No room for compromise in battle of Kiev as attitudes on both sides harden

Once-peaceful protests against the Ukranian president spurning an EU integration deal have turned into a violent fight for life and liberty

PUBLISHED : Monday, 27 January, 2014, 11:23pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 28 January, 2014, 3:31am

For demonstrators at Kiev's Independence Square, the uprising against Ukraine's rulers has also become a battle for their own freedom.

On permanent alert against a police attack and with the threat of years in prison looming over them, protesters carry plastic shields and don green metal army helmets over the woollen hats that stave off temperatures of as low as minus 20 Celsius. Guards at tent camp entrances wield baseball bats. Car tyres burn nearby, creating a thick black smoke that hinders vision and movement for police.

Two months of anti-government protests turned deadly last week as legislation to crack down on rallies backfired. That has raised the stakes for activists camped out in the capital's protest hub, where a peaceful push to steer Ukraine toward Europe is turning into a winner-takes-all power struggle and opposition leaders are losing their control over the crowds.

"Everyone here's looking at a 10-year jail sentence - the laws are in place," said Vladimir, a 53-year-old entrepreneur from Kiev who's been at the camp from the start and declined to give his last name for fear of reprisal. "We'll be here until we win. Otherwise, our fate is sealed. There's no third option."

Clashes near the parliament building between activists hurling Molotov cocktails and rocks and riot police armed with rubber bullets and stun grenades have claimed as many as six lives. The mood has soured at the camp, 500 metres from Ukraine's parliament building, which sprouted up in November after President Viktor Yanukovych spurned a European Union integration pact to boost Russian ties.

Everyone here’s looking at a 10-year jail sentence – the laws are in place

Gone are the games of soccer on Kiev's Khreshchatyk thoroughfare that helped keep the winter cold at bay. Protesters now get daily lessons in how to fend off another swoop by riot police as their demands for snap elections fall on deaf ears. Some protesters protect themselves with any random body armour they can find. Many wear ski helmets and goggles, others climbing helmets and gas masks with strips of camping mats taped around their shins to protect their legs.

When events turned violent last week, demonstrators' weapons also had an antique aura and clashes resembled a medieval assault. Protesters have armed themselves like Crusaders with plywood shields, often painted with a cross, against the stun grenades and rubber bullets from police lines.

One man came in medieval battle armour, and another fashioned himself a bow and arrow for the fight. One group of men made a massive catapult from boards to pelt firebombs a longer distance; when it was burned down in a police attack, they rebuilt it the next day.

Sunday's regular rally was cancelled to allow funeral processions for two of the dead. The previous day Interior Minister Vitaliy Zakharchenko warned that peaceful efforts to settle the unrest had proved futile.

Yesterday, the Ukrainian government upped the ante by threatening to impose a state of emergency after demonstrators occupied the justice ministry. Protesters have already attempted to blockade 14 of the 25 regional administrations, including in southern and eastern parts of the nation of 46 million.

"We came in peace - now that's over," said Andriy Lesyk, 28, a teacher from the western city of Ivano-Frankivsk who made the 550-kilometre drive to Kiev for the third time. "For two months, people stood here peacefully and those in power took no notice whatsoever."

While Lesyk must work to take care of his elderly parents, he says his family history compels him to turn out at the square: one of his grandfathers was shipped to a Siberian labour camp in 1945; the other, a priest, was forced to live underground during the Soviet Union times.

The crowds at Independence Square, or Maidan in Ukrainian, get daily pep talks from three opposition leaders. The trio - ex-heavyweight boxing champion Vitali Klitschko, a former central bank governor, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, and nationalist politician Oleh Tyahnybok - are losing their sway over the thousands that gather in the square.

As the violence erupted on January 19, Klitschko jumped between activists and lines of riot police, pleading without success for calmer heads. After hours of talks with Yanukovych last week failed to win major concessions, Tyahnybok's address to protesters was drowned out by whistles.

"The opposition leaders are clowns," said 25-year-old Adam, a tourist representative from Russia's Kalmykia region who joined the protesters in frustration. "One day Yatsenyuk says he's ready to take a bullet in the head; the next he says they want a peaceful resolution. I don't get this. Ukraine needs a real leader who'll lead."

While the atmosphere at the camp may be darker, the community spirit that helps keep it running remains in place.

As an elderly lady lugged supplies to the square on January 24, a plastic carrier bag split in her hand, spilling cigarette boxes and a loaf of bread onto the icy street.

Even so, the nature of deliveries to the camp is telling. While activists earlier appealed for food donations, they are now urging people to bring drugs and medical equipment. With injured demonstrators afraid to show up at hospitals for fear of arrest, organisers set up makeshift medical points in buildings they've occupied, such as the City Council.

"We thought this wouldn't last long, that there'd soon be results," said Oksana, a 44-year-old businesswoman from western Ukraine, who came to Kiev recently with her husband and son. "After the deaths, people are more entrenched."

Tyahnybok's Svoboda Party said another protester had died in hospital after being shot on January 22 on Hrushevskogo Street near parliament, the epicentre of the violence where clashes resumed on Saturday, ending a truce that had lasted about a day.

On the hill that leads up towards parliament from Independence Square, people were digging channels into the snow at the weekend to allow melt water from the fires to flow into the gutter. Some were handing out face masks to keep out the acrid clouds swirling around the piles of burning tyres, while others were offering pieces of bread from trays.

An offer by Yanukovych to make Yatsenyuk prime minister, his biggest concession to date, didn't impress the weekend crowds. Leaflets handed out yesterday told protesters that the failure to achieve their aims would result in prison and repression.

Recent events have changed the endgame for Vladimir, the entrepreneur. "You could certainly feel a change in sentiment here after we had casualties," he said. "People are appalled. This can't end peacefully any more."

Bloomberg, Associated Press, Agence France-Presse