Firewood has been stacked, barbed wire has been strung above steel barricades, and insulated military tents have been pitched. The downtown of one of Europe’s largest cities is now a fortified camp. Anti-government protesters in Kyiv are preparing for the long haul.
Roman Turiy, a rotund beekeeper, predicts a long fight. He motions as if to stretch his 10 centimeter long beard, down to his stomach, and says: “I hope we are not here until my beard is down here.”
His friend, Grigori Koziy, a mustachioed Cossack leader, is organizing distribution of free cups of hot, spicy khulish, or millet porridge. He cites the protesters’ main complaint: President Viktor Yanukovych’s sudden refusal to sign a free trade and political association pact with the European Union.
“We are in Europe,” said Koziy. “We want to live under European laws.”
Nearby, paving tiles pried from the square are stacked, in preparation of another attack by riot police.
Video images of last Saturday’s attack on the protest camp sparked a huge reaction among Ukrainians. The next day, as many as one million people marched through central Kyiv, the largest march since the Orange Revolution of 2004.
The images of riot police clubbing protesters and journalists – 43 at last count – also sparked Western criticism.
In Brussels, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, said: “We condemn the use of excessive force against peaceful demonstrators in Ukraine. We call on all parties to refrain from provocations and violence.”
In response, Ukrainian Interior Minister Vitaliy Zakharchenko on Wednesday banned “agency employees from using force regarding participants of peaceful gatherings currently being held in the Ukrainian capital and other cities of the country.”
With the threat of violence lifting, at least for now, the Kyiv protesters’ enemy is freezing cold and feeding the thousands of out-of-town protesters who have come to the capital.
Volodomyr Lobotsky, a 21-year-old language student from the western city of Lutsk, is learning how to stoke wood into a field kitchen stove.
“We are cooking soup, from meat and macaroni, and tea,” he said, adding that the food is donated by Kyiv residents. In addition, residents have opened their apartments to him and other students, sparing them nights in cold tents.
Hope for change
Despite the wood smoke and the improvisation, some of those in the protest camp are optimistic.
“Actually, I am thinking it is very good that people are coming out to the streets,” said Marina, a tour guide, who hopes that Ukraine will build ties with the European Union.
“They have to speak out, and say what they are thinking about, sign the petitions. Maybe they can change something in the future. They can change the government. They can change the president. And it will be all good,” added Marina.
In public, President Yanukovych has given no indication that he will agree to the protesters’ main demand and sign the deals with the European Union.
It looks like Ukraine’s test of wills will stretch into winter.