Rocks and Molotovs vs snipers’ bullets in Kiev

Ukraine's revolution has been an old-style uprising cut through with violence.

Ukraine’s revolution was, to some extent, an old-fashioned popular uprising, the kind you read about in textbooks about the 19th century. Until this past month, there had been too many reports in the western media that swallowed the Russian line that the protesters were all extreme nationalists. I saw a few, but I also saw old women helping cut up pavement and forming human chains to transport the paving stones for young men to throw from the front line. The neatest evidence of civic support was the cardboard boxes at the entrances to the encampment on the Maidan, Kyiv’s main square, with notes in Ukrainian or Russian on them saying things like “Fags for the lads”. Local teenagers, showing off in front of their mates, were enthusiastic donors.

Yet there was also violence. There were running battles between protesters and militiamen on 18 February and the headquarters of the ruling party was burned. Then came the long-feared attack on the Maidan, but not in the expected form. The opposing armies faced off, hurling missiles at each other. Two days later, the regime resorted to snipers. Those behind the barricades or in no-man’s-land were shot professionally through the head or heart.

The Ukrainian press later reported that the snipers had been based in either the main government building or the presidential administration. Both have been peacefully occupied since then, in part to comb for evidence.

It was originally a Twitter revolution. The protesters assembled using social media – mainly Facebook and the local equivalent, VKontakte. Maidan activists made good use of technology to publicise their cause and deter the regime from too much violence while the world’s TV cameras were rolling. But in the weeks before the revolution the regime simply moved its violence off-screen wherever possible. Suspects were snatched from their hospital beds. Activists were seized at night, beaten and dumped in local forests.

And so the protesters became increasingly militant and the regime more brutal. In the end, it became a low-tech conflict. The people in the streets won a straight fight – with rocks and Molotov cocktails against snipers’ bullets. Hence the militarised funerals that were held afterwards and the emerging national myth of blood sacrifice.

The people on the Maidan, not the moderate parties in parliament that form the new government, made the revolution. Every time the parties and the president signed an agreement, the demonstrators ignored it or put on a show of force if they had not been consulted. Tensions remain. The government cannot disband the army on the Maidan; but activists have done a good job of stepping in for the disappearing police.

The protesters gave the newly released former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko a lukewarm reception when she addressed them from a wheelchair on 22 February. She risks looking like yesterday’s politician. Officials in the new government have been stopped by protesters’ patrols and lectured about sweeping around Kyiv in their motorcades.

But no one has elected the revolutionaries – no one ever does. Elections for the presidency are scheduled for May but not yet for parliament, where new parties representing the Maidan would have more of a chance. The protesters claim to represent the “revolutionary Ukrainian people”, but things aren’t that revolutionary to date in the largely Russian-speaking east of the country. So even the spelling of the capital’s name is important: it is Kyiv in Ukrainian, Kiev in Russian.

Parliament may have made a misstep by moving so quickly to abolish the 2012 law on language, which Yanukovych introduced to mobilise his supporters by bolstering the status of Russian in the east and south. Economic priorities are more pressing. In effect, the coffers are empty and the Russians, who do not recognise the legitimacy of the new leaders, will hit them hard – with higher gas prices and trade embargoes and by stopping Russian banks from lending to Ukraine. So far, the Russians have not actively stoked separatist sentiments that would give them influence over parts of the country. They hope the new authorities will fail quickly if they ramp up the economic pressure.

In the meantime, I’m happy with “Kyiv”. The people have earned it. It was noticeable how they smiled if you spoke Ukrainian, as they did immediately after the collapse of the USSR in 1991. But healing the country’s divisions now will be even more difficult than it has been in the past.

Andrew Wilson is a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations

This article first appeared in the 26 February 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Scotland: a special issue

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Boris Johnson “will resign before weekend” if Theresa May defies his Brexit wishes

The Foreign Secretary is against paying permanently for single market access.

It turns out Boris Johnson’s 4,000 word piece in the Telegraph on Friday on his post-Brexit “vision” is exactly what we thought it was: a threat cushioned by patriotic fluff. Which is a good way of describing the man himself, really.

Because the same paper has just published an exclusive story that the Foreign Secretary will resign from cabinet before the weekend if Theresa May doesn’t follow his desired plan for Brexit.

He wants to put pressure on May not to follow the “EEA minus” option, which would see the UK paying the EU permanently for access to the single market and other benefits. The Telegraph reports that he “could not live with” that arrangement and would quit.

Johnson is trying to distance himself from the story, which allies are calling “nonsense” and blaming on his enemies, suggesting they’re spreading it as revenge against his Telegraph essay.

This is the problem for Johnson. His intervention was co-ordinated with the same paper, which now has an exclusive on his resignation threat. Anyone watching his mischief-making over the weekend would assume it had come from him. Then again, his enemies would know that, too.

But the Prime Minister has a bigger problem. She is about to make a set-piece speech in Florence on Friday, outlining the government’s approach to Brexit. She was planning on showing a draft to cabinet on Thursday.

Up against a Tory party and cabinet divided over how hard or soft Brexit should be, it was always going to be a difficult task. With the threat of a high-profile cabinet resignation, it will be even harder. It shines the light on ideological divisions that she hoped to push out of the way of conference season. With Brexit addressed in the Florence speech, she could have used Tory party conference to focus on domestic policy (ie. looking like a Prime Minister in control for a bit). Now, it’ll be all about the party’s divides – and leadership challengers.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.