Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Ukraine's Future Hangs in the Balance

Kiev journalist recalls the process that led to revolution, and outlines her fears about what lies ahead.
  • Anya Tsukanova. (Photo courtesy of A. Tsukanova)
    Anya Tsukanova. (Photo courtesy of A. Tsukanova)

At first no one, myself included, anticipated the scale of the protests. We were so disillusioned by the outcome of the Orange Revolution of 2004 that no one believed it possible for enough people to be mobilised. So the first gathering on Maidan Square was only attended by a couple of thousand people.

To my great surprise, lots of people decided to join a protest scheduled for the Sunday after the Vilnius summit at which President Viktor Yanukovich refused to sign the European Union Association Agreement. I was surprised, but also inspired.

I went to the first big rally at the end of November with my 11-year-old daughter. She had made a placard on which she wrote “Ukraine is Europe”. She was very proud to be holding it. She met a classmate on the square and they stood together chanting this slogan. It was almost a holiday atmosphere – we met up with friends, and the mood was joyful.

The government was very scared by the huge turnout. I remember a news story quoting an anonymous senior official as saying, “I don’t understand. Why didn’t they [the opposition] take power immediately?”

My daughter came just a couple of times, although we went to Maidan Square on several evenings to bring food and supplies to the people there.

My husband is a journalist as well, and having covered the war in Chechnya, where he was seriously injured, and other conflicts in the Caucasus and the Middle East, he was very cautious about the direction things might take. He went there almost every night, staying very late, sometimes until the morning. Like a lot of other protesters, he wore a ski helmet and gas mask to protect himself.

After the first big protest, I think many believed that the government would at least make some concessions, that it couldn’t ignore the will of the people when this was made so clear.

When the government banned protests in central Kiev, it was clear no one would obey. There were clashes on December 1 near the presidential administration, widely believed to be triggered by agents provocateurs, joined by ordinary protesters. Video reports and photos showed some unidentified young men with their faces covered who were also later seen behind police lines.

PROTESTS MARRED BY VIOLENCE

On January 18 or 19, there were first real clashes with police on Grushevsky Street, a couple of days after parliament passed very severe laws aiming to ban protests, in a clear imitation of Russia’s example. Members of a far-right organisation called Right Sector were believed to have started the clashes. People were extremely angry after the introduction of those laws, and hundreds – maybe thousands – of others joined in, throwing stones at police.

It was a time of incredible self-organisation and solidarity between the people taking part in protests and the others who supported them. People of all ages, income levels and social status – including some very wealthy businessmen – volunteered, bringing incredible amounts of food, warm clothes, electricity generators and other things to Maidan.

Others helped by doing whatever they thought was needed. The director of the Ukrainian office of Microsoft was seen sweeping the streets between the barricades. PR professionals set up a media centre. After the first clashes erupted, medical volunteers did an extraordinary job saving lives, sometimes carrying out operations just where they were – in a hotel lobby on Maidan, for example.

At the end of January, my family fled to Poland.

I happened to be involved in the publication of the video of a Ukrainian Cossack being humiliated by riot police – the first clear evidence of abuse. It was minus 10 degrees and you could see this naked man who had been beaten by police. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fnP0rMEvyRE

A couple of hours after it was posted online, it was everywhere on Ukrainian social media and television. We managed to get the people who had found it out of the country, and my husband and I took our two kids and crossed the border too. The situation looked dangerous since some activists were intimidated and one was killed by unknown people believed to be linked to the police.

We knew from police sources that the interior ministry was angry about the video. We stayed out of the country for three weeks because we didn’t know whether it was safe to return.

On February 18, we drove back, but that was when the massacres began in Kiev. My husband, the paranoid journalist, told me, “I know how wars start”. So we didn’t go straight back to our home in Kiev but stayed outside the city for a couple more days.

SHOCK AT RUSSIA’S ACTIONS

When Yanukovich went, after so many people had been killed, there was no real joy, just relief. Everybody was so shocked, and we were grieving because so many innocent people were brutally killed and something like this had never happened since independence.

From the start, when Yanukovich refused to come to an agreement, it was of course clear to everybody that Russian president Vladimir Putin was behind it. When government forces began beating people up, everybody suspected Russia was behind that, too.

But no one expected this level of aggression from Russia. It came as a complete surprise. People were discussing whether Yanukovich would be arrested, or whether he had made a secret deal with the new leadership so that he could flee to Russia. Although it was clear that – to put it mildly – it Russia was not at all happy, the general perception was that just as it had had to swallow the Orange Revolution, it would have to deal with this one, too.

With the invasion of Crimea there was shock, anger and even some panic. Social networks, which had played a huge role in the whole process, were full of rumours. The Russian military had occupied Crimea, tanks were moving towards Kiev. Everybody was horrified.

On the other hand, there was an extraordinary mobilisation of Ukrainians, who showed their solidarity on social networking sites. There were reports of lines of men waiting outside military recruiting offices to register as volunteer soldiers, as well as pro-Ukrainian rallies in some eastern cities like Donetsk which were until then considered pro-Russian.

I remember a joke on Facebook, “Oh dear, so we now we have to overthrow Putin as well to live normally.”

The situation in Crimea is very tense. The troops are under siege. They are being threatened with ultimatums to hand over their weapons, but the deadlines keep being extended. Military sources I’ve spoken to in Crimea tell me that it is more about psychological pressure. The Ukrainian soldiers are offered Russian passports and told that if they switch sides, they will be paid more. This is important because the Ukrainian military is in an awful state.

TENSIONS RISING IN CRIMEA

The impression that a lot of people have is that Putin intended to provoke the Ukrainian forces into violence, and to use that as justification for starting a war here. There is no doubt that Russian troops are present in Crimea. Although they have no insignia on their uniforms, they still have weapons used only by the Russians and vehicles with Russian plates. It’s almost comical to hear that the Russian president is denying his soldiers are there.

Russian gunmen are blockading Ukrainian military units very tightly, making it difficult for them even to get food deliveries. Several days after the incursion, some of the locals – notably Crimean Tatars – started to show solidarity with Ukrainian soldiers by organising assistance for them. Groups were set up on social networks to coordinate those who wanted to help. People brought food, water, useful things like electric torches and batteries, even sacks of sand to build extra fortifications around military units.

The other problem is the presence of aggressive pro-Russian civilians alongside the troops.

Each time I talk to the military there, they tell me that they are not going to shoot and that they are going to stay calm, despite the threats from pro-Russian civilians, who taunt and insult them, calling Ukrainian soldiers traitors. What’s worse is the threats that these pro-Russian civilians make against soldiers’ families. They shout out that they know where they live.

I was told by a commander in one military unit that some of the families are going to be evacuated. People in other parts of Ukraine are saying they are ready to welcome refugees from Crimea who are fearful, and I heard that the Red Cross was going to organise transport.

But as I understand it, some people are glad to see the Russians there. Crimea was kind of abandoned by Ukraine after independence, while Russia injected money and its TV channels provided propaganda. Some see Crimea as part of Russia. My mother’s business partner in Sevastopol called her two or three weeks ago and asked jokingly, “What are these nationalists doing in Kiev?”

He called again after the Russians invaded, completely panicked, to tell her, “I can’t let my grandchildren out of the house; there are lots of people with guns and we are afraid.” If it’s so dangerous, she told him, come here. But he hasn’t done so yet.

On the one hand, Ukraine has benefited from the huge expression of international support. On the other, we don’t yet understand how the situation will evolve. Putin ordered so-called military exercises near the eastern Ukrainian border. Now those are over and the troops might go back to their bases. But there has been no order to withdraw the troops deployed in Crimea, and the Crimean parliament has overwhelmingly voted for the region to join Russia, although it does not have any legal powers to do this.

It is possible that Putin wants to maintain the current situation in Crimea, as it has done with Moldova and Transniestria. If Ukraine does not abandon Crimea – and I hope it doesn’t – then that will mean that it cannot join NATO, because it will have a border conflict. Maybe that’s his aim.

We feel that the United States is serious in its approach but we don’t know what the outcome will be. German chancellor Angela Merkel has said that Putin has lost touch with reality. We can’t rule out any possibility – even Russian tanks in Kiev.

Anya Tsukanova is a journalist in Kiev.