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Kyiv at crossroad: 'All we can do is hope for the best'

Ukrainian capital sombre but hopeful after deaths, Crimea takeover

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KYIV -- A scant 50 metres away from Kyiv's Maidan, where tens of thousands of protesters waged three months of often violent skirmishes with riot police, a man is staging a photograph with his son aged about 12.

He urges his son to move a little bit to his left and the boy obliges as he pretends to hurl a cobblestone at an imagined target.

Yesterday's killing field has become today's family photo op.

The clashes are over and former president Viktor Yanukovich, almost universally loathed in this beautiful, tree-lined city of 3.5 million, is in exile and fearing for his life in Russia, whose leaders still proclaim him to be the legitimate head of state.

A new pro-Western government is in place, trying to come to grips with a ravaged, debt-ridden economy, fundamentally different outlooks in eastern and western Ukraine and now, the annexation of Crimea.

The Black Sea playground of the tsars and Communist leaders was supposed to be firmly entrenched in Ukraine by virtue of "inviolable" borders from the Soviet era.

But the Russians didn't see it that way.

President Vladimir Putin insists the takeover was meant to protect Crimea's ethnic Russian majority from the chaos of mob rule, which he says has gripped Kyiv since Yanukovich's removal in early February, and from the "rabid Ukrainian nationalists, neo-Nazis and anti-Semites" to which the Kremlin says the new authorities in Kyiv are beholden.

He reserves the right to "protect" Russian-speaking Ukrainians in the east of the country, too.

The Russian arguments, packaged by a well-oiled Kremlin propaganda machine, are utter nonsense to anyone who spends even a few hours in Kyiv. There is no chaos, no mobs.

But the relief after Yanukovich's departure has given way to a sombre mood.

"For us, the Russian takeover of Crimea is like kicking an ill man when he is lying on the ground," said Natalya, an office worker in her 40s. "After all we have been through, all those deaths -- and now this, an occupying army."

Nearly a month after Yanukovich's flight during a week in which about 100 people were killed, many by bullets from unidentified snipers, the Maidan encampment, ramshackle, yet highly organized, remains firmly in place.

Participants, some camped on the square since the beginning of the turmoil in November, have no plans to leave while they monitor the government's commitment to their national and pro-European ideals.

Mourners and well-wishers lay fresh flowers every day on the vast tributes ringing the fringe of the Maidan, or Independence Square, also the site of the 2004 Orange Revolution.

Up the hill on Institutska Street, a formidable barricade of tires, scrap iron and concrete slabs extends up to an overhead pedestrian bridge.

Things are more subdued on nearby Hrushevska Street, outside the Dynamo soccer stadium, scene of some of the fiercest clashes. No flowers here, just piles of tires marking the positions defended by protesters against advancing riot police.

The scene underscores the commitment of hundreds of thousands who were determined to push Ukraine on a pro-Western course 22 years after independence from Soviet rule and exposes just how hopelessly out of touch Yanukovich was.

The starting point for the protests was the president's refusal to proceed with an "association agreement" with the European Union.

But it quickly expanded after riot police fiercely beat demonstrators on Nov. 30, enraging many rank and file residents for whom "European integration" was a secondary concern. The protests swelled to more than half a million.

"People no longer paid much attention to whether the movement was pro-Western or not," said Anatoly, who works for a computer firm. "What really mattered was not wanting to live in a society where the police beat up your son or daughter."

But it is hard now to describe the Maidan as an edifying spectacle as the government negotiates credit terms with the International Monetary Fund, desperately tries to root out endemic corruption and takes emergency measures to rebuild its hopelessly outmanned and outgunned armed forces.

"Thank God, we can now walk the streets safely again, though we are still not getting many customers," said Bohdan, a clerk in a store overlooking Khreshchatyk, which leads to the Maidan.

His face quickly clouds over.

"These people now in power had better produce results quickly, or they will all be publicly hanged."

Khreshchatyk, its fringes overwhelmed by pink and white flowering chestnut trees every April, is normally the destination of choice for strolling lovers and a pedestrian zone on weekends. Now it is the aftermath of a battle zone -- all its cobblestones gone and put to use as projectiles during the protests -- and still overrun by tents, with white smoke from wood-burning stoves billowing out the tops.

A Maidan "information centre" welcomes what has been reduced to a trickle of visitors, though drop-off points for firewood and a network of soup kitchens remain in operation. Collection boxes for small change and cigarettes hang from tent posts.

Pride of place is given to a large portrait of Stepan Bandera, a top leader of the Second World War Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA), which sought to recover Ukrainian independence by fighting both the Nazis and the Red Army -- and kept fighting until 1954.

The very mention of Bandera was tantamount to committing a crime in Soviet times and his name remains a curse word in today's Moscow as well as many parts of eastern Ukraine.

The presence of shock troops of extreme right-wing movements such as the "Right Sector," which formed the front line of battles against the riot police during the protests, is undeniable, but far from intimidating.

Young people in masks, each brandishing a large stick, set out in marching formation down Khreshchatyk in the early morning, shouting "Right Sector! Right Sector!" But the impression is more comic than oppressive.

The influence of these extreme activists, who seized Kyiv's city hall and some ministry buildings and used Molotov cocktails and firearms, set these protests apart from the Orange Revolution, when crowds cheered the fiery oratory of future prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko and no one got hurt.

The changed political landscape now means the right-wing Svoboda (Freedom) party, whose message of "Ukraine for Ukrainians" was dismissed as extreme in the 2010 election, is now the moderate right. It has two ministers in the interim cabinet.

For some, however, the extremists are hard to stomach.

"Surely, there is a limit," says Olena, a doctor. "If these groups moving around with clubs become more powerful, I will seriously consider leaving. I have places I can go. How can we live with that in civilized society?"

Nowadays, any reference to Tymoshenko or other figures associated with the Orange Revolution, its never-ending quarrels and shabby outcome, is generally enough to generate sharp retorts of disapproval. She is given little chance in the May 25 presidential election called to give the country a political makeover.

Also out in force on the square in the early morning are Cossacks, the self-styled successors of the fierce "hetmans" who ruled Ukraine during its brief periods of independence in the Middle Ages. Nowadays, they are little more than ragtag rent-a-cops, though committed to the national ideal.

"This morning, our task will be to protect the Verkhovna Rada, which is in session," barks a commander as a couple of dozen men, each with his trademark shaved head and single braid and wearing a variety of homespun uniforms, shuffles out of the square and up the hill to assembly.

The church was a mainstay of Ukrainians during the protests -- as it is for many Ukrainians in Winnipeg -- with the Mikhailovsky Cathedral up another hill from the Maidan sounding its bells during the clashes, much as it must have done in calamities in medieval times, and shielding demonstrators from riot police in pursuit.

The crisis appears to have reduced differences between the country's once deeply divided three Orthodox churches (pro-Moscow, pro-Kyiv and "independent"), with one pro-Moscow prelate even denouncing Putin as a "bandit".

Ukraine's separate eastern-rite, or "Greek", Catholic church was solidly behind the protests and has a history of defending nationalist sentiment. It was banned by Stalin in 1946 only to re-emerge more than four decades later under Mikhail Gorbachev's "perestroika" reforms.

But it is the fractious parliament that is probably sufficient in itself to distinguish Ukraine from most of the rest of the former Soviet Union.

Unlike Russia's predictable and sycophantic parliament, the Rada is totally unpredictable, the site of innumerable fist fights and the focal point of all political activity. Many Ukrainians pointedly follow live debate on radio or television.

In the years following the Orange Revolution, no-holds-barred battles -- with bullhorns, papers, chairs as only some of the weapons of choice -- pitted Tymoshenko, prime minister at the time, against her foes from Yanukovich's Regions Party or, more often than not, her supposed ally, then-president Viktor Yushchenko.

And, astonishing as it might seem, it was here that Yanukovich was turfed out of office by a vote after his allies deserted him on the morning that he fled the country, with millions demanding an explanation for the deaths in the square.

And parliament is also a symbol of sorts of the phony "language issue" that Moscow has tried to exploit in claiming to "defend" Ukraine's millions of Russian-speakers, almost since the collapse of Soviet rule and particularly since its takeover of Crimea.

Debate is conducted in both Ukrainian and Russian. No translation is provided and none is expected. Though the two languages are quite different, deputies slip in and out of them, sometimes without even noticing, as do participants in radio and television discussions.

To suggest Russian-speakers are punished or at a disadvantage is disingenuous -- 22 years after Ukrainian being proclaimed the sole state language of the newly independent state to offset unabashed Soviet attempts to sideline it, Kyiv remains essentially a Russian-speaking city.

But the issue of where the loyalty of Russian-speakers in the east features prominently in outbreaks of trouble in the region's big cities pitting pro-Russian groups against those committed to a future closer to Europe.

Interim Prime Minister Arseny Yatsenyuk, a former foreign and economy minister, in a highly unusual televised appeal to eastern and southern regions -- in Russian -- acknowledged he generally speaks Russian at home with his wife.

"And like millions of other Russian-speakers, she does not need to be protected by the Kremlin," he said. And he drew a decisive line under both the failures of the Orange Revolution and the legacy of Yanukovich "that could hardly even be described as a ruin.

"We have drawn conclusions from the errors of 2005-2014," he said. "No one will ever again try to impose values on you. But we must be tolerant about the fact that we live alongside millions of people who, in a wide variety of circumstances, simply think differently. Diversity is not a shortcoming. It is our strength."

Yatsenyuk told easterners, and the eastern "oligarchs" that once supported Yanukovich, that decentralization was the answer -- not federalism, long promoted as a solution to Canada's disparities, but seen by many in Ukraine as a prelude to the breakup of the country.

He and others have blamed "Kemlin agents" for sending "touring troublemakers" to stir up trouble this month in the Donetsk, centre of the Donbass coalfield, and Kharkiv, once Ukraine's capital and now a key academic and industrial centre.

In Kharkiv, activists sporting the orange and black "St. George ribbons" of Russian nationalists, clambered over a fence and smashed their way into an office run by the "Prosvita" cultural organization -- the same group that promotes Ukrainian culture and language on Winnipeg's Pritchard Avenue as two helpless policemen looked on.

They seized Ukrainian-language books, carted them into the street and lit bonfires with them. One was clearly identified in TV footage as a work devoted to the Holodomor, the man-made famine that killed an estimated 7.5 million in 1932-33, initiated by Stalin to enforce collectivisation of agriculture and crush Ukrainian national sentiment.

Political analysts are still looking for clues to whether the blitzkrieg takeover of Crimea could be a precursor to Russian troops moving into eastern Ukraine -- or whether Putin would be satisfied with destabilizing the east and keeping Ukraine's new leaders off balance.

In Crimea itself, there was never any need for the Russian propaganda machine heralding the righting of a historical injustice -- Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev handing the peninsula -- and its breathtaking mountain views, vineyards and long beaches -- from Russia to Soviet Ukraine in 1954, when the collapse of Communist rule was unthinkable.

Russian activism was always strong.

The young Ukrainian state in the mid-1990s crushed the pro-Moscow movement by shutting down the local assembly and abolishing the post of Crimean "president". But that was Boris Yeltsin's hesitant Russia, not the Putin Kremlin of today.

Though this month's 97 per cent referendum vote in favour of joining Russia was electoral fiction out of the Soviet mould, it was also clear most ethnic Russians there had got what they wanted, a reality not lost on most people in Kyiv.

"This is sad reality. All we can do is hope for the best, hope we can rule out any new bloodshed," said Oksana, a pharmacist. "What else can we do? Take on the Russian army?"

And the image of a vast Kremlin hall of politicians, civic and religious leaders applauding the stratagem of troops advancing into a neighbouring country was a spectacle that no one would have truly considered possible any longer with the onset of heady liberal ideas under Gorbachev's "perestroika" reforms in the late 1980s.

Sergei Naryshkin, the voluble speaker of the State Duma, Russia's lower house of parliament, summed it up nicely from a Kremlin standpoint -- Russia would no longer endure the humiliations and truncations of the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union.

"After 1991, Russia was constantly losing -- it lost its territories, its people. And now, for the first time, we are returning our territory and our compatriots," he said as he and others welcomed Crimea's new leaders as heroes.

Even as Ukrainian bases were overrun by Russian troops with surprisingly little loss of life, Acting Foreign Minister Andriy Deshchitsya said he remained convinced that Western countries would boost their support for Ukraine's "territorial integrity" and the peninsula would rightfully revert to Ukrainian control.

The new leadership in Kyiv ordered a "redeployment" of Ukrainian troops in Crimea back to the mainland. But grumbling about "indecisive" measures prompted the resignation of the defence minister who took office in the aftermath of Yanukovich's departure.

Efforts were channelled into resurrecting a National Guard, tried and abandoned in the 1990s. Officials said 20,000 had rushed to sign up in the first two weeks after the invasion.

After its approval-in-principle by parliament, officials suggested its prime function -- with Crimea firmly in Russian hands and pervasive rumours of a further Russian buildup on the border -- would be to deter any further incursions in the east.

Kyiv's own propaganda machine to boost morale is also in full flow, but is less abrasive.

All television channels flash the phrase "United Country" across their screens throughout the day -- in both languages.

Advertisements give viewers a hot line number to make donations to the armed forces.

Fifth Channel television, with the most comprehensive pro-European coverage of events during and after the protests, showed footage of Ukrainian tanks in action against the backdrop of folk music linked to Bandera's Second World War nationalists.

Schoolchildren were enlisted to appeal to Putin, on television, to stop the military advance.

"Vladimir Vladimirovich, please think again," intoned one boy of about 10, part of a group assembled outside an onion-domed church.

"What if the smoke and dust blotted out the sun so that we could never see it again? Please, no war," said another.

One station showed student Andriy Senko demonstrably returning a presidential wristwatch Putin gave given whe he was a six-year-old during a 2004 three-cornered meeting with then-Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma in the weeks preceding the Orange Revolution.

"I cannot wear this watch. I remember what you said then about your dreams -- you said you wanted everyone to live happily and in peace," he says, looking into the camera.

"But you lied to me. If only for that reason, I am obliged to return your gift. And if I had the chance to meet you now, I would look you in the eye and tell you: Vladimir Vladimirovich, you are a liar!"

But fierce political debate within Ukraine belies a resilience to withstand long bouts of adversity -- and to have fun while doing it.

Take Kyiv's Teatralna metro station, a 15-minute walk from the Maidan.

Every Sunday afternoon, elderly couples from throughout the country congregate outside the cramped underground shops and fast food outlets serving weekday commuters to waltz and polka to tunes played by an equally-elderly accordionist.

And don't count on a restaurant meal in the capital being a quiet or subdued experience. If you are seated next to a table marking virtually any sort of celebration, you can be sure its participants will at some point break into traditional Ukrainian folk songs. Ukrainians' love of singing is undiminished.

The future, however, has plenty of uncertainty and forecasts can vary wildly -- from predictions of a national breakup to the notion the country will emerge strengthened from invasion and occupation.

"I think we have to draw the conclusion that Ukraine is an unsustainable country," said Yuri, an engineer from Odessa. "What hope can there be with our divisions and the state of our industry? Not to mention the state of the army."

Veteran commentator Vitaly Portnikov takes a different view -- Ukraine, he says, can thank Putin for bringing its troubles to centre stage, there for all to see and tackle.

"Putin has consolidated all those in Ukraine who cherish their homeland -- regardless of political persuasion, the language spoken or their view of the future. He has drawn the attention of those who would otherwise not have noticed or chosen not to notice Ukraine and overturned a trend which would have turned the country into a Russian province," he wrote.

"He has done everything so that Russia loses and Ukraine wins. But it is up to us now to seize the chance."

 

Ron Popeski, a Reuters writer based in Singapore, recently returned to Ukraine for 10 days. Popeski served as Reuters' bureau chief in Kyiv twice -- for four years after the collapse of the Soviet Union and then for another five years during the Orange Revolution and its aftermath. He grew up in Winnipeg and graduated from River East Collegiate and the University of Manitoba.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 5, 2014 D8

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