By Gregor Bauer
Hanna, a student from Kiev, laughs: “In western countries armed protesters would be totally wrong but when those who rule the country are criminals, when they beat unarmed people unconscious or to death, you have to defend yourself.” This is a view shared by many in Independence Square, Kiev.
A student, who introduces herself to me as Alina, is friends with some of the armed protesters. “A big part of them were Ultras from Ukrainian soccer teams”, she says. Only after they promised to protect protesters from the Berkut attacks (Berkut are special forces of the Ukrainian government) did people dare to go out on the streets where they are minorities – in the east and in smaller towns.
We are lucky to get an interview with one of the stars of the protests. He looks awkward in his long fur-coat whilst holding his medieval weapon beneath his metal shield. When the Berkut attacked the protesters some weeks ago Mykhaylo Havridyuk was severely beaten by them and forced to undress in public in the icy cold weather. They put an axe in his hand and took pictures of him. Only a few hours later he came back to Independence Square vowing to fight until the end. He is here, he states, “to protect the protesting Ukrainian people.”
I got the impression that the steps of peace made by the government were a trap and the attack on Maidan this week was planned. Pictures confirmed that the ammunition which were used by the Berkut on Tuesday were produced only in February, seemingly specially made. The compromise between the government and the opposition, saw the government ask for the reduction of the barricades and the clearing of a lane for vehicles to use in Independence Square. That didn’t make much sense until Tuesday, since the traffic in the centre remained blocked. But when the police attacked, armed vehicles passed exactly through the lane the government demanded.
To me two impressions were unforgettable: A protester’s ambulance attending to an injured policeman while those same ambulances were hindered in getting to severely injured protesters who lay on the street. It was also hard to forget a picture of a cheering and happy-looking Berkut troop when one of their trucks passed by. Only a metre from him lay two dead bodies of protesters.
Without a doubt there are protesters who are ready to use violence, without a doubt molotov cocktails and stones are thrown. A young man who introduced himself as Aleksej looks martial and crazy with his big sun glasses and the axe in his hands. He claims to have killed 48 titushki (thugs hired by the government). He aims to reach 100. He answers with a wide smile when asked if he was proud. He said if he didn’t kill them they would kill him. His claims are very unlikely to be true but none the less it shows how Aleksej tries to gain respect: violence has become a matter of honour.
Dmytro, a businessman from Kiev who supported the protests from the very beginning tiredly smiles when he talks about the protests beginning: Revolution was like a discotheque. “The protests got more serious”, he says. “We were astonished how peaceful the protesters behaved. No, they are not here for killing but they would give their lives to protect the people who protest unarmed.”
Are the protesters fascists? Is a civil war going on between Ukrainian and Russian speaking civilians?
No, European media should not copy Yanukovich‘s propaganda.
When we examined the Maidan zone, very often soldier like groups marched around us. With their bludgeons and masks they look scary and often we were sceptical. Hanna, again, laughs about my question whether the protest was fascist. No one took Oleh Thjanibok seriously and she has Jewish friends who protest with them.
One of the three oppositional parties is the Swoboda – a right wing nationalist party. Its chairman Oleh Thjanibok claimed in 2004 that Ukraine was ruled by a Jewish-Russian mafia. Swoboda, without a doubt, has racist tendencies. But on Maidan – no one listens to those ideas.
Even for someone without knowledge of the Russian language, the differentiation between Russian and Ukrainian is not very hard. Even though the protests are against Russia’s influence, a big Russian speaking part of the protesters is noticeable. Vitali Klitschko, chairman of the UDAR-party – which is centrally involved in the protests – and likely to be Ukraine’s next President is Russian-speaking. The claim the protest was against Russian-speaking Ukrainians is absurd.
Is there a good and an evil side?
As always the borderline between good and evil is hard to draw. Though after 5 days in Kiev and an endless marathon of interviews and inspection there is a clear tendency:
- The protesters are not fascists. They fight for central human rights such as the right to protest, equal treatment in court, physical integrity and after all: the right to life.
- Violence is not what they are here for. During the many hours spent on Maidan square we encountered not even one firearm. We were let into any occupied house, invited in their tents and almost everyone was happy to talk to us. Someone who is trying to hide something does not behave like that.
- The Militia (Ukrainian police) who we encountered looked angry and did not talk one word with us. They did not give a reason for why they fight.
- The camp of government supporters is closed for us. Even an official press team from Ukrainian TV was refused entry. I recieve videos which tell distinct stories: An old woman with a headscarf getting shot when she mingled with the protesters. A man brought to a back yard and beaten by policemen until he is unconscious. Two Maidan-supporters with the obligatory yellow-blue badge talking to each other on a street suddenly shot dead without any hints of protest or fight before.
In European media it often appears as if some rioters marched to the parliament with molotov cocktails and stones and the police protected the parliament. No. Berkut and Militia perform a massacre on helpless protesters. Much of what I have seen is impossible to explain as self-defence or re-establishing order.
Not to forget: the police and special forces are often victims of that conflict themselves – they also suffer human losses. They take their orders. In some parts of the country they switched sides already. They, as well, are victims of a bloody struggle for power. A president has declared war to his people.