Over the past two days, as street fighting has erupted out of peaceful demonstrations in Kiev’s city center, more than 30 people have been killed and hundreds wounded in the latest bout of violence to engulf Ukraine. The authorities could have called it an anti-terrorist operation, though of course none of those killed—including students and pensioners—was a real terrorist. “I personally closed the eyes of 15 dead yesterday,” said a volunteer medic named Ludmila. Riot police targeted the wounded to finish them off. Ludmila says that she attacked a policeman bludgeoning an elderly woman with a truncheon, but in vain—the woman died.
All day long, through hours of confrontation, pensioners (who are hardly the far-right radicals that some in the media have tried to claim) were busy preparing Molotov cocktails. Ordinary people flocked to the Maidan, burning anything flammable and uprooting hunks of pavement to throw at police.
The fighting started when Ukraine’s speaker of parliament, Volodymyr Rybak, refused to introduce a bill about reverting the constitution to its 2004 form. It was changed in 2010 in a dubious way by the Constitutional court, and as a result, President Viktor Yanukovych’s authority was dramatically strengthened—allowing him, among other things, the right to singlehandedly form the government. The only obstacle to his total power was Parliament, which included a significant number of opposition politicians. But through alleged bribery and intimidation, he managed to bring the legislative body under his sway. Until this year, Yanukovych’s power has been almost absolute. Through go-betweens, he even managed to buy up Ukrainian media. Deciding to return the constitution to its 2004 state could be a first step towards political compromise, because it would give the opposition the possibility of forming a government.
But now Yanukovych has signaled that he refuses to waive even a bit of his power. He and his allies continue to control the courts, the military and the police—a brutal trifecta.
As talks with the opposition have faltered, several thousand people moved from the Maidan to the parliament building yesterday to try to persuade the government to compromise. Armed riot police squads ringed the government district. It is impossible to say who provoked the first act of violence, but the aftermath was a catastrophe. Mutual hatred, fueled by two months of bloody confrontations, spilled over at last. Police shot protesters with live cartridges, and paramilitary thugs—the so-called “teetooshki”—resorted to brutal violence. Last night, teetooshki stopped a taxi, dragged the passengers out, and killed one of them, who happened to be a journalist for a pro-government newspaper. Later, policemen snuck into a trade union building occupied by protesters. Ten minutes later, the building was on fire and many people found themselves cut off from exits by the flames. At least 18 people were reported to have burned alive or died from smoke inhalation.
In response, protesters torched two armored troop carriers, while angry police tossed stun grenades outfitted with bolts and nails into the crowds. Gruesome reports emerged from police stations, with at least one protester claiming that policemen had sewed his mouth shut with cobbler’s thread before ripping out the stitches. Families have even reportedly been ripped apart by the conflict—a story was circulating yesterday of a riot policeman who met his brother in the Maidan and said to him, “Get lost or I will kill you!”
The real danger Ukraine faces now is of a deep schism between the country’s Western half, which leans towards modern Europe, and the Eastern part, which sympathizes mostly with Russia and the old Soviet system. For protesters in the Maidan, that system evokes nightmares of political prisoners, human-rights violations, and a one-party propaganda state, where the authorities believe it is better to kill by force than persuade through elections.
The Ukrainian government says the protesters are terrorists, pointing to the seizing of state buildings and police stations with weapons. The protesters have one question in return—was George Washington a terrorist when he struggled in armed clashes against Great Britain and its illegitimate authority?