As the anti-government movement in Maidan Square hunkers down for its tenth week of occupation in sub-zero temperatures, the battle-lines have changed. Starting as a largely pro-European Union movement last November, the remarkable courage and determination of Kiev’s people has changed the stakes.
The massive reaction of the authorities produced a defiant opposition to the brutality of the notorious security forces and to widespread state corruption. That’s why what is effectively an insurrection has spread to the eastern parts of Ukraine, despite the area’s historic ties to neighbouring Russia.
The centre of Kiev has become a charred and frozen war-zone with some of the thousands of occupiers sheltering in occupied buildings and others behind barricades made of ice. They are sustained by well-organised support from both locals and those further away.
Hundreds of women ferry food, hot drinks, blankets and medication, braving not only freezing temperatures, smoke from burning tyres, but also live bullets from plainclothes snipers, not to mention batons, tear gas, water cannon and rubber bullets.
At least two of the movement’s leaders have had to flee Ukraine and take refuge in neighbouring countries. There is evidence of death squads and that snipers surrounding Maidan Square are deliberately targeting protesters’ eyes.
Over 40 journalists are reported injured and there is video evidence of police beating and stripping a Cossack protester in a freezing street.
Dmytro Bulatov, the founder of Auto Maidan – which organises car owners in support of the occupation – disappeared on January 22. Two days before, Bulatov had urged opposition leaders to settle on a single protest leadership. He was only found eight days later, having been tortured by the police. Only the vigilance of his supporters prevented further beatings while he was in hospital. He has apparently now left the country.
Oleksandre Danylyuk, leader of the anti-government group Spilna Sprava which organised the occupation of three strategic buildings, fled to London last week after the police issued a warrant for his arrest. He is wanted on suspicion of !organising riots that caused the death of people or serious harm to them," according to the Interior Ministry's database of wanted people. The offense carries up to 15 years behind bars, says the Kyiv Post.
Danylyuk and Bulatov have been luckier than 50-year-old Yuri Verbizky, who was beaten and left to die of the cold in a forest near Kiev. His colleague, Ihor Lutsenko managed to escape with a concussion and missing teeth. He was rescued by a passing motorist.
Meanwhile, the website for Berkut, the state’s special police force, has been flooded with anti-Semitic materials alleging that the Jews are to blame for organising at Maidan. Berkut proudly publishes photos of its brutality to protesters.
As poet Yuri Andrukhovych has written, the state repression and collusion with autocrats like Putin has hardened the resolve of the movement. They are fired up, he says “by an exceptionally hot mix of despair, hope, self-sacrifice and hatred”. He adds: “”Yes, hatred. Morality does not forbid hating murderers. Especially if the murderers are in power or in direct service of those in power.”
Ukraine became an independent state in 1991 for the first time in its long history, apart from a brief moment around 1918-1919. For most of the 20th century it was part of the Soviet Union. During the Stalinist period, Ukraine experienced famine during which millions died as a result of forced collectivisation.
Political independence following the break-up of the USSR did not mean economic independence from the greedy tentacles of Putin’s state in Russia, nor from their Ukraine’s own oligarchs. The transition to a full-blown capitalist economy meant poverty for the majority of Ukraine’s workers and its women in particular. After the 2008 global crash, Ukraine’s economy staggered deeper and deeper into debt.
Ukraine’s embattled president Viktor Yanukovych, who has just returned from a few days’ “rest” signed an economic pact with Russia in December rather than the EU. But the anti-government protesters are wise to the fact that there are sinister strings attached to any deal with Putin even if they don’t yet appreciate that the EU sees Ukraine as another pool of cheap labour to exploit.
There is a wide spectrum of forces at work in the Ukrainian movement, including the “Right Sector”. This has been seized up by Putin’s propaganda machine to discredit the movement. But there are also others, amongst them Narodniy Nabat (People’s Bell) and Avtonomniy Opir (Autonomous Resistance) and Volna Zemlya (Free Land). They recognise the state as their enemy even if there is no clear view yet about what to replace it with.
A World to Win secretary