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Ukraine impasse: Battle cry for change

Tuesday, 4 February 2014 - 6:18am IST | Place: Mumbai | Agency: dna

How many more lives will be lost before world leaders intervene to end the Ukraine impasse?

Civil war? Mutiny? Revolution? Or unrest? What went wrong in Ukraine? Is it again the bone of contention between the EU/West and Russia? Most world media portrayed the developments as a popular uprising dominated by the far-Right and unemployed rural people from West Ukraine — pro-Russian media outlets branded it as a West-funded conspiracy to take Ukraine out of Russia’s orbit. This uprising is not a game on the geopolitical chessboard using symbols or rhetoric; it is about people, their right to fight for dignity and change the system of governance. Ukraine is one of the largest countries in Europe — a past bread basket with 40 per cent of the richest black soil reserves, a Council of Europe member, chair of the OSCE in 2013.

Its 23 years of independence was steadily marked by a widening gap between the rich and poor. A model of post-Soviet big business oligarchic economy, it had forced millions to search for livelihood in unskilled jobs abroad. The rich plunder the resources of the country, but store wealth in offshore tax havens, luxury real estates. They use Western facilities for basic needs — health care, living and education of their children. They are already “integrated” into Europe. So, for the common people of Ukraine, negotiation of an association agreement with the EU symbolised a new beginning, change, new standards and norms, a civilizational U-turn and closing of the post-Soviet chapter. The stunning contrast and conflict of these two worlds — of the powerful and of the disadvantaged — is at the root of this uprising.

That is why what started as students’ protests on November 21 became a full blown mass movement, Euro-Maidan, sprawling across the whole central square “Maidan Nezalezhnosti” in Kiev and its vicinity. Larger than the Occupy movement, this grassroots activism in freezing temperatures stands unparalleled in its resilience and creativity and cannot be compared to Turkey’s Taksim square or Egypt’s Tahrir, or even Moscow’s Bolotnaya square.

Use of police force twice to crush the demonstrations turned the two month-old non-violent protest into violent outbursts. The immediate cause for this standoff was police violence and adoption of 11 “dictatorial” laws, restricting free speech, peaceful assembly. Such absurdities as a ban on wearing masks and helmets during mass rallies or compelling foreign-funded NGOs to register as “foreign agents” and lose non-profit status, football match tickets to bear names, identity details of the attendee and many more bizarre things were voted by 235 MPs in six minutes by a show of hands. Later, on January 28 these were annulled.

Police impunity crossed the red line with excessive use of force,  leading to the death of eight protesters and one policeman, arrests of hundreds and was left unpunished. The media was not spared either; overall in 2014, 60 journalists were wounded and in December 2013 another 50 were severely beaten up; among them crew of Reuters, Associated Press, Radio Liberty and HromadskeTV, EspressoTV and   SpilnobachennyaTV. Many suspect they were specially targeted, irrespective of their bright identifiable jackets, helmets and cameras; Cameramen were shot in the eye; three of them had to get their eyeballs removed.

A video of police excesses of special force Berkut went viral on social media showing activists being stripped naked. Moreover, mysterious disappearance and cases of death under inexplicable circumstances from homes, streets, cars, hospitals drew more people to the protests, spreading the mass uprisings all over Ukraine and  capturing local self-governments. It grew to unite football fans, youth, students, teachers, creative people, ordinary villagers, clergy, small and medium businesses, elderly and the common people. Never before had Ukraine seen antipodes joining hands — far-Right, anarchist and leftist groups. Political parties are being advised by civil society. Contrary to media assumptions, this movement is not against Russians as a banner from Sebastopol in Kiev’s Maidan, home to the Russian Black Sea Fleet Naval base, tells it all: “We want brotherhood (bratstvo) not slavery (rabstvo).” Perhaps, there is no better key to regaining influence in Ukraine for Putin’s Russia. Political instability in a neighbouring country cannot be the best option for Russia, at least prior to and during the Sochi Olympics.”

While Ukrainians are being reborn into a nation, Maidan is no place for insurgence. It is a unique island of protest in the heart of Kiev for everyone — Afghan war veterans, men dressed Cossack-style, IT professionals, elderly women, doctors, nurses, plenty of volunteers, philosophers, poets, small company owners and professionals. Even Miss Ukraine of 2013 was seen distributing food.

Food is cooked in huge cauldrons, song and speeches are rendered round the clock from the stage, priests of various faiths as well as atheists walk around, a stage is set for lectures of the Open University for all. Generation Y, the source and driving force of the movement, continues to create beautiful posters and numerous Facebook pages, while tracing human rights abuse, finding lost persons and attending to wounded activists. A bunch of IT guys launched computer games Berkut and Maidan. People contribute money, food and warm clothes. It looks like a fest, but is a fortress of a movement, flanked by self-constructed barricades with barbed wire, tyres, sacks of snow, wood and sticks. It is a self-contained world, a surreal reproduction of the Ukrainian Cossack Sich tradition, freedom at its best.

Following bloodshed, a dialogue started between the conflicting parties to end the impasse. The few positive steps are that the unpopular laws were repealed, the PM resigned, which are the first small victories of the Euro-Maidan. But the opposition disagreed with a law to free all arrested activists adopted on the condition that occupied administrative buildings be vacated. The stalemate goes on as there are many unmet demands — change the Constitution to parliamentary system, early presidential and parliamentary elections. It is time for the international community and the democratic world to be more proactive so that this country does not slip into civil war or totalitarian dictatorship? Can Europe and Russia afford the high geopolitical costs?

The author is an  expert on international relations and foreign policy

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