constitutional bill (which is also Point 1 of the Agreement the Yanukovych signed with the opposition today). According to this bill, once implemented, the President will still retain power over the army, and over foreign affairs (Defense and Foreign Ministers remain Presidential appointees), but the rest of the executive branch will become accountable to Parliament. If the new constitutional order is to become a reality, a new formalized coalition majority must be created in Parliament which will then appoint a new Prime Minister and approve all other Ministerial appointments. But there is a possible trap for the opposition here: currently their factions do not have enough votes in Parliament to create a coalition. If the Party of Regions can be re-instated as a monolithic entity (many MPs declared their exit from the Party of Regions faction today), and then a deal struck with the Communists and some independents, the new majority may be just as pro-Yanukovych (authoritarian) as under the previous system.

But such problems with the reformatting of Ukraine’s political system seem to be of little interest to the Maidan demonstrators tonight. From their perspective:

  1. Yanukovych remains the President – his ouster was always their primary demand
  2. Rybak, a person seen as a long-time Yanukovych loyalist, remains the Speaker of Parliament
  3. Arbuzov, a person who is viewed as Yanukovych’s corrupt accountant, remains Acting Prime Minister
  4. Pshonka, another Yanukovych loyalist, and the person responsible for jailing Maidan activists during in recent months, and simultaneously ignoring investigations into those responsible for beating students and journalists, remains the Prosecutor General of Ukraine
  5. Not a single police officer or commander responsible for beating, shooting, or torturing activists has been brought to justice
  6. Governors in the regions – all Yanukovych appointees – mostly remain in office.

These facts represent a context in which the very idea of negotiations is difficult to accept. According to the deal signed between Yanukovych and the opposition leaders today, most of the above points are to be addressed during the next few months, but gradually. With 77 lives lost yesterday, and hundreds more injured, Maidan is not willing to accept gradualism.

Anger has now spread to the regions, and seems to be vented at Lenin statues in the center and east of the country: monuments have now been torn down in Bila Tserkva (Kyiv oblast), Dnipropetrovsk, Poltava, Zhytomyr, Chernihiv, in the city of Khmelnytsky and 6 other towns in its region, 10 villages and towns in Vinnytsia oblast. A total of 33 Lenin monuments were toppled tonight.

In the western regions, during the past week, the anger of crowds has been directed at police stations, Security Service and Prosecutor offices. However, some of these attacks have been somewhat suspicious. Several busloads of “titushky” have been reported in Lviv, and in Ternopil, and several eyewitnesses have suggested that the original attacks on police stations may have been instigated by these “guests” rather than by locals.

As I stated in several previous posts, it is in the interests of Russia to have Ukraine descend into a form of anarchy. I don’t mean to sound conspiratorial, but Yanukovych certainly seems to be cooperating in this effort: local police forces across the country (all subordinated to the Interior Ministry in Kyiv) have basically disappeared, and central government buildings (once heavily guarded by Interior Ministry troops) have been abandoned tonight. In both cases Maidan Self-Defense forces have attempted to fill the vacuum. At a local level, ordinary citizens, communicating and coordinating their efforts through social networks, have organized night patrols for their neighborhoods – calling these Self-Defense units. In Kyiv tonight, the Self-Defense forces commanded by Andriy Parubiy have posted guards outside and inside the Parliament and Cabinet of Ministers buildings. In a somewhat politically marginal, but entertaining move, a student group led by Elizabeta Shchepetilnikova entered the Ministry of Education building undeterred by any police guards, and have staged a sit-in demanding the removal from office of Minster Tabachnyk.

If the goal was to demonstrate to the world that Ukraine cannot survive without a strong man in power, this has failed. However, I certainly don’t believe Yanukovych has given up. He no longer has the ability to control Kyiv and the central and western regions by force, but he may still be counting on a political future in the east of the country. Tomorrow, a “Meeting of People’s Deputies of all Levels of Government” is to be held in Kharkiv. The last time such a meeting was held was in 2004 in Severodonetsk, where Yanukovych famously stated that the western “goats” should stop telling him how to live. If he makes a similar statement tomorrow in Kharkiv, it could signal the start of some sort of quasi-legitimate break up of the country. This may sound far-fetched, but at this point very little of what happens in Ukraine is logical and predictable.

My point in all of this is that I certainly do not believe that Ukraine’s revolution is in its final phases. Although it is unlikely that many more lives will be lost in in Kyiv, more violence is certainly possible in the eastern regions. Almost certainly, we will witness violence when the inevitable storming of Yanukovych’s residence in Mezhyhiriya occurs. Ukraine’s angry citizens will not let their dictator simply retire there peacefully – he’s simply stolen too much, killed and ordered the beatings of too many. We pray for peace, but we continue to prepare for war.

God help us!

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