A year in Ukraine

Twelve months ago a revolution was sparked in Kiev and Ukraine’s identity was recast. On its anniversary it’s still not clear who started the uprising – or why


For some it will always be the smell of firewood or burning tyres, or the taste of hot soup sipped through freezing lips. For others it will be a nation’s plangent anthem, the fizz and scream of fireworks or the crisp tap-tap of a rifle.

A year ago a revolution was starting in Kiev, and it would change Ukraine forever.

The three-month protest on Independence Square deeply marked many people who were there, and its reminders will always plunge them back into that icy, smoke-wreathed arena, where their bright dreams and bloody fears did battle.

Several of each came true: President Viktor Yanukovich and his chief allies admitted defeat and fled to Russia, and now Ukraine has a pro-western president and government, and has signed the historic deal with the EU that Yanukovich rejected.

But the final days of the uprising took more than 100 lives; then Russia annexed Crimea and fomented a separatist insurgency in eastern Ukraine that has killed more than 4,000 people and driven a million from their homes.

Commemoration events this weekend will honour the “Heavenly Hundred” killed around the square that Ukrainians call Maidan, and those fighting and dying in the east, but they will also highlight divisions over the revolution and its legacy.

Was it really inspired by the dream of EU membership, as claimed by local and western politicians who quickly dubbed it EuroMaidan? Who shot protesters and police, and why haven’t they been tried?

And are the revolution’s goals in danger of being usurped by the very oligarchs who were among its targets?

Several people claim to have launched Maidan, as the protest movement quickly became known, on November 21st, after the government suspended talks about a political and trade pact with the EU.

Prime Minister Mykola Azarov said the deal would damage Ukraine and must be changed. For Yanukovich’s critics another motivation was clear: he had bowed to Russian pressure, obeyed the Kremlin and turned the country away from the West.

“I was shocked at Azarov’s announcement,” says Andriy Parubiy, a deputy who would lead the Maidan’s “self-defence” units, at the Hotel Kiev, close to parliament in the capital. “After the parliamentary session I came back here, where I was staying, and spoke to a journalist, Svyatoslav Tsegolko, who said, ‘Let’s go to Maidan.’ ”

Tsegolko worked for Channel 5, a television station controlled by the billionaire confectioner Petro Poroshenko. He would help finance Maidan, and become a key advocate in business and political circles. In May Poroshenko was elected Ukraine’s president; Tsegolko is his press secretary.

The journalist used his Facebook page to call people to Independence Square, as did another prominent reporter, Mustafa Nayem. “At first there were only a few dozen people there, outnumbered by police,” says Parubiy. “But after a while we had a few hundred – and then more than 1,000.”


‘Down with the convict’

Oleksandr Danylyuk, an activist, said he and his anti-corruption group, Spilna Sprava (Common Cause), had expected Yanukovich to renege on the EU deal and were among the first to come out on Maidan and raise their flag. “There were maybe 2,000 people, maximum, on November 21st, and the main slogan was ‘Ukraine is Europe’. But for me it was already a protest against corruption and dictatorship, and the best slogan was ‘Zeka het’.” That chant – “Down with the convict” – would become a rallying cry against Yanukovich and his regime, and for Danylyuk and many others it was more powerful than pro-EU messages that risked alienating people in pro-Russian Crimea and the east.


“I wouldn’t die for the European Union,” says Danylyuk, whose group raided and seized several ministries to highlight Yanukovich’s weakness, to spur on the revolution and to show the world how dangerous the situation had become. “We did this for our freedom and sovereignty; it wasn’t about giving part of that to Brussels. The Yanukovich regime was a Russian puppet, and this was a national-democratic uprising.”

The small rallies of November 21st and the following days did not make Yanukovich change course, and, on November 29th, he refused to sign the association agreement with Brussels at an EU summit in Lithuania. In Kiev and the western city of Lviv protests grew to include more than 10,000 people, but, late on the night of November 30th, there were only a few hundred on Maidan when riot police stormed it. Officials later said they had wanted to clear the square to erect a large Christmas tree.

Dozens – mostly students – were left bloodied and bruised by the police attack, and pictures were broadcast and shared on social media. The effect turned moderate metropolitan, pro-EU protests into a radical mass movement to oust a venal regime.

“When they attacked Maidan on the 30th, people took refuge up the hill in St Michael’s Cathedral,” says Parubiy. “There we formed our first self-defence units and vowed to return to Maidan with a million people. On December 1st we did that, and the police just melted away. The tent camp started to grow, and we built the first barricades around Maidan. We said we wouldn’t let them beat our children again.”

After working for nine years for the tax authorities, and then starting his own business, Oleksander Ivashkov joined a unit of the self-defence force led by Parubiy, which had 12,000 members at its peak.

“I had a look at the protest on November 21st and saw some familiar faces from politics and previous demonstrations,” the 33-year-old says. “After what happened on the 30th it was not about Europe but about the terrible abuse of power. It was already clear then that this was a mass movement, bigger than the Orange Revolution in 2004. This was about the people, not political parties.”


Western coup? Moscow says it was

a western-sponsored and western-orchestrated coup, to allow the EU and US-led Nato to bite deeper into the “Russian world” and shrink the Kremlin’s influence. Yanukovich’s allies claim Danylyuk is a British intelligence agent and accuse Parubiy of placing snipers around Maidan to shoot at protesters and police, sowing bloody chaos to sink the regime. Both men deny the allegations.

After acting as an adviser to the defence minister, Danylyuk now leads an agency co-ordinating military reform; Parubiy served as head of Ukraine’s national-security and defence council until August and is a founder of the People’s Front party that did well in October’s general election. Parubiy says about 5,000 veterans from his Maidan self-defence units are fighting as volunteers against Russian-backed separatists in Donetsk and Luhansk.

And thousands more like Ivashkov are aiding the war effort from home. “The West helped, gave moral support, but it was not decisive,” says Ivashkov. “Now our leaders must always be aware of their responsibility – before Maidan, the Heavenly Hundred, and those who are dying in the east.”

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