Outside the Central Post Office in Kiev’s Independence Square, you can still see hopeful graffiti from the last time Ukrainians rose up against their government. Preserved under Plexiglas, the scrawled messages – “Tak!” the Ukrainian word for “Yes!” was the slogan of the 2004 Orange Revolution – capture the joy of a long-docile people surprised to find themselves challenging authority.
That optimism is buried today under a fresh layer of scribblings and homemade signs of a much angrier nature. President Viktor Yanukovych is drawn behind prison bars, and targeted with crude slurs. Similar insults are aimed at Russian President Vladimir Putin, seen as Mr. Yanukovych’s backer in Ukraine’s three-week-old political crisis.
These are furious times in Ukraine. What began as a small, impromptu protest against Mr. Yanukovych’s decision to abandon a trade agreement with the European Union (only about 1,000 people appeared at the first protest on Nov. 21) has snowballed over the past three weeks into a mass movement that has seen hundreds of thousands fill Kiev’s bitterly cold streets. Enraged by Mr. Yanukovych’s repeated use of riot police against peaceful protesters, the crowds in Independence Square now say they won’t go home until the President resigns.
Instead of backing down, Mr. Yanukovych appears to be digging in, with Moscow’s support. On Friday he released nine protesters who had been arrested in clashes with police, but in a roundtable meeting with opposition leaders he gave no ground on the protesters’ main demand that he fire his government.
Even as the two sides attempted dialogue on Friday, Mr. Yanukovych’s party was busing tens of thousands of supporters into Kiev for rival demonstrations this weekend that many fear will spill over into clashes with pro-European protesters.
The truth is that only half of Ukraine supports what’s happening in “Maidan,” as Ukrainians call the snow-covered square in the heart of their capital. And the other half – the people who voted Mr. Yanukovych into office in 2010 and who support his efforts to move closer to Russia – are getting angry now too.
“Yanukovych would use bloodshed to stay in power,” warned Taras Berezovets, a Kiev-based political scientist. “Nine years ago, during the Orange Revolution, I would have said it’s not possible to divide Ukraine. But this year, I think we have to say that yes, there is a chance the country could split.”
He’s not the only one making such dire predictions. Protesters on both sides of the divide talk about the possibility of civil war if the other half of Ukraine gets its way. Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev warned on Friday of “a tectonic fault” in Ukraine. “This fault threatens the state’s stability and actually its existence,” he said in Moscow.
The cultural divide, which roughly follows the curving bend of the Dnipro River, is one that many accuse Moscow of having created during the Soviet era, when it was state policy to settle ethnic Russians in what is now Ukraine, and helping to exacerbate now.
The struggle for Ukraine has repercussions far beyond its borders. By taking to Independence Square in the name of “European values,” the protesters have challenged the EU to show that it’s more than a trading group and debating house. By waving EU, U.S. and Canadian flags as the riot police moved in, demonstrators were appealing to the West to stand with them at a time when there is little appetite in Brussels, Washington and Ottawa to pick a fight with Moscow.
The crisis also resounds across the rest of the former Soviet Union. The Kremlin is in the fight up to its elbows, offering to help Ukraine out of a crippling financial crisis – economists say the country will struggle to pay $9-billion in debts due next year – if Mr. Yanukovych rejects the EU in favour of a new Moscow-led trading bloc due to come into existence in 2015.
Protesters in Armenia and Georgia, two other ex-Soviet republics wary of Russia’s intentions, have taken to the streets in solidarity with Ukrainians. The flag of Belarus’s repressed opposition waves from the top of the protest barricades in Kiev.
The duelling weekend rallies will offer starkly different ideas of what Ukraine is and could be. The crowds in the square hail from Kiev and the cities of Western Ukraine. Residents speak Ukrainian first, and often English second. They dream of being as European as those who live just a short drive west of them in countries like Poland and Hungary.
“When we’re in Europe, we will all be equal before the law. Right now, there’s a sense of unfairness in our society. We have lower incomes than Europe, but cars are 30 per cent more expensive here,” said Miron Humanetsky, a 45-year-old shipbuilder who left his job in Lviv two weeks ago to join the protests in Independence Square. “It’s easier to stay here in these cold conditions than to go back to that unfair situation.”
Mr. Yanukovych’s supporters hail from the coal-producing regions near the Russian border, as well Crimea, which was part of Russia until Nikita Khrushchev made a then-meaningless “gift” of the Black Sea coast to Soviet Ukraine in 1954. Residents speak Russian and most work in Soviet-era factories that rely on sales to Russia. They fear the economic reforms contained in the EU partnership agreement would spell the end of factories and jobs.
“If Russia bars our goods, will any country buy the things Russia imported? Will Europe? Will Canada?” asked Tatiana Sergeeva, a 62-year-old teacher who joined a pro-Yanukovych rally Thursday in Kiev’s Mariinsky Park.
These two Ukraines clashed nine years ago during the Orange Revolution. Then, Kremlin spin doctors aided a massive election fraud that would have made Mr. Yanukovych president, had protesters not rushed into the streets to demand a re-vote. The uprising was a massive strategic blow to the Kremlin, putting the pro-Western Viktor Yushchenko in the presidency.
Mr. Yushchenko is now on the sidelines, seen by many protesters as having wasted the mandate they gave him in 2004 by not moving fast enough to embed the country in the EU and NATO. He defends his record in office, and is also worried the political crisis could lead to growing “regionalism” in the country, maybe even separatism or conflict.
“We could go the way of Egypt or Syria in resolving this conflict, or we can sit at the roundtable and create a Ukrainian result,” he said.
Mr. Yushchenko’s face – still bearing faint scars of the mysterious poisoning he suffered during the 2004 election campaign – is a reminder of how high the stakes are, and of how far some of the players will go to get their way. He won’t accuse a specific individual of being behind the attack, which left him weak and badly disfigured during an election campaign, but he makes it clear he believes the order came from Moscow. “They will do anything to interfere in the political life of Ukraine. Anything.”
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