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Protests in Kyiv

Roman Goncharenko / reDecember 16, 2013

President Yanukovych's planned trip to Moscow worries Ukrainians at the EuroMaidan protests in Kyiv. They are warning him against signing any deals with Russia that could harm Ukrainian ties with the EU.

A man and woman with a Ukrainian flag (Photo: Grischko)
Image: DW/L. Grischko

It is 11:35 a.m. and Mikhailo Korol is walking along Bankova Street in Kyiv towards the presidential office. About 300 meters away from the main entrance, special police units have blocked the street with metal plates. A second line of police stands a hundred meters further away. And behind them buses, parked bumper to bumper, block the entrance. On this Sunday (15.12.2013) President Viktor Yanukovych's office and the surrounding government quarter look like a besieged fortress.

More demonstrations on Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square) are the reason. This has been the fourth Sunday of "EuroMaidan" protests since Yanukovych unexpectedly shelved a planned Association Agreement with the EU on November 21. Hundreds of thousands have since taken to the streets calling for his resignation.

Protesters descend on Kyiv

Some like Korol have come a long way. The bakery owner is from Ivano-Frankivsk, 600 kilometers west of Kyiv. "My friends and I rented a bus and came for one day," he said. "We want Yanukovych and his government to resign," he said.

Many of those who have been protesting in Kyiv for the past four weeks come from the western parts of Ukraine, where the majority is strongly in favor of closer ties to the EU. Protests have also taken place in western Ukrainian towns and cities. "We provided them with food," Korol said.

Generation independence

Around midday, Independence Square fills up with demonstrators. Tens of thousands stand shoulder to shoulder. It takes nearly an hour to cross the 200-meter-wide square. In recent days, barricades have been erected in the side streets, to keep demonstrators from fleeing from the police. But these fortifications make it difficult to reach the Maidan.

The organizers referred to the Sunday rally as a "viche," an old Ukrainian word for the medieval popular assemblies where difficult and fateful decisions were made.

"That is exactly what it is about," said Svitlana, a student from Kyiv. She came with three of her friends to the Maidan. Svitlana wears a traditional Ukrainian floral wreath around her head, and has the Ukrainian flag painted on her cheeks. "We want Ukraine to become part of the European Union and not Russia," she said.

US Senator John McCain on the Maidan stage (Photo: Reuters)
US Senator John McCain came to Maidan to support the protestersImage: Reuters
Three women with floral wreaths around their heads (Photo: Grischko)
Protesters are keeping up the pressure on President YanukovychImage: DW/L. Grischko

Svitlana and her friends are in their early twenties. Theirs is a generation born and raised in an independent Ukraine.

'Don't sign your country away'

The protest is intended to stop Ukraine falling under Russian sway. A declaration read out by activists and politicians warns the Ukrainian president not "to sign agreements with Russia that would stop us on our path toward joining Europe."

On Tuesday (17.12.2013) Yanukovych will travel to Moscow to meet his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin. According to official sources, he plans to sign several economic agreements. The government in Kyiv denies that the meeting is about joining Russia's customs union, a grouping that presently includes authoritarian Belarus and Kazakhstan, and which the protesters fear is little more than an instrument of Russian imperialism.

The demonstrators announced another rally in Kyiv for Tuesday evening. They want to send a signal that they do not want Ukraine to move closer to Russia. "We are a European nation and we want to be a part of Europe," was a mantra repeated by the speakers on the Maidan stage.

Celebrities take a stand

Singer Ruslana, winner of the 2004 Eurovision Song Contest, said the EU must make it clear Ukraine may one day join the EU. "There are demands to eliminate the visa requirements for Ukrainians," she said. "I want to travel to Europe without a visa."

On the stage where Ruslana has served as a presenter every day since the protests began, she is given an award for her "bravery." When the police last week moved to clear the square, she called on the people of Kyiv to come to the city center. Thousands answered her call.

Opposition politicians like world boxing champion Vitali Klitschko also swear they will work to bring Ukraine into Europe. Their demands haven't changed since the protests began: new elections and the release of political prisoners like Yulia Tymoshenko.

People with blue flags (Photo: Grischko)
Supporters of the president also turned up to demonstrate in KyivImage: DW/L. Grischko

"We won't give up," Klitschko said. "Are there any troublemakers? I'll come and have a look," he said. There is laughter and applause.

The demonstrators are given moral support by hugely popular rock band Okean Elzy - and two US senators. Democrat Chris Murphy and Republican John McCain take to the stage.

McCain said the US supported "the sovereign right of Ukraine to determine its own destiny freely and independently. To all Ukrainians, America stands with you." He called on the Ukrainian police not to use force against the demonstrators.

Kyiv's other demonstrators

But anything could still happen. On this Sunday thousands of Yanukovych supporters gather in the cordoned-off government quarter. Most of them come from the east and the south of the country - Yanukovych's Russified industrial strongholds. The mood at this "anti-Maidan" is less upbeat. Gloomy music comes out of the speakers.

"I hope things will stay peaceful," Korol said. He wants to return to Kyiv soon. But it's anyone's guess what will happen in Moscow on Tuesday - and afterwards in Ukraine.