From my journalist friend Zenon Zawada, ont he ground in Kyiv, Ukraine
Kyiv Bureau Editor
The Ukrainian Weekly
Circus at the Rada
The latest opposition protest at the Verkhovna Rada, on September 7, resembled a three-ring circus that revealed the increasing radicalization and tension in Ukrainian politics, which appears to be poised for a nasty eruption as predicted by numerous observers.
About 10,000 demonstrators (I estimate about 2,500 pro-government and 7,500 opposition) arrived from throughout Ukraine, despite extensive efforts by the police to prevent the arrival of demonstrators. Any bus companies found to be transporting opposition protestors automatically have their transportation license confiscated. All the dozen or so protestors I spoke with today either arrived by train or their own cars. They all said bus companies declined to transport them.
Only three parties were represented at the protest: Batkivschyna (led by Yulia Tymoshenko), the Svoboda nationalists (led by Oleh Tiahnybok) and the People's Rukh of Ukraine (Narodnyi Rukh) led by Borys Tarasyuk. Viktor Yushchenko has vanished from the Ukrainian political scene and Our Ukraine is extinct, as well as the orange color, which Ukrainians now associate with the Donetsk Shakhtar soccer team more than anything else.
Previous protests were marred by Svoboda nationalists shouting down more moderate voices, who yelled "Tiah-ny-bok!" even as prominent leaders such as Tymoshenko spoke. It was no different this time around. The protest meeting was marred by hundreds of radicalized Svoboda youths in their 20s attempting to shout down most other speakers, including Borys Tarasyuk and former police chief Yurii Lutsenko.
Lutsenko is not a popular figure in Ukrainian politics, having been among those who most betrayed the Orange ideals. Yet the fact he was shouted down demonstrates the aggressiveness of Svoboda supporters, who didn't seem to be interested in joining the unification of opposition forces, but causing enmity.
When demonstrators attempted to take away their megaphones, in order to stop them from southing down other speakers, the Svoboda boys shoved and even punched back, continuing to repeat over and over, "Tiah-ny-bok!" Soon enough, their zombie-like fanaticism for Tiahnybok led other demonstrators to accuse them of either being at the protest for money, as paid provocateurs, or intentionally causing division among the opposition forces at the behest of the Party of Regions.
Indeed many Ukrainian patriots suspect that the Svoboda party engages in ethnically and politically motivated provocations and aggressive behavior in order to benefit the Party of Regions. Today's behavior of the young male supporters, many in their 20s, only contributed to that view.
After the rally, Tiahnybok insisted to those gathered around him (including me) that he didn't spur his supporters into shouting his name or disrupting the rally. He said they were upset because the demonstration's organizers, the Committee to Defend Ukraine, denied him an opportunity to speak. However another party leader, Iryna Farion, was allowed to address the crowd, so the behavior of the Svoboda crowd seemed unreasonable.
Additionally, the Svoboda nationalists appeared as if they came to the rally prepared to attack Tymoshenko (and anyone besides their own leaders, for that matter), having arrived with printed placards with slogans that taunted her, such as "Who made (natural) gas serfs out of Ukrainians?"
In her speech, Tymoshenko hammered on the government's unpopular decisions to increase natural gas prices, increase utility bills by 30 percent, increase the pension age, and increase the Kyiv subway fare (from 22 cents to 25 cents). She also referred to the government as Ukrainophobes, citing its Russification policies.
Farion is among the most radical politicians in Ukraine, so it can as no surprise that she called for "Ukraine for Ukrainians" and ridding the nation of the "animals in government." She used very loaded language, calling upon the protesters "to shoot them up with their voting ballots" at the October 31 elections and speaking of a "final catharsis" that will soon arrive.
Similar language was used by the Committee to Defend Ukraine chairman Dmytro Pavlychko, who said openly that Ukraine "is headed for an explosion." That does seem to be the direction of events as such protests draw more supporters. And the Yanukovych administration does seem to be provoking the opposition into a violent confrontation, with its radically pro-Russian cultural policies that denigrate the dignity of ethnically conscious Ukrainians.
It's apparent the government is even laying the groundwork for such a violent confrontation, which it can use as a pretext to impose a full-scale authoritarianism as evidenced in Belarus and even some form of martial law. If the opposition enters into an "explosion," as Mr. Pavlychko suggested, then it better plan the right strategy to ensure that it emerges as the winner, not the defeated.
The techniques used by the government to deal with the opposition are getting fiercer. While earlier allowing protestors to line up along Hrushevskoho Street on the side opposite of the parliament building, this time they weren't allowed to walk along the street at all. Once again, the government surrounded the parliament building with thousands of Party of Regions supporters, who were comfortably shielded by metal barricades and hundreds of police. Their fanaticism and bizarre behavior is accelerating as fast as the radicalization of the opposition, which was forced to hold its meeting at the Mariyinskiy Palace, adjacent to the parliament building.
It came as no surprise to see more than a thousand Russian Orthodox radicals marching in columns around the parliament building, holding icons and wooden crosses and singing Church Slavonic hymns. This has been a common sight at the barricades that have surrounded the parliament at protests since Yanukovych came to power.
I should note that never was religion integrated into political activity to such an extent as the Yanukovych administration is currently exploiting it. The Orange forces never invoked religion during their reign in the government or their role in the opposition. This leads to the conclusion that the Party of Regions is truly fearful of the opposition and has resorted to extreme measures to extend their grip on power, such as manipulating the Orthodox devoted into defending their authoritarian rule.
It shocked me to see hundreds of Party of Regions supporters participating in a Divine Liturgy ceremony led by Orthodox priests within their barricaded fortress, directly in front of the parliament building just as the opposition was meeting. I had never seen such a direct infusion of religion in politics, which has very dangerous potential because it introduces a new irrational element to the conflict. Politics is supposed to offer rational, compromised solutions to disputes. Religion is irrational and therefore can lead people to do highly irrational things.
The scene inside the parliament was just as bizarre as abut a dozen deputies of the Tymoshenko Bloc led a blockade of the podium. Yet the pro-Russian coalition was voting on and approving legislation during this "blockade," rendering it wholly ineffective and largely a ploy for television cameras.
The most hopeful sign is that the opposition forces are swelling and gaining support among the population. Today's anti-government protest was the largest since the Yanukovych administration took power.
Yet it was very disheartening to see the opposition forces so divided. (What else is new?) It seems as though Ukrainians are incapable of uniting, no matter how compelling the conditions might be. While I once reserved sympathy and admiration for the Svoboda nationalists and their fierce devotion to the Ukrainian cause, I lost much sympathy and respect for them after today's protest. They demonstrated such unconstructive narrow-mindedness and hostility towards the other opposition parties that I'm starting to believe they're more of a hindrance than a benefit to the Ukrainian cause. Their radical positions on many issues aren't capable of unifying the country, and play into the hands of the Party of Regions in reinforcing the Soviet stereotype of western Ukrainians as "fascist," hostile, intolerant and dangerous.
The consensus is that Yanukovych and the Party of Regions are seeking the same authority in Ukraine that Putin enjoys in Russia and Lukashenko in Belarus. They will tighten the screws of their authoritarian rule following the October 31 elections, which will no doubt be falsified and rigged in many cities. The amended election law approved on August 30 only enhances the government's ability to falsify the vote, as detailed in The Ukrainian Weekly last week.
The latest episode in the Yanukovych nightmare is the September 7 announcement by Yevhen Bystrytskyi, the executive director of the Renaissance Foundation in Ukraine, that the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) is reviewing its work in Kyiv. While George Soros is no angel and no one to be admired, the Renaissance Foundation offers much support to many of Ukraine's democracy-building institutions. As we recall, Vladimir Putin supported legislation in the Russian Duma in 2006 limiting the ability of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to operate in Russia. No doubt, Yanukovych would also like to restrict the presence western NGOs which offer financial support to organizations committed to democracy-building and Ukraine's Euro-Atlantic integration. The Renaissance projects targeted by the SBU so far are not political, yet it's clearly the strategy of the current government to slowly and gradually eliminate the Western presence. If the Renaissance Fund is strangled, so go many Ukrainian NGOs.