KIEV – For protesters in Kiev’s Independence Square, the uprising against Ukraine’s rulers has also become a battle for their own freedom.
On permanent alert against a police attack and with the threat of years in prison looming over them, protesters carry plastic shields and don green metal army helmets over the woolen hats that stave off temperatures of as low as minus 20 Celsius. Guards at tent camp entrances wield baseball bats. Car tires burn nearby, creating a thick black smoke that hinders vision and movement for police.
Two months of anti-government protests turned deadly last week as legislation to crack down on rallies backfired. That has raised the stakes for activists in the capital’s protest hub, where a peaceful push to steer Ukraine toward Europe is morphing into a winner-takes-all power struggle and opposition leaders are losing control over the crowds.
“Everyone here’s looking at a 10-year jail sentence — the laws are in place,” said Vladimir, a 53-year-old entrepreneur from Kiev who has been at the camp from the start and declined to give his last name for fear of reprisals. “We’ll be here until we win, otherwise our fate is sealed. There’s no third option.”
On Monday, Ukraine’s justice minister threatened to impose a state of emergency after demonstrators occupied the ministry and protests demanding the president’s resignation spread despite a power-sharing offer.
Clashes near the parliament building between activists hurling Molotov cocktails and rocks and riot police armed with rubber bullets and stun grenades claimed as many as six lives. The mood has soured 500 meters away at the camp, which sprouted up in November after President Viktor Yanukovych spurned a European Union integration pact to boost Russian ties.
Gone are the games of soccer on Kiev’s Khreshchatyk thoroughfare that helped keep the winter cold at bay. Protesters now get daily lessons in how to fend off another swoop by riot police as their demands for snap elections fall on deaf ears.
The regular Sunday rally was canceled to allow funeral processions for two of the dead. The previous day Interior Minister Vitaliy Zakharchenko warned that peaceful efforts to settle the unrest had proved futile.
“We came in peace — now that’s over,” said Andriy Lesyk, 28, a teacher from the western city of Ivano-Frankivsk who last week made the 550-km drive to Kiev for the third time. “For two months, people stood here peacefully and those in power took no notice whatsoever.”
While Lesyk must work to take care of his elderly parents, he says his family history compels him to turn out at the square: one of his grandfathers was shipped to a Siberian labor camp in 1945; the other, a priest, was forced to live underground when Ukraine was a Soviet satellite nation.
The crowds at Independence Square, or Maidan in Ukrainian, get daily pep talks from three opposition leaders who rile them up from a stage. The trio — ex-heavyweight boxing champion Vitali Klitschko, former central bank Gov. Arseniy Yatsenyuk and nationalist politician Oleh Tyahnybok — are losing their sway over the thousands that gather.
As the violence erupted Jan. 19 on a street leading to parliament, Klitschko jumped between activists and lines of riot police, pleading without success for calmer heads. After hours of talks with Yanukovych last week failed to win major concessions, Tyahnybok’s address to protesters was drowned out by whistles.
“The opposition leaders are clowns,” said 25-year-old Adam, a tourist representative from Russia’s Kalmykia region who joined the rioters in frustration and withheld his last name. “One day Yatsenyuk says he’s ready to take a bullet in the head, the next he says they want a peaceful resolution. I don’t get this. Ukraine needs a real leader who’ll lead.”
While the atmosphere at the camp may be darker, the community spirit that helps keep it running remains in place. As an elderly lady lugged supplies to the square Friday, the plastic carrier bag she was carrying split, spilling cigarette boxes and a loaf of bread onto the icy street.
Even so, the nature of deliveries to the camp is telling. While activists earlier appealed for food donations, they are now urging people to bring drugs and medical equipment. With injured protesters afraid to show up at hospitals for fear of arrest, organizers set up makeshift medical points in buildings they have occupied, such as the City Council’s headquarters.
“We thought this wouldn’t last long, that there’d soon be results,” said Oksana, a 44-year-old businesswoman from Volyn, in western Ukraine. She came to Kiev recently with her husband and son. “After the deaths, people are more entrenched.”
Tyahnybok’s Svoboda Party said another protester died in a hospital after being shot Wednesday on Hrushevskogo Street near parliament, the epicenter of the violence where clashes resumed Saturday after a truce that lasted about a day. The opposition claim other activists are missing.
In the camp, an offer by Yanukovych to make Yatsenyuk prime minister, his biggest concession to date, didn’t impress the weekend crowds. Leaflets handed out Sunday told protesters that failure to achieve their aims will result in prison and repression. Recent events have changed the endgame for Vladimir, the entrepreneur.
“You could certainly feel a change in sentiment here after we had casualties,” he said. “People are appalled. This can’t end peacefully anymore.”