Ukraine’s Maidan protest unites different beliefs
KIEV, Ukraine (AP) — For the past three months, tens of thousands of Ukrainians have been singing the Ukrainian national anthem on Kiev’s central square, the Maidan, united in their dreams of change. The protest movement is a mixed bag of pro-Western intelligentsia and well-off businessmen, white-collar office clerks and student romantics, radical far-rightists, pop singers, poets and even priests. The one thing holding them together: anger against now fugitive President Viktor Yanukovych and his government.
Here is a look at some of the main groups driving the protests which removed Yanukovych from power last week.
ORANGE HEROINE LOYALISTS
Yulia Tymoshenko, the Orange Revolution heroine, former prime minister and Yanukovych’s main rival, commands an ardent following of millions of Western-leaning Ukrainians. She was released from jail last week after spending 2 ½ years in prison on charges of abuse of office that the West condemned as politically motivated. While Tymoshenko was in jail, writing emotional letters to protesters, her ally Arseniy Yatsenyuk, a technocratic former economy minister, was a prominent leader of the protests. The party calls for pro-Western reforms and integration with the European Union. But it is also associated with the failed hopes of the 2004 Orange Revolution, which ousted Yanukovych from the presidency amid allegations of rigged elections. The new government was paralyzed by constant bickering among Orange leaders, allowing Yanukovych to return to power in 2010. The gold-braided Tymoshenko’s release poses new opportunities but also new challenges for the party. Labeled Ukraine’s “Joan of Arc,” she is a divisive figure, adored but also distrusted for her alleged corruption and fierce hunger for power.
PUNCHING ABOVE THE CROWD
Towering over protesters, and over fellow opposition leaders, Vitali Klitschko — a 6-foot-7-inch (2 meters) tall former world heavyweight boxing champion — is shown in many polls to be Ukraine’s most popular opposition politician. He leads the Udar — or Punch — party that entered parliament following 2012 parliamentary elections, presenting itself as a new pro-Western force untainted by the failures of the Orange government. Popular because of his sports victories and free from the stain of corruption, Klitschko announced that he will run in presidential elections scheduled for May 25. Though he is an unskilled orator and not widely viewed as an intellectual, Klitschko won the protesters’ support for appearing at many confrontations and trying to prevent violence between activists and police. He once even was sprayed with a fire extinguisher. Now he will have to compete with Tymoshenko for the hearts of his people.
The nationalist Svoboda (Freedom) Party has played a vocal role in the protests, seizing a government building in the center of Kiev that was later turned into a protest dormitory and sending scores of protesters to Kiev’s Maidan from its base in the west of the country, which is the heart of Ukrainian nationalism. The party entered parliament in 2012 and teamed up with Tymoshenko’s and Klitschko’s parties to oppose Yanukovych. It is highly controversial. It stands firmly for EU integration and a Western future of Ukraine, but it has been accused of anti-Semitic and xenophobic rhetoric, including staging a Christmas skit on the Maidan that used Jewish stereotypes. The group’s statements have drawn criticism from Israel and some watchdogs. Despite the controversies, top Western diplomats have actively engaged with Svoboda, shaking hands and posing for photos with its leader Oleh Tyahnybok. Svoboda members have died in the violence that prompted Yanukovych to flee. The party can be expected to seek government posts or political influence.
Yanukovych would hardly have been ousted had it not been for radical far-right groups that have been the street muscle in the demonstrations. They have donned balaclavas, armed themselves with baseball bats and thrown rocks and fire bombs at police. The radical group the Right Sector was initially condemned by the majority of moderate protesters of the Maidan. But the Right Sector soon joined the Maidan’s official self-defense units, and their members were headquartered several stories above the opposition leaders’ makeshift office. The radicals’ violent clashes with police were at first criticized, but as Yanukvoych kept ignoring the peaceful protests, moderate activists rushed to help the Right Sector, handing them Molotov cocktails and pavement stones. While it has been key in these pro-democracy demonstrations, the Right Sector embraces a hardcore nationalist ideology. One of the symbols of Patriot of Ukraine, a group that is part of the Right Sector, bears some resemblance to a swastika, although the group denies that it was meant to mirror the Nazi image. The Right Sector is firmly against EU integration. “We don’t need the European Union. Ukraine is for Ukrainians and no one else,” said Sergey, a masked man in camouflage uniform with a baseball bat, who declined to give his last name out of fear of government retribution.
Automaidan, a group of angry motorists, blocked entrances to government buildings, shipped supplies to the protest camp and trailed police cars; they also chased and detained pro-government activists who were bused into the capital to provoke violence. As a result, their activists were harassed and detained, their cars burned and one of their leaders kidnapped. Held captive for more than a week, the leader was beaten and had a piece of his ear cut off. Many protesters have called the group the opposition’s traffic police. The activists are also likely to seek influence in exchange for their role in the protests.
Along with the main groupings, the movement has been made lively by a plethora of colorful figures, intellectuals and civil society leaders. Ruslana, a pop star who won the Eurovision song contest, spent many nights singing and dancing on the Maidan stage to keep activists entertained and motivated, including on one dramatic night when police attempted to storm the square. Black-robed priests from all denominations prayed, called for peace and stood between protesters and police lines to prevent bloodshed. Respected journalists and intellectuals frequently spoke from the stage to inspire the protests, and university students ditched lectures to build barricades. Those activists and politicians have all formed a civic movement, also called the Maidan, which is expected to monitor how the new government is being formed and perhaps even get some posts in it.
Associated Press reporter Dusan Stojanovic contributed to this report.