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The Regime Strikes Back – Attack of the Clones

Prof. Mychailo Wynnyckyj PhD Kyiv-Mohyla Academy

During the very early hours of the morning of 11/12/13, several thousand riot police and Interior Ministry troops attacked the barricades set up 2 weeks ago by protestors around Kyiv’s Independence Square. According to official reports, 10 police officers were injured. Obtaining an exact count of casualties from the protestors’ side is impossible, but it is safe to say that when the dust settles, numbers will number in the hundreds.

As night turned to day, interior ministry troops attempted to storm Kyiv city hall. Three buses pulled up to the front doors of the building, but the troops inside were immediately blocked by a massive crowd. Protesters poured water from fire hoses through second floor windows onto the busses – in -10 degree Celsius weather. When two busses of police reinforcements attempted to pull up to the city hall building, a massive crowd of protesters blocked their path, and forced a retreat.

At 10 am, several hundred interior ministry troops continued to maintain a cordon around the Trade Unions building where opposition leaders had previously set up their base of operations. The scene was surreal. On one side of the police cordon, several thousand people filled the square in front of the stage, from where the singer Ruslana continued to call for peaceful protest: “Every person on Maidan is responsible for Ukraine’s image in the world! Let them hear us – We are here!” On the other side of the police line, bumper-to-bumper busses blocked Kyiv’s main thoroughfare, providing cover for an almost empty street where city workers slowly removed one of the protesters’ make-shift barricades. Meanwhile, approximately 300 meters to the west, the tense face-off between crowds and riot police continued in front of the city hall building.

At 10:07 the three busses with interior ministry troops retreated from their positions in front of city hall, pressured to do so by the peaceful crowd shouting “go home!” and “together we are a force”. At approximately the same time, at the other end of Khreshchatyk Street, the troops forming a police cordon separating Independence Square from the Trade Unions building also retreated into a line of busses lined bumper-to-bumper across the street in the place where protesters had previously set up a barricade. At 10:43 the busses began to pull away. Clearly the Interior Ministry troops are under orders to clear demonstrators only under the cover of darkness.

At midnight last night it looked like the stand-off would continue peacefully for some time. The previous night, protestors were pushed back by police to their original barricades around the perimeter of Independence Square (established prior to last weekend’s mass demonstrations), and although they were regularly subjected to psychological warfare tactics, the Euromaidan looked like it would hold. During the day, the protestors were visited by dignitaries from both the EU and the US – a move that was officially censured by both the Russian Duma, and Russian Prime Minister Medvedev, as an act “intervention in the internal affairs” of Ukraine. Grandstanding, pressure tactics, and posturing seemed to be everyone’s preferred strategy. Few expected the regime to break the peace so soon, and certainly not at a time when Baroness Catherine Ashton and Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Newland were in Kyiv.

Yesterday, in a grand show of apparent “statesmanship”, Ukraine’s serving President met with his three predecessors in the presidential TV studio to discuss current events – with clearly prepared media messages delivered by each “round-table” participant. The President promised to pressure prosecutors to release those arrested (for the duration of their prosecution) for apparently organizing the street riots in front of the Presidential Administration on Dec 1; the former Presidents suggested further concessions that Yanukovych might consider (e.g. prosecuting the Interior Minister, firing the Prime Minister, etc.) if “national round table” negotiations were in fact enjoined. Given last night’s police raid on the peaceful Euromaidan protests that now seems very unlikely.

In a foreshadowing of future regime propaganda and spin tactics, yesterday I witnessed two large mobile advertisements (trailers pulled by SUV’s) moving through Kyiv’s rush hour traffic with billboards encouraging readers to log-on to (“we are for peace”). This website hosts a Russian-language condemnation of “violence by all sides” – an implied message that I’m convinced will be broadcast today from every media outlet still loyal to the regime: talking heads will claim that riot police are not the only ones to blame for the forceful clearing of the demonstrations. The regime’s aim now will be to manipulate (or at least neutralize) public support for the Euromaidan protests by instilling fear in some, and indifference in others. I doubt it will work in Kyiv, but whether this will be an effective tactic in the eastern and southern regions of the country remains an open question.

Not surprisingly (and as predicted), in the wake of the Lenin statue incident on Sunday night, police presence on the streets of Kyiv increased yesterday. Although troop movements during the day caused significant stress (some would call it “panic”) on Independence Square – Klitschko even called for all women and children to leave the city center – no significant incidents of conflict with police occurred. The influx of Interior Ministry troops (not to be confused with “Berkut” riot police) was accompanied by an apparent “bomb scare” that resulted in the closing of 3 subway stations in the city center for several hours. No one in Kyiv really believed the bomb scare to be genuine – clearly this was a diversionary tactic aimed at minimizing a new influx of people onto Independence Square.

As night fell Monday night, the interior ministry troops pushed back protestors and dismantled the make shift barricades in front of the Cabinet of Ministers building, and near the Presidential Administration. However, to their credit, both police and demonstrators were well behaved. Interior Ministry troops established a cordon 5-7 men deep that marched forward slowly in a manoeuver that resembled the movement of an ancient Greek/Roman phalanx. Although demonstrators attempted to resist the forward movement of police by pushing back, not a single projectile was thrown, and neither batons (on the police side), nor sticks (from the protestors) went into play. If one could ever imagine “civilized” crowd control, this would have been a good example.

On Tuesday 10 December, Ukraine’s social media were filled with reports of touchingly humane interactions between police and demonstrators. Apparently, many of the young men on the police side are cold, hungry, and lonely: today, young ladies from the Euromaidan brought them hot tea, and sandwiches; in several spots, protestors moved their burning barrels closer to the police line, so that the men in uniform could feel a little warmth in the freezing temperatures. During the first days of the stand-off, when Kyiv-based police officers were deployed to control the crowds, individual officers who had previously served together were deliberately separated – apparently in this way commanders wanted to reduce the risk of defections from police ranks.

During tonight’s attempt to remove the barricades around Independence Square, the Interior Ministry mobilized all available human assets. According to reliable reports, several local police stations around the city were left operating with skeletal staff because all available manpower was moved to the city center. If the influx of people from the regions into Kyiv that has been called for by opposition leaders in fact materializes (I have little doubt it will), the capital’s policing capacity will be overwhelmed, and given the lousy treatment that Interior Ministry troops receive from the regime, defections are likely.

To an outsider, the tactics of the regime seem unbelievable and illogical. An article published on 5.12.2013 on (in Russian) by Vitaliy Portnikov, a highly respected journalist, provides some insight into the motives of the regime, and contrasts the worldview of Ukraine’s political elite with that of the demonstrators. Vitaliy metaphorically compares the psychology of a resident of Koncha Zaspa (a residential area outside of Kyiv where political and business leaders have built their mansions) with the worldview of a Euromaidan protestor. For the former, it is inconceivable that the current demonstrations could possibly be manned by unpaid crowds; logically for them, eventually, the organizers’ funding will end, and the crowds will disperse; riot police will only serve to accelerate this process. For the Euromaidan protestor, the very suggestion of a protest for money is repugnant; she stands on Independence Square at night in the freezing cold, not even for some ephemeral European ideal, but simply for her own personal dignity, and for the dignity of all the others around her. The regime’s claims that last night’s police operations were justified by court rulings ordering demonstrators to clear government buildings and traffic areas, and that in fact police were not violent, is an affront to that sense of dignity.

The worldviews of the demonstrators are simply irreconcilable with the “values” of the current regime. More on this divide in future posts, but suffice it to say for now that more blood is yet to be shed before this is over. For now – keep warm, and stay tuned to Kyiv at night. The day belongs to the demonstrators; now we need to secure the night.

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