People who are physically on Maidan today are delegates, each one representing hundreds of others ready to join their brothers and sisters on Kyiv’s central square when the call goes out, writes Anna Yavorska.
Anna Yavorska is a freelance analyst and consultant on EU-Ukraine relations.
To me, as a Ukrainian citizen living in the EU, the portrayal of the Ukrainian struggle for democracy by some world media causes frustration and disappointment. Indeed, based on such accounts, most of my foreign friends see Ukraine as split down the middle into pro-Russian and pro-European camps, which appears to explain the country’s position between East and West. If someone wants to talk about the “divide”, then they should realise that it is horizontal, not vertical. The divide is between the government, controlled by a ruling elite, and the ordinary people; it is between those who hold power and get obscenely wealthy and those forced to yield and struggle to make ends meet.
Yes, some do speak Russian, some Ukrainian. Yes, our perceptions of historical figures and events may vary. Yes, we have our differences like any other European country… But we are united in our vision for the future. Across the territory of Ukraine, we face similar economic difficulties and high crime rates, which our authorities are responsible for, and ultimately want the same things: independence, security and economic prosperity. Look at the four million people living in Kyiv, for example – most speak Russian but “think” Ukrainian. We are united in our common fight against corruption, dictatorship, and economic and moral decay.
I urge the international media to avoid using the word “divided” when describing Ukraine, as this lends credibility to the authorities’ efforts to make Ukrainians enemies of themselves, while presenting the wrong image of the Ukrainian plight to Europe.
The Western world must understand the reasons why western Ukraine is more actively involved in the current revolution. First of all, eastern regions are under much tougher control by the local authorities. Secondly, one has to take into account restrictions in the mobility of people, which are much greater in the east of Ukraine; this goes some way to explaining the false image eastern Ukrainians have of Europe and their weaker support for European integration (74.8% of Ukrainian citizens questioned in a recent survey by the Gorshenin Institute said they had never been to the EU, USA or Canada).
The last and most important reason is the propaganda war waged against the eastern part of Ukraine and Crimea, where people are being systematically misinformed and brainwashed. Those with internet access who follow Ukrainian-speaking sources may have a fairly objective picture, but if they try to challenge the system, they are intimidated, directly or indirectly. During every election campaign or any mass protests, Ukrainians have been threatened with repression, imprisonment, dismissal by employers, expulsion from university (during the Orange Revolution of 2004, I personally experienced this in Kyiv), and even sabotage against enterprises and physical violence towards those who are particularly active.
While walking on Maidan on 25 December, I met a man from Kharkiv (eastern Ukraine). He told me that after the tragic death of his parents, he inherited a small business operating seven gambling machines. He explained how his apartment was robbed by criminals associated with the Party of Regions, all title documents were seized, and he was left with nothing. This man told me that his fellow citizens are frightened. He said that the Mayor of Kharkiv, Hennadiy Kernes, had bought out all the businesses in the city that could generate profits, boldly adding “not everyone is for sale though”.
It was very cold that evening. He was wearing warm socks and slippers, saying his shoes had burned to a crisp when he tried to dry them on one of Maidan’s log-burning stoves. He told me that he will stand on Maidan barefoot if he has to, until the present government is replaced. A few days later I heard on the radio that already a third car providing protesters with food and drink in Kharkiv had been torched.
Similar intimidations are rife in the west of the country too. The following day I went to my home city of Lutsk, a town close to the Polish border, and visited the main square. It was a working day and the Maidan stage was empty. I met a local man who was talking to the press, so I approached him to ask a few questions. His name is Bohdan Shyba, a former mayor of Lutsk, who is accused by the authorities of helping to organise the protest during which activists carried a portrait of Yanukovych upside down. The court ruled to confiscate his passport and ban him from all public gatherings. While speaking to him about his experiences, my husband pointed out that we were being watched by two members of the militia. One officer simply observed the scene, while the other spoke constantly on his mobile phone, presumably about our movements and discussions with the local deputy. A few minutes later, walking back to our car across the large open plaza, one of the policemen brushed past me very deliberately with an enigmatic smile on his face, studying my appearance carefully in an attempt to intimidate me. I found it very disturbing, even though I knew I was returning to the EU the next day with my family and was unlikely to be harmed.
I also appeal to the Western media not to diminish or disparage the efforts and sacrifices of the brave, dignified people on Maidan. This well organised protest is not and has never been in stalemate, as was claimed by some sources in January. Do not count heads on the main square, but understand that everyone who has at least once stood behind the barricades carries Maidan in their hearts. People who are physically on Maidan today are delegates, each one representing hundreds of others ready to join their brothers and sisters on Maidan when the call goes out. Even if Maidan is cleared by force, it will remain in the hearts of the people. Maidan is not just a place, it is a state of mind. It is a phenomenon that is evolving day upon day, giving people the opportunity to meet, communicate and exchange ideas with every passing hour, to develop strategies, hold meetings and implement their plans. Maidan is alive, it thinks, reflects and takes action, it deals with regular attacks and sheer physical exhaustion, it rises to the occasion every single time. Maidan is the place where Ukrainians forge and formulate their own values and build the ideal model for the country I want to live in.
One of the main reasons for the public protests is widespread corruption at all levels. Justice in Ukraine has been rotten for a long time, but largely hidden from foreigners’ eyes. Rising levels of lawlessness have simply pushed the population to its limits. Only the ruling elite, who are directly connected to the regime, support the current system. The law does not protect common citizens. We often hear stories of iniquity and crime going totally unpunished. It could be a drunk representative of local authorities or one of his relatives who hits someone with a car, commits rape or some other atrocity, but still manages to walk free without prosecution. It could be that a property wanted by those in power, which is hard to confiscate, is “accidently” set on fire and later bought for small change. My friend, a cancer surgeon, told me that people who cannot afford treatment in his former hospital are asked to sign a paper specifically stating that they refuse treatment, then are sent home to die, while our politicians use medical services in Europe and the US.
The events that we have witnessed over the last two months show that people have reached the end of their tether with all the corruption, injustice and poverty experienced across the whole territory of Ukraine. They understand that if the current government continues to hold on to power, it will prove to be the ultimate downfall of our country.