Braving arctic temperatures and police violence, hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians have been joining together from across the country to demonstrate in Kyiv's Maidan Square. They are fighting to keep their fragile democracy from slipping into a totalitarian dictatorship under Russia's influence, and becoming the next Belarus. In my interview for Big Think last January with Femen’s Inna Shevchenko, the Ukrainian activist described being kidnapped and tortured by the KGB after protesting Belarussian dictator Alexander Lukashenko in Minsk. Yes, the KGB still exists in Belarus. This is the Soviet nightmare Ukrainians are fighting against.
Now is an extremely critical moment for Ukraine as well as the EU. Ukraine is "the bread basket of Europe" and the largest European country, and deserves to be a strong democracy after decades of Soviet oppression. But it is a buffer nation between the EU and the Moscow-led customs union of Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan. If Ukraine gets pulled into the customs union then an Iron Curtain 2.0 will be drawn.
Vladimir Putin, whose private wealth exceeds $40 billion, enjoys a tight grip on power in Russia. Just this week, in reaction to the growing demonstrations in Ukraine, he dissolved RIA-Novosti, Russia’s leading news agency, and replaced it with a puppet media operation. His human rights crimes are brazen: from his government’s violent homophobia to hardline and often murderous crackdowns on his political opponents. Putin knows that if he loses Ukraine to Europe then Russia’s global influence diminishes.
At the end of November, Ukrainian president Victor Yanukovych was supposed to sign an agreement with the EU, moving his country closer toward membership. The deal would have led to free trade with Europe. But at the 11th hour, Yanukovych walked away, drawing half a million protesters into Kyiv's streets. And since then, he’s been stealing from Putin’s playbook.
Tuesday night at around 11pm in Kyiv, the Berkut—Ukraine’s government militia—invaded and brutally attacked protesters in Maidan Square. The people resisted, spraying the police with hoses and covering the steps of their commandeered city hall headquarters with cooking oil. The tense stand-off lasted for several hours. The police viciously beat protesters, lit tents on fire, and tore down barricades. Around a dozen protesters were taken to the hospital for serious injuries, according to media reports. When the Berkut finally left around 10am, cheers erupted in Maidan, and the protesters—as they had been doing through most of the night and early morning—sang the Ukrainian national anthem.
Living in the harsh conditions of the snowy, ice-covered Maidan, protesters promise not to rest until they've overthrown their corrupt president. Yanukovych’s abuses of power range from cheaply buying up preserved national park land for his own private use to helping his friends get away with murder. Despite pressure from Western leaders, he repeatedly used violence against his own people. Nine protesters are still badly injured and in jail after the Berkut broke up a relatively small and peaceful demonstration in the early hours of November 30th.
Protesters from all across Ukraine continue to descend on Kyiv. Their numbers are only growing larger, their voices becoming louder. But the demonstrators in Maidan Square need our support. Many people there are suffering from serious colds and bronchitis. The winter will only become harsher. We in the West can show them that we support their uprising, their right to freedom and basic human rights. Let's keep Maidan warm.
Here are some ways that you can help:
Photo credit: Alexandra (Nessa) Gnatoush (Flickr)