Kiev — With temperatures expected to fall to 16 below zero Tuesday night, the protesters in the Maidan, the central square, are clearing away snow and ice and building fires. In the meantime, the lines of confrontation in Ukraine are hardening.
On Tuesday afternoon, Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych met with three former presidents to discuss a way out of the political crisis. The meeting ended with an ambiguous offer to free some of those arrested after an attack on demonstrators in the square on November 30. Whether or not anyone is actually freed, the charges are not going to be dropped and the gesture was of no interest either to protesters in the Maidan or to the opposition.
More significant for the protestors, on Monday night, special forces stormed the headquarters of the Batkivshchina (“Motherland”) opposition party, led by ex-prime minister and now prisoner Yulia Timoshenko. The attackers seized the party’s computer server, and shortly after, the Ukrainian security service said that it was opening an investigation against specific but unnamed politicians for actions aimed at seizing state power.
Internal troops have formed a ring around the center of the city, blocking streets with heavy vehicles. They have cleared protester barricades in the government quarter, haven’t interfered with the crowds in the Maidan. In fact, the troops, many from the Crimea, talk to the protestors and have reached agreement with them on allowing vehicles with food and firewood to enter the square without interference.
What is true of the internal troops, who are draftees and do not carry weapons, however, is not true of the Berkut riot police who are armed and waiting in readiness at the Teatralnaya metro station — as of this writing, it is unclear when the next attack may come.
Fear that Yanukovych will try to settle Ukraine’s political crisis by force is reflected in new security measures at the Maidan. The two entrances to the square from the Khreschatik, Kiev’s main street, are now one and the tent city in the square is now full of internal checkpoints, limiting what had previously been free movement. Ukrainian Afghan War veterans and other volunteers are preparing to resist any attack. On the stage of the Maidan Monday night, 50 veterans, many in military camouflage, assured the crowd that they will form a human shield between the protestors and any attackers. “We will not allow the protest to broken up by force,” one of them vowed.
The confrontation is not going to be easy to resolve — many of the protesters feel that their futures are at stake. Markiya Matsekh, an IT specialist from Lvov, said, “I don’t want to live my whole life in fear of being taken away by the police. If we lose, half of the country will have to leave. We have to stand our ground.”
The opposition is demanding the resignation of the government of prime minister Nikolai Azarov, criminal charges against the interior minister for the beating of demonstrators by the police in the Maidan on November 30 (the incident that inspired the crisis), and the release of political prisoners. But the real barrier to any resolution of the crisis is the nature of the Yanukovych regime itself.
The regime is a product of privatization. The privatization process in Ukraine was dishonest everywhere but in the Donetsk Oblast, where Yanukovych got his start — there it was carried out at the point of a gun. Yanukovych’s closest associate and the person responsible for his rise to power is Rinat Akhmetov, the wealthiest man in Ukraine. Akhmetov, who became the chief sponsor of the Party of the Regions, got his start as an assistant to Akhat Bragin, a powerful Donestsk crime boss who was later killed along with six of his bodyguards in a mysterious bombing. Following the assassination, Akhmetov is said by specialists to have inherited a vast financial empire from Bragin.
In 2010, when Yanukovych was elected president, there was a democratic majority in the Verkhovnaya Rada, the Ukrainian parliament. This, however, was to prove short-lived. Yanukovych began a process of buying off deputies or intimidating them, eventually creating a new majority that was under his control. Once this process was complete, he turned his attention to the Constitutional Court, firing a third of the 18 judges. The new court now had a controllable majority and it acted to strip the Supreme Court of its ability to review appeals, giving that authority to lower courts. At the same time, the rules of Ukraine’s judicial congress, which is responsible for the self-regulation of the judiciary, were changed in order to give disproportionate power to judges in the administrative and economic courts, who are the most corrupt. The result: The entire judicial system passed into Yanukovych’s control.
At the end of 2010, the Constitutional Court canceled the changes to the constitution that were introduced in 2004 that had turned the country from a presidential to a presidential/parliamentary system.
With the country under his complete control, Yanukovych introduced his proposals for 21 “reforms,” including changes in tax collection, medicine, the judiciary, education and other areas.
While the country was distracted with the reforms, Yanukovych’s Party of the Regions began a massive campaign of “raiding” in which party officials appropriated the businesses and property of others on the basis of false court decisions. The abuses were so flagrant that some businessmen were presented with a court decision of whose existence they had had no previous knowledge, which informed them that they were now ex-owners of their business.
The raiding affected large and small enterprises, and Ukraine was completely deprived of any mechanism for the defense of the rights of the individual.
The system that Yanukovych has created is totally incompatible with the legal and economic demands of the European Union. Yanukovych’s reluctance to associate with Europe is backed by businessmen who would find it easier to work with Russia producing low-quality goods and avoiding serious investment.
Opposition to the European Union among Ukrainian businessmen, however, is not monolithic. Some Ukrainian oligarchs are impressed with the protections for property and businesses that exist in Europe and, although they have no interest in the rule of law as such, they understand its utility in protecting what they own. That is, if Ukrainian oligarchs have a conflict, they fight not in the Ukrainian courts but in London, the U.S., or Switzerland.
As tensions rise, the presence of extremists will be an unpredictable factor. After Sunday’s demonstrations, a show of national solidarity by as many as a million persons, the world’s attention was seized by the destruction of the statue of Lenin on Shevchenko Boulevard.
But this was not the first attempt on the statue: On December 1, after the end of the first mass rally in the Maidan, there was also an attack on the statue by well-equipped militants, who were beaten back by Berkut riot police with many injuries among civilian onlookers.
On Sunday night, however, after having been heavily guarded all week, the statue was left completely – and suspiciously — unprotected.
At about 8 p.m. Sunday night, when I arrived in Bessarabskaya Square, the plinth on which the Lenin statue had stood was empty and the statue was being destroyed with sledgehammers. Onlookers were snapping pictures and chiseling off pieces of the statue as souvenirs. A black and red flag of the Bandera movement was placed at the top of the plinth — the Banderovists were Nazi collaborators responsible for the murder of at least 40,000 Poles in the western-Ukrainian province of Volhynia. Photographs of the Bandera flag flying from plinth of the toppled statue of Lenin, from the point of view of the Yanukovych regime, were worth a thousand words.
The strength of the Maidan protest has been its peaceful character. It is understood by many that violence on the part of the protesters will be used to justify much greater violence by the regime. As emotions rise, it remains to be seen if the vast majority of protesters’ commitment to nonviolence can be preserved.