Kiev, Ukraine – Men and women, old and young, students, manual labourers, office workers and even priests have gathered in the thousands on the streets of Ukraine’s capital for the past week to protest against a government they say is leading their country in the wrong direction.
Every day without fail, tens of thousands have gathered in Independence Square, the heart of the city and the centre of 2004’s Orange Revolution. During the night, a few thousand determined protesters stay despite the sub-zero temperatures, waving flags and demanding change in the former Soviet republic.
Standing in the crowd, 49-year-old Volodymyr Nechyporuk is adamant that it is time for his country to make real progress. “The change we have seen since the communist time is not as much as we would have hoped for. We have seen one criminal government after another,” he says. “We need a new political system.”
What began as a small-scale protest against the government’s decision, under pressure from Russia, to pull out of a trade agreement that would mean closer ties to the European Union has turned into a full-scale revolt against the sitting government and the country’s president, Viktor Yanukovych.
On Sunday morning protesters clashed violently with police who had been sent in to clear the occupied square. But this caused even more demonstrators to turn out. That evening an estimated 350,000 people blocked off downtown Kiev, with some tearing down Christmas decorations to build barricades and bar access for police and anyone else attempting to break up the demonstrations.
Crowds of protesters have occupied the square ever since, with a makeshift tent encampment now sprawling out from the middle of the historic square.
We won't be happy until the president resigns and we have new elections.
“I have faith in this movement, and that eventually we will get government we need to make us a strong country,” says Nechyporuk. “My daughter and my grandsons are going to live here all their lives, so I want a better future for them. I believe in Ukraine.”
Nearby, Ivan Kitchatyi, a financial specialist who was born and raised in Kiev, is focused on the immediate goal. “The main problem in Ukraine is the president,” he says. “We won’t be happy until the president resigns and we have new elections.”
Kitchatyi and his friends have come to the protests every evening after work, hoping that their overall actions will lead to progress. “Our economy is not growing. Our government doesn’t do the things we need and we can’t grow because of their actions,” he says. “The agreement with the European Union wouldn’t have been easy, but it was a good opportunity to democratise the country and building growth.”
Wrapped up tightly against the cold winds, 27-year-old Zoriana Iatsura, a commercial director at a Kiev-based design company, is just as angry about her government, but for different reasons. “I joined the protests after the students were attacked by the police on Saturday night,” she says. “Young students were beaten. A lot of people who weren’t politically active came out after that. It isn’t okay for us to live in a country where things happen this way.”
Towering above her, the frame of the giant Christmas tree that was to occupy the square has been repurposed, and is now covered with protest posters mocking the president, as well as Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Clustered around dozens of barrels filled with burning logs, many protesters pass the time shouting slogans, talking about their disappointment and listening to speeches from opposition politicians and other protest leaders. Some wander through the crowds handing out cups of tea and sandwiches, while others kick around a football.
“I want to provoke some change in this country. I want to change the government, the president, the police, the economic situation, the political situation, societal situation,” says 18-year-old Denis Kalyashov, a marketing student at a nearby university.
Kalyashov is standing by one of the makeshift barricades, where Ukrainian flags hang down over a tangle of metal, wood and plastic hastily arranged to block vehicles from the street. Small gaps have been left in the perimeter to allow protesters in and out, with guards standing by in case anything happens.
“I’m not for the European Union,” he says. “I’m for change. I want a government that I am proud of.”
But Kalyashov is concerned that, despite the number of protesters, the demonstrations’ effectiveness will be sapped the longer they continue. “It is good that we have non-violence, but I don’t think any revolutions in history happen without violence. Eventually I think there will need to be some form of general strike or military action to provoke the change. It could be very dangerous, but what can we do? The government won’t go out, in my opinion, without some forceful actions. They won’t change without force.”
On Tuesday, during a heated parliamentary session, the government easily survived a no-confidence vote called by opposition parties. It was a disappointing blow for those in the square.
During the same session, Prime Minister Mykola Azarov told members of the opposition: “We have extended our hand to you, but if we encounter a fist, I will be frank, we have enough force.”
Under a large statue at one end of Independence Square, 26-year-old Bogdan Danyliuk stands around a barrel filled with burning firewood to keep warm. “I will stand here until we have a new president,” he says, draped in a Union Jack flag and hat.
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Danyliuk comes from the far south of Ukraine, and arrived in Kiev early on Tuesday, leaving his job in construction in the UK in order to join the protests. “This government is like the mafia terrorising us. My mother doesn’t have a job, nor my father, my sister. Why do I need to live in the UK to make a living? I would prefer to live here,” he says.
As the protests have continued, a community has grown in the main square, with tents filled with donated food supplies and pots boiling soup and tea to keep the protesters nourished.
Several of the nearby governmental buildings, including the city hall, have been occupied by the protesters, with rooms open to anyone who wants to rest or sleep. Sleeping bags line the corridors, and tables are set up offering food and drink.
“I want to be optimistic about my country, but it is very difficult,” says Dimitri Burenin, a volunteer paramedic, wandering through the crowds outside.
Every night, often until 4 am, Burenin patrols the square, offering help to those sleeping out in the cold or who are getting sick. “Mostly we take them somewhere warm to get something to eat,” he says. “I support the reasons for the protests, but our government is just not ready for the European way of development. Maybe in five or ten years our country will be ready. I want to believe in it,” he adds.
According to Darya Tsymbalyuk, a 23-year-old English teacher who has spent her evening making sandwiches to hand out, the protests in Kiev are far more important than the European Union agreement. “The most important part is we are fighting for our basic human right of living in an uncorrupted country. The people here are angry about so many different things – the government has betrayed us so much,” she says.
The last time Ukrainians took to the streets in such big numbers was in 2004, when nationwide protests erupted after a controversial presidential election marred by accusations of vote rigging.
“I never gave up, even after the failure of the Orange Revolution. Some did, but they are here now again, so there is hope,” says Tsymbalyuk.
“What I am afraid of now is that all this energy we have will go to waste, that we will end with no meaningful resolution or someone else bad in power. In moments of turmoil, it is not necessarily the best person who comes to power,” she says.