The Story of Maidan: Part 10— The empire strikes back
After Maidan had fortified in end of December 2013, there was a calm before the storm. In the beginning of 2014 the Ukrainian authorities escalated the crisis to a civil war in miniature.
“Maidan demonstrates elements of anarchic communism in its organization: no money circulates, it is based on volunteering, solidarity and donations, it embraces the commune and the collective body dominates over individuals.
It is nationalistic in its emotional component: singing of the national anthem, prayers from Ukrainian churches, nationalistic mottos, the domination of the colours of the national flag and its use of ribbons of the national colours used for visual self-identification.
But it is also liberal in its argumentation: European flags, emphasising human rights and democracy, appealing to liberal Europe, and its aspiration to build a ‘European country’.
An anarchic and communist type organisation, nationalistic emotions and liberal arguments — this is the strange hybrid creature that is our Maidan”
Volodymyr Yermolenko, lecturer at Kyiv-Mohyla Academy
Katya Gorchinskaya, a reporter for the Wall Street Journal and the local Kyiv Post, described the movement’s goals:
“In a way, this is a war. It is a war for a new civilization in Ukraine. Based on values such as solidarity, dignity, respect for an individual and clear and equal rules of the game for all. This is no longer about Europe or integration — it’s about who we are and where we want to go.
This is about a nation being born. Mutilated by years of misrule, impoverished by looting, it emerges slowly from the ruin. This process is massive and we don’t know how well this birth is going to go. But it’s happening now and here, in Kyiv, and it’s both painful and awesome. The only place to truly feel the pain and grandeur of this national awakening is to stand there right on Maidan.”
The empire strikes back
“You know, it’s simple human intuition; there’s no logical explanation for some things. You sense what you have to do. We are all aware that we are surrounded by troops equipped with military technology, by strange, aggressive fellows — you really have no idea where they were trained. You don’t even know whether they really belong to the security forces, or have just dressed like security officers and actually belong to other structures. This is not the time to withdraw, let’s not even think about it. We are in danger. Our safety is in our hands.” Ruslana
The events between December 12th and January 16th in a flash: On 14 December four city officials are suspended for suspicion of abuse of power when ordering police actions. On 17 December Yanukovych and Putin sign the Ukrainian-Russian action plan. Russia buys Ukrainian Eurobonds for $15 billion and lowers the gas price by 40% to $268 per 1.000 cubic meters. On the same day Vitaly Klitchko claims an attempt on his life when his airplane is denied landing at an altitude of 100m with bad visibility. On 19 December Yanukovych tries to verbally combine a deal with Russia with one with the EU.
On 21 December a member of anti-corruption group Road Control is shot and his car is burned down. Three days later an armed assault is conducted against one organizer of Euromaidan in Kharkiv. Especially brutal is this event: On 24 December well known anti-corruption journalist and social activist Tetyana Chornovil publishes a blog-entry with the title “a hangman lives here.” She adds photographs claiming that this is the villa of interior minister Zakharchenko. In the following morning she calls activist Oleksiy Hrytsenko and tells him that she is being followed by Berkut officers. In the night she drives home from Maidan. On the highway near Boryspil International Airport she is pursued by a black SUV. She tries to escape but is finally stopped. She is heavily beaten and left to die in the cold. She is hospitalized with a broken nose and concussions. Her face is beaten so heavily that it is not recognizable anymore. She had a video camera installed in the car as many Ukrainians do for having proof after accidents. The footage shows the pursuit. The footage also shows the number plates of the SUV. Three men are detained within a day as the same interior Minister Zakharchenko has to admit. He rebukes the claim of a planned attack and says this was a case of typical road rage committed by regular hooligans who felt provoked by Chornovils driving. Six months later one of the detainees is realeased and receives political asylum in Russia.
Media in the states proximity distort the event even further. They claim that Chornovils attackers have ties to opposition politicians like Vitaly Klitschko. They will follow this strategy over the coming weeks. The highlight will come when they claim that a torture victim had deliberately cut his own ear in order to put blame on the government.
Colleague and one of Maidans founders, journalist Mustafa Nayim posts his anger below the photo of Chornovils beaten face: “All who are now close to Viktor Yanukovych, all those who pretend not to understand anything and can’t do anything, in one way or another are co-conspirators of each blow which struck the face of Tetiana Chornovil. You can pretend that you are not guilty. You can can turn your cowardly eyes, as if you had nothing to do with this act. But this is your face.”
On 26 December Yanukowych signs an amnesty bill for protesters detained on 1 December. But in the new year there still four people in prison. Among them is Road Control activist Andriy Dzyndzya although video footage clearly proves that he covered the event as a journalist. His lawyer was imprisoned on an even more ridiculous charge: attempted murder of the judge. Road Control which covers traffic police violations have angered the authorities for quite some time now. One of their activists even received political asylum in the US in November 2013.
Maidan shares his anger, support spikes again for a short time. New years eve is the last time that about 200.000 people attend celebrations on Maidan. On 10 January Berkut clashes with protesters after a guilty verdict in a non-Maidan related alleged bombing case.
Those were weeks of a growing unease, of waning support for the revolution, of a visible retreat of the state forces paired with singular attacks. It was just time to catch a breath before it all turned worse.
11 dictator laws
The Rada, Ukraines parliament has a electronical voting system where members press buttons to signal approval or refusal. The constitution allows the show of hands but only if the voting system doesn’t work. On January 16, the system does work but is not used. In the beginning the government wants to push through the budget 2014. The sessions starts even though the speaker is not present. Opposition politicians break the fire alarm in order to stop the voting but without success.The ruling coalition passes the budget without debate. Kyiv Post chief-editor Christopher Miller tweets: “A quick and dirty vote. That was that. Regions Party has the power.”
Breaking procedure rules, ruling Party of Regions has approved new country's budget. Brawls followed pic.twitter.com/hpMsszTwcO
— Maksym Eristavi (@MaximEristavi) January 16, 2014
There is a brawl, the sirens are on, opposition tries to stop MPs from using the voting machine.
Party of Regions MP Vladimir Malyshev in parliament after taking a hit during scuffles today. #Kyiv #Ukraine pic.twitter.com/NYMMUJrAkd
— Christopher Miller (@ChristopherJM) January 16, 2014
The parliament switches to votes by hand. Another set of laws are presented to the MPs. The title of the law is read out loud, then hands are raised. But instead of taking time to count them, the law is passed after about five seconds. “Later the head of votes counting commission honestly admits to journalists that he didn’t count the votes and was just saying the total number of members of the majority, assumed that they all have vocally agreed on the proposed legislation,” writes journalist Max Eristavi. A scuffle leaves Party of Regions MP Vladimir Malyshev with a bloody forehead. Eristavi adds: “You could see shock and confusion on faces of many opposition members of parliament and journalists that were present during the voting.”
Tensions are rising at #Ukraine's parliament,opposition MPs blocked the speaker in his office.
pic via @LesyaOrobets pic.twitter.com/2U88h6EYIG
— Maksym Eristavi (@MaximEristavi) January 16, 2014
Only then Speaker Rybak shows up in session hall. An opposition MP runs to the speaker and shouts: “Stop what you are doing. That’s a coup!” The speaker runs away to a safer seat and finally closes the session until Februar 4th. Oppositional Batkivschina MP Andriy Shevchenko tweets: “While all country is watching, the 7th Ukrainian Verkhovna Rada has ceased to exist. That’s a fucking shame.”
11 new laws are passed on a day that the opposition will later call “black Thursday”. Only after voting, the MPs receive the full texts of what they approved. “The deputies — those who apparently raised their hands — have all but voted themselves out of existence. If the deputies from Yanukovych’s Party of Regions read the legislation, which according to Ukrainian reports they did not, they would realize that their own positions are now under threat. Their parliamentary immunity is now no longer guaranteed, which means that if they vote the wrong way they can be stripped of immunity and prosecuted,” writes Timothy Snyder.
Yanukovych’s party leader Efremov says in a TV-broadcasted statement: “Members of parliament are able to hide behind this immunity and act like heros. If this immunity was removed these heros would soon become afraid.”
Here are the highlights from this days working session:
The blocking of administrative building is criminalized with up to five years imprisonment and is directed to Maidan. Insult of police officers is to be criminally punished as well as “defamation” in mass media or internet. Accusation of corruption can be punished with one year imprisonment. These go against independent media, bloggers and opposition politicians. Broadly defined “extremist activity” goes with up to three years. As vague as this is, it includes storing and dissiminating extreme views on media. From now on it is illegal to drive with a car in a column of more than five vehicles. This is aimed against the activist group Automaidan (more later). Participating in a rally with a mask or helmet without harmful intention goes with 15 days incarceration. Installing tents: 15 days. Mass media must register with the state as “information agencies”, this concerns especially Internet media. Activities without registration is illegal. State is now authorized to block Internet websites. Use of pre-paid mobile cards without identification of the user is now prohibited. Telecom operations are obliged to install equipment to intercept communication upon request. These obviously aim at activists usings mobile phones to organize themselves. Non-governmental organizations reiceiving foreign funding are branded “foreign agents”, hit with an income tax and obligations for special reporting. All existing NGOs with foreign funding have to re-register. The same law has come into effect in Russia. Now defenders can be tried in absentia. So there is the concern that in a country where judges are controlled by the government, this could lead to mass cases where defendants would find out their sentencing retrospectively. Last but not least, the law forsees prison terms up to 15 years for “mass violation” of public order.
To Timothy Snyder, it is clear: “In procedure and in content the laws ‘passed’ by the Ukrainian parliament this week contravene the most basic rights of modern constitutional democracies: to speech, assembly, and representation. On paper, Ukraine is now a dictatorship.” Snyder also explains what these new paragraphs mean: “Speaking at all about the Tymoshenko case will now be risky. Actions deemed to ‘interfere with the work of courts’ have been banned. Making remarks of an ‘offensive’ nature about judges is illegal. It seems unlikely that truth will be a defense. It is true, for example, that the new president of the highest Ukrainian court was once in charge of the court that misplaced documents about President Yanukovych’s earlier criminal convictions for rape and robbery. But that seems like exactly the thing that people will no longer be allowed to say. As far as Yanukovych’s own record is concerned, the new legislation’s vaguely worded ban on ‘slander’ will presumably be used to criminalize unfriendly references to the president.”
On the following day Viktor Yanukovych signs the bill. Outrage is everywhere. EU envoy Catherin Ashton is “concerned” as usual, US Secretary of State John Kerry believes the laws to be “wrong.”
“Here in Ukraine, we once had human rights. Now we’re still human. But we have next to no rights,” deputy editor Katya Gorchinskaya writes in the English-language newspaper “Kyiv Post.” She adds: “Welcome to the new police state. We call it Little Russia.”
The government makes it clear that they will use their new powers. A day after the presidents signature and a day before violence erupts, interior minister Vitaly Zakharchenko delivers the message at a meeting of the board of ministers:
“each offense will be met by our side harshly according with the law.”
And the people on Maidan? Every single one of them, thousands, no hundred thousands have now become criminals. And they are angry at the opposition politicians. One protester tweets: “We have held out against Berkut for days and the politicians can not hold up parliament for one hour.” The reaction of Yatseniuk, Klitschko and Tyahnybok is weak. They have been taken by surprise and have no response. The rift between them and the people is widening. These days will be the first time they are booed on Maidan. It’s January 19, a cold day at -8C. The politicians have no clear action plan. Maidan is not satisfied. There are about 70.000 people on the square. They came despite the new laws taking effect on January 21. Many ignore the laws by wearing party masks or hard hats and gas masks. It’s the first time that beaten journalist Tetiana Chornovil appears in public. On stage she proclaims: “This is war. On the one side there are people, on the other side those who rob us. Yanukovych won’t give up power easily.”
She is followed by Dmitry Bulatov, leader of the Automaidan group. He summarizes the demands of Maidan: “AutoMaidan asked you to define a single (elections) candidate. You didn’t. But now it doesn’t matter, because there won’t be any normal elections, as we now see. We don’t need a single candidate anymore, we need a leader of resistance, who will take responsibility and lead us to the victory. Give us the name.”
Oleh Tyahnibok from Svoboda party encourages the people: “The most important thing is that with the (anti-protest) laws is that they showed us that they are afraid. It means that what we were doing in the past months was right. This is your plan of action, continue to do what you were doing.” But the crowd only answers with shouts: “Give us a leader!”
Emcee Yevhen Nischuk concludes the rally at 2pm. But the people are not finished yet.
In the next Chapter 11 — Maidan goes to war we look at the escalation of the crisis with the Hrushevkoho riots.