Early Sunday morning The Scotsman newspaper reported that “thousands of people angered by months of anti-government protests” in Kiev, Ukraine, “converged upon one of the protesters’ barricades… but retreated after meeting sizeable resistance.”
I read The Scotsman‘s reporting with great interest, wondering to myself whether these “thousands” of angry people were from the same pro-government “rally” that I witnessed in the Ukrainian capital city in early December of last year.
Having spent a night in the Maidan Square, where anti-government protestors rallied, fraternized, celebrated, plotted, and partied, myself and my travelling partner, Christian, decided to head up the literally slippery slope (it had been snowing) towards the pro-government rally we had heard so much and so little about.
Passing the Dynamo Kiev football stadium, we suddenly encountered the noteworthy presence of Ukrainian police and two parallel lines of military vehicles that had been cobbled together to serve what looked like bread and buckwheat to amassed pro-government “demonstrators,” and that wasn’t all that had been clearly cobbled together hastily.
As I moved about the much older, more visibly decrepit crowd than that of the youthful protesters in the Maidan Square, I was accosted by a gentleman who evidently spoke little English, but who was patently not happy to be on film.
“Fuck off. You fuck off!” he shouted at me. I was bemused. Not eight hours ago had we been freely filming around the anti-government protests, with not a complainant in sight, whereas now there was a distinct hostility in the air. Outsiders weren’t welcome, and we were soon to find out why.
One man, who I would estimate was in his mid-20s, quite out of place in the more aged crowd, took us aside and told me that the government had paid him to be there. They were bussing in supporters from around the country and paying them for the pleasure. Worse still, he claimed to be a convict who the government had taken from prison – perhaps in exchange for a slice of freedom, or a longer-term clemency deal – to “protest” in favor of Yanukovich and his government.
Down in the Maidan Square, dozens if not hundreds of activists were happy to speak to us. Up in the Mariinsky Park there was scarcely anyone who even spoke English, let alone that wanted to speak to us.
Our jailbird guide – who by this point was asking for money – informed us that it was because most of the people who had been bussed in were from ‘the regions.’ This meant, he explained, that they were likely not as well educated as those in the Maidan Square, and had no cause to learn English.
As we progressed through the Park, we discovered what were effectively two holding pens of people that were expected to cheer in response to tepid, pro-government speeches. One encampment was slightly more open. We moved inside without issue, and it fast became clear that the protestors were on a schedule. Every 30 minutes or so, a bunch would shuffle out together, towards the buckwheat and bread trucks, and another gaggle would be ushered in as police looked on.
The other group of pro-government protesters were locked inside a ten-foot-high metal fence, perennially waving Party of the Regions (the President’s political party) flags, and applauding awkwardly during speeches. We asked several of them if they’d speak to us through the barriers. The only response that came was a perfunctory, “We are happy.” They didn’t look happy.
So I wonder if the thousands of “angry people” that charged the anti-government protestor’s barricade yesterday were indeed an alliance of prisoners, and/or people bussed in from the regions. It seems obvious after writing this that they probably were.
Police and military force have failed thus far, and caused reputational damage for Yanukovich across the world. Now, the government may be turning to state-sponsored angry mobs to do its dirty work in trying to intimidate or even violently force the protesters out of the Maidan Square.
I write this without prejudice as to the way the situation should and will unfold in Kiev. I’m no fan of the anti-government protesters’ aspirations to join the European Union, and neither am I convinced that the group represents the will of the Ukrainian people. They seem better educated, more well travelled, and many dressed in very nice clothing. To me, it seemed like quite the metropolitan elite protest.
However, cynical moves like setting the people against each other only further damages whatever mandate Viktor Yanukovich can now claim to have in leading the country. His inability to bring an end to the protests highlights the fact that for a peaceable solution, perhaps his tenure as President must first come to an end.