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Remembering the Maidan

The major events of Ukraine’s Maidan are familiar to most people, at least the events of this past January and February, in which pitched battles between ordinary citizens and heavily armed security forces took place on Kyiv’s central boulevard (and throughout the country). 

But Ukrainians took to the streets long before the television cameras brought those images of burning vehicles, bloodied protestors and masked riot forces shooting into crowds penned into downtown squares.    

The events known collectively as the Maidan began one year ago tomorrow, with President Viktor Yanukovych’s announcement he would not sign Ukraine’s Association Agreement with the European Union, stunning citizens with a sudden reversal of commitments made during the 2010 election campaign and by his government in the years since then.  Almost immediately, crowds went into the central square of the capital, the Maidan, in opposition; small numbers at first, within three days they had grown into more than 100,000 protestors (with some estimates reaching more than 200,000).

Once people go into the streets in such numbers, it is difficult to push them back.  Still, the Yanukovych government might have expected winter temperatures and a natural drop-off in the intensity of crowd anger to gradually reduce the protestors to manageable numbers.  Instead, a government so out of touch with its population turned to another response on November 30, sending in Berkut riot police to violently assault the men and women who were peacefully protesting.

The Maidan at this point became less about the Association Agreement and more about saving Ukrainian democracy.  Fears that democracy itself was threatened were quickly validated when the Party of Regions, Yanukovych’s political party, pushed through draconian laws in the Verkhovna Rada which effectively ended freedoms of speech and assembly. 

In defiance of questionably passed laws which were clearly unconstitutional, protestors remained in the cold, supported by visits from democratic world leaders such as Canada’s Foreign Minister Baird, Prime Minister Harper and U.S. Senator John McCain.  

The symbolic support through these visits by important world leaders forestalled regime brutality only temporarily: on February 18 the Berkut was again unleashed upon Ukrainian citizens in its worst spree of violence, leaving scores dead over days of fighting.       

The Maidan prevailed, as we know, as President Yanukovych and large numbers of his cronies fled Ukraine on February 21.  As the interim government was installed shortly thereafter, the new Cabinet officials were presented to crowds still present in the Maidan for an informal affirmation. 

One year later, the Maidan’s presence is very much felt, although the barricades, burned vehicles and homemade defensive weapons are gone.  At the presidential elections in May, along with candidate and civil society pollwatchers, IRI observers frequently found pollwatchers who said they represented the Maidan, rather than a formal NGO.  In the October parliamentary elections, dozens of men and women, new to politics, who spent days and weeks in the Maidan, were elected to office.  

Cynics who believe the new parliament will be “business as usual” should think back to the day, one year ago, when average Ukrainian people took to the streets to preserve and protect their democracy.       

Posted by

Tom Garrett

Vice President for Programs
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