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A tumultuous Saturday in Kiev

Right-wing nationalists were at the vanguard as protest movement triumphed and Ukraine's president fled.

Last updated: 23 Feb 2014 10:58
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Members of the Self-Defence group guarded Ukraine's parliament building [Kristina Jovanovski/Al Jazeera]

Kiev, Ukraine - Kiev's Independence Square was quiet on Sunday morning after a tumultous Saturday, which saw parliament oust Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich and free from jail Orange Revolution leader Yulia Tymoshenko, who addressed tens of thousands of Ukrainians in the capital.

Thousands crushed together trying to edge their way towards a glimpse of Tymoshenko, while candles mourning the dozens who died in last week's protests lit the epicentre of the country's bloody uprising.

While many cheered for the opposition movement's hard-fought victory, the mood at Independence Square was one of reflection rather than outright jubilance. On Friday, a memorial with flowers and candles covered the top of a statue's base. By last night, all nine stairs of that base were hidden underneath tokens of remembrance after clashes between protesters and police left 82 dead. 

A moment of silence was called to mourn the victims. People stopped to pray at another impromptu memorial set up around the bottom of a lamp post next to barricades at the square, which was filled with slick mud after protesters stripped away the square's bricks to build fortifications.

Meanwhile, local television has been broadcasting footage of Yanukovich's luxurious residence, and Reuters news agency reported that the president had gone to the eastern Ukrainian city of Kharkiv, a region where he enjoys strong support.

'The biggest victory'

"I think the main task of the people of Ukraine are solved," said MP Maria Ionova, whose party Ukrainian Democratic Alliance for Reforms is headed by opposition leader Vitaly Klitschko. "This is the biggest victory, but this victory is [due] to those heroes who died on Maidan who were fighting for their rights. This is a sad victory… [but] we will rebuild our country."

Fears that Ukraine will split on ethnic and linguistic lines

Opposition leaders faced fierce criticism for a deal struck with the president on Friday, which could have meant early elections being held as late as December. Many protesters demanded that Yanukovich step down immediately. The parliament complied on Saturday, and the country is now set to go to the polls on May 25. 

Ukraine has been rocked by three months of mass protests after the president agreed to take a $15bn bailout from Russia, its eastern neighbour, instead of signing a trade agreement with the European Union.

Ionova said that parliament must not allow separatist sentiment to grow in Ukraine, where many in the East prefer ties to Russia while those in the West look towards western Europe. 

During breaks at parliament, opposition leaders went outside to address hundreds of people who gathered at the gates of the building. Later on, a van drove through to the middle of the crowd as people got on top to make fiery speeches. MPs cheered and sang the national anthem when the agreement was reached to oust the president and free Tymoshenko from a seven-year jail sentence that she had been serving since 2011. 

Controversial banner

Outside parliament, dozens of masked members of the hard-line Self-Defence group guarded the building on Saturday. Five men stood at the front of the building, three with metal shields, while another held a baton.  At one point, dozens of people ran around the parliament together. 

In the evening after the parliament session ended, members cheered as a controversial red-and-black nationalist flag was raised in front of the building. The flag's colours represent blood and soil, and was used by the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, an armed nationalist group that for a time collaborated with the Nazis during World War II.

"It's not the place" for the flag, said Galina Milchevskya, a 29-year-old protester who works for a pharmaceutical company. "Only our state flag can be there, and I believe this second flag… will be kept away." 

Ukrainian journalist Olga Tokariuk said the flag was often raised in protest camps during the uprising. "For these people, this flag doesn't represent that they're… fascists," said Tokariuk. "This flag represents rebels who were fighting for the [independence] of the Ukrainian state."

She said the Ukrainian Insurgent Army naively thought that Hitler would help them in their fight for independence, and does not indicate that they supported Nazi ideas. "This is a complex problem," said Tokariuk. "Foreign observers, they only focus on this side [that] they were allies of Hitler."

Taras Ganchak, 31, is a member of the Self-Defence group. He said the flag represents freedom and the spirit of Ukraine, and denies it has anti-Semitic connotationsGanchak said he does not want to vote for any political parties, but will support the Right Sector, another militant group considered by some to be far-right. "I will support them because they were the bravest in that terrible war against riot police." 

Until a few months ago, Gonchak was planning to move to the United States. But now, he plans to remain in Ukraine, saying the US and EU stalled to take action against Yanukovich.

'They're not just mad people'

Many of these bat-wielding protesters were on the frontlines of clashes with the former government's police force, gaining the respect of some otherwise sceptical protesters, such as Milchevskya. 

"I'm a bit afraid of them, because yes, they are quite extreme - but as I see from these protests, they're not just mad people that just want blood," she said. "They have their history… I respect them very much and I thank them that they actually had enough forces to stay here."

The Right Sector, whose members often walk around wearing masks, is notoriously secretive and its leader is rarely seen.

Ionova admits that the opposition movement contains radical elements, but insists that politicians are keeping them under control. "There are really a lot of radical… organisations. [However,] our MPs are always in conversation with them," she claimed. 

Ionova added that her party has contacted religious figures to explain to hard-line groups that there should be no more deaths. "Now people are not radical because… we [are] all satisfied because Yanukovich is now gone."

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Source:
Al Jazeera
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