Police Offensive Fronts Harden in Kiev Opposition Protests
Kiev police are destroying barricades erected by protesters as the sub-zero showdown continues. With the Klitschko brothers at the lead, demonstrators continue to clash with security personnel over the government's move away from EU cooperation.
The barricades in central Kiev are controlled by men in helmets and red vests. They are veterans of the Soviets' ill-fated war in Afghanistan, and now they see themselves as the "guards of the square." They have closed breaches in the barriers that face Kiev's government district, from where they believe the feared special unit known as "Berkut," or Golden Eagle, will come storming out.
A few hundred meters away is Kiev's city administration building, which for two weeks has been occupied by protestors known as the "Staff of the Revolution," as they have somewhat boastfully spray-painted on the exterior walls. A mobile hospital would be more useful. In a ballroom supported by giant pillars, activists lie sprawled on the floor while nurses wearing Red Cross vests they sewed themselves rush back and forth between them. The revolutionaries of Kiev are tending to their wounds. Sergei is wearing a tracksuit and sporting designer stubble. He has been burned by one of the iron barrels the protestors make fires in to ward off the bitter cold, and he's rubbing his leg with snow.
The Kiev native is 27 and works as the coach of a handball team during the day, from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. He wants to rid Ukraine of President Viktor Yanukovych and to replace him with a government that looks toward Europe rather than Russia. He has been coming onto the streets when he is not at work, from 3 p.m. to 8 a.m., for two weeks already. But the cold is wearing him and his comrades down.
Police have surrounded the demonstrators. On Monday, Interior Ministry troops and personnel from the Berkut dismantled barricades across Kiev, while five metro stations around Maidan Nezalezhnosti, or Independence Square, in the center of the city were closed, supposedly because of the threat of terrorism. In truth, however, it was to impede the influx of protestors.
'We Are Not Coordinating Well'
Government forces first hit the party headquarters of the jailed Yulia Tymoshenko, a location resembling a fortress in the Podil district surrounded by high fences and gates. Police and Berkut troops armed with machine pistols soared over the walls and stormed the building. They kicked down doors and confiscated computers and servers. The official reason for the operation was unclear in the evening, but may be related to investigations of high treason against Arseniy Yatsenyuk. The former foreign minister is the head of Tymoshenko's party, Fatherland, and one of the leaders of the protests in Ukraine. Fearing a similar fate themselves, the UDAR party of Vitali Klitschko cleared out its headquarters.
"We are not coordinating well, we have no central hub," says Sergei in the Kiev city administration building. Now and then, messengers run through the building's dark corridors. They report news from the showdown with police, news that bears the names of streets in Kiev's city center. At the Hotel Ukraina on Instytutska Street, the police have advanced 600 meters closer to the square. At Shovkovychna Steret in the government quarter, state forces attempted to use a tractor. Vitali Klitschko's brother, Wladimir, stood in front of it to halt its progress.
Most critical, however, is the situation in the Ljuteranska Street, next to the Lutheran church. "The Berkut are attacking," people begin to call down the alleyways long after midnight. When he hears the shouts, Sergei brushes the snow of his leg and runs off with two friends.
They reach Ljuteranska just in time. Protesters block the Berkut troops' advance. Two policemen have lost contact with the rest of their unit. The men are encircled, one drops his shield, fists fly. "Stop beating the police!" yells Sergei. He and his cohorts form a ring around the officers and escort them to the nearest police barricade. Such attacks, he says, are the work of government provocateurs.
But that is only part of the truth. Many of the protesters in Ljuteranska Street are masked, some carry iron crowbars. The situation in front of the church almost escalated in the afternoon when 300 supporters of the nationalist party known as "Svoboda," the Ukrainian word for freedom, came at the police wielding clubs. They only backed off after Svoboda chief Oleg Tjagnibok intervened.
Berkut and Protesters Face to Face
As night falls, it stays largely peaceful in front of the church. For hours the two camps stand face to face: the protesters and Berkut. Every now and then the police let their silver shields sink down a bit. Then the activists try to strike up discussion with them: Would they not also wish that their children could one day grow up in a European Ukraine?
"And what do you suggest?" one of the Berkut officers suddenly asks.
"Early elections," the demonstrators chant.
"Your opposition is just bickering," the police officer says before raising his shield again. That's the end of the debate, but he reveals a bit more information. He'd vote for Klitschko, he says.
Then his unit moves ahead, lined up shield to shield. The first thing to fall is the tent that anti-Yanukovych protesters had erected in the middle of the street. Then it's the barricades erected during the mass rally on Sunday. But that's where it stays on this night. Authorities gained a few meters, but the central tent city on Independence Square remains untouched. Yanukovych has since announced negotiations with the opposition.
In front of the church one demonstrator plucks chords on his guitar and sings a song by Russian rock star Yuri Shevchuk, called "Ne strelyai," or "Don't Shoot." Inside the church activists are trying to get warm. An Orthodox priest drinks hot tea, standing back to back with radical church opponent Pyotr Verzilov, the husband of imprisoned Pussy Riot member Nadezhda Tolokonnikova who has traveled to Ukraine from Russia.
German pastor Ralf Haska has domiciliary rights at the church, and has been observing the conflict since late November as it continues to bring both demonstrators and police to his doorstep. Police operations can't end the crisis, he says, adding that only early elections can do that. The people's rage won't dissipate, he adds. "The barricade is gone, but we'll see when it gets erected again."