I was walking past Independence Square two weeks ago when an animated journalist friend broke the news.
“Putin has agreed to purchase 15 billion dollars in Ukrainian debt and slash the price of gas by a third. What do you think? Is this going to inflame the protestors further?” he asked.
“Of course,” I said. “It only proves that the Kremlin is pulling the strings here.”
I couldn’t have been more wrong. That weekend, less than ten thousand people answered the opposition’s call to protest the deal with Russia on the EuroMaidan. Over the new few days, the wind seems to have been knocked out of the opposition movement’s sails. Many of the protestors from Western Ukraine also began to pack up their tents and leave for home as Catholic Christmas approached. Local residents, who had been supportive of the protest movement, started to lose interest.
“Ukraine is like an Ukrainian girl,” said a female friend in Kiev. “When you give her money, she becomes a lot calmer.”
Zhenya, a hair salon owner, who had been a vocal supporter of the protests, now distanced himself from the activists. “There’s no reason for them to be there any longer. It’s like hanging around at a party after all the girls have left,” he said.
Most people in Kiev seemed to agree with Zhenya’s take on events. The ‘Euromaidan’—so bustling and energized in the first weeks of December—was a ghost of its former self in the days before Christmas. Although there was still activity on the main stage, the bulk of the protestors were gone. Some youths played football near the Christmas tree, and a few grizzly men warmed themselves around campside fires. The barricades, made from park benches, car tires, and bags of snow, were still up but there were no twitchy, young men monitoring the crowd for possible government infiltrators or agent provocateurs. There were no lines even around the stalls serving up free buckwheat and pork gruel.
With New Year’s Eve and Russian Christmas approaching, most Ukrainians put politics on hold to prepare for the holiday season. A feisty revolution, which threatened to bring down the authoritarian government of Victor Yanukovych, was derailed instead by Santa Claus.
Looking back, it is incredible that such a courageous revolution could have been stamped out so easily by a power play by the Kremlin. Yet Putin’s offer immediately stabilized Ukraine’s grivna, and lifted the specter of default by a struggling nation. Reduced gas prices are manna for common Ukrainians, who once paid more for Russian gas than did Western Europeans.
As long as the struggle between a European Ukraine and a Russia-centric Ukraine was purely ideological, most Ukrainians supported the protestors. However, when Putin drew a line in the sand, and demonstrated the monetary superiority of an alliance with Russia, common Ukrainians saw the writing on the wall. With average salaries just over $300 a month, and local industries suffering, Russia’s offer gives Ukrainians a second chance to lift their country out of its economic woes. Most Ukrainians just aren’t rich enough to turn their backs on the Kremlin’s largesse.
Ukraine’s president also played his cards well. Having realized that police action only served to inflame the protests, he stepped back in recent weeks, and let the protests run their natural course. In the absence of nighttime raids by Ukraine’s dreaded Berkut riot police, and police harassment of demonstrators, it was harder to whip up the masses to turn up nightly on Independence Square. The president’s suspension of the city mayor, and of those responsible for the student beatings that first ignited the protests, also served to mollify people on the sidelines.
It also helped the ruling clique that the opposition is fragmented and lacks a clear leader who can unite the disparate groups that make up the movement. None of the present leaders, including heavyweight boxing champion Vitaly Klitschko, have the charisma and appeal of feisty Yulia Timoshenko, who remains behind bars. The opposition movement also includes the far-right Svoboda nationalist party, whose torch-lit vigil on the first day of the New Year to celebrate the birthday of a nationalist hero—that many in Ukraine regard as a ‘Nazi collaborator’—has also alienated many moderates from the ‘Euromaidan’ movement.
However, it’s not yet time for the corrupt Ukrainian government to declare the fight over. The ‘EuroMaidan’ was energized on New Year’s Eve as tens of thousands came out to show support for the flagging revolution. I have friends from Ukraine’s Western capital, Lviv, who drove eight hours on snowy roads to Kiev on the 31st, so that they could ring in the New Year on the Maidan. Other friends also forsook cozy home parties, and high-spirited nightclubs to stand out on the square on New Year’s night. The EuroMaidan has a celebratory air in the days after New Year, with musicians playing before the ‘occupied City Hall’ and Christmas trees decorating the tents of the remaining protestors.
The leaders of the movement, including Klitschko, have announced that they plan to fight until the government announces early elections. They’ve also laid down plans to stay on the square until spring at least. At the worst, the opposition movement is in a state of remission during the holiday season.
Yet a wrong move by the government down the line, or an unreasonable demand by Russia, could send tens of thousands of people back on the square within a day. Ukrainians have shown their courage and determination to stare down the government bullies during these last few weeks. It’s unlikely that the spirit that has emerged from this ‘Eurolution’ is going to disappear anytime soon.
As the vodka-high of the holiday season begins to dissipate after Russian New Year on January 13, things can become unpredictable again. The Kremlin might have get used to throwing a lot more money at Ukraine if it wants to keep this Western-looking nation in line.