Nine years ago, Kiev was preparing to host the Eurovision song contest after Ruslana, Eastern Europe’s contemporary cavegirl, somehow trumped all competition with her “Wild Dance” the year before. I’m sure you all don’t remember.
The city held the tack parade’s 50th anniversary in 2005 in a display of majesty and opulence, the kind of which seems a far cry from today’s Kiev. Watching a live stream of the city centre, which has been broadcast online non-stop for over two months, we see figures milling around, occasionally chanting, in what appears to be a cross between a dystopian 80s movie and an overcrowded Lowry – but it is still early afternoon.
The clashes we have seen on the news between civilians and police that have been taking place for the past few days are something else entirely: petrol bombs, cobblestones being launched at police, who in turn respond with stun grenades, tear gas and rubber bullets. Tents are being ripped down, and protestors are forbidden to wear gas masks or helmets, lest they protect their heads from being smashed in by a police baton. Legislation has been passed to allow the forces to use live ammunition against their compatriots, so it’s unlikely a colander helmet would prove particularly effective anyway.
It’s easy to see why these people are protesting, and why we should support them. Cast our minds back to the infrequent demonstrations we have witnessed in our own capital within the past decade and the uproar that ensued after kettling, the death of Ian Tomlinson and the eviction of the Occupy movement and it’s clear the liberty at which we can criticise our police force and act on our human right to demonstrate. Yet just over 3 hours away by plane, such liberty is virtually absent.
The rally has been going on for two months now since President Viktor Yanukovych abandoned a pact for deeper European integration, but has recently slid into quasi-warfare after he tried to curb this peaceful protest by passing a bunch of legislation last week which massively diminishes press freedom and heavily regulates “public gatherings”. This is not simply a threat to basic human freedom but a broader question about Ukraine’s position within Europe and the extent to which its government, now arguably a dictatorship, is being drawn towards closer industrial relations with its old ally Russia. Pro-EU Ukrainians are becoming ever more fearful of growing Putinian control of their country’s arms factories, a concern that is not entirely ungrounded. True industrial co-operation is so often followed by cosier political relationships, which given the tremendous phobia Russia seems to have for human rights and basic respect for its citizens, is probably not music to the ears of the average Ukrainian. After the racist violence we witnessed during its World Cup qualifier in September, do we really want to see this country of 45 million take yet another step backwards?
Let’s be clear here. The people getting angry in the streets are not anarchists or far-right lunatics hollering for unrealistic change. They are people who are sick and tired of an undemocratic government snatching away their platforms for freedom, and what’s more, they are frustrated that there is not a single person to give them a voice. Even the leader of the opposition, alpha-heavyweight Vitali Klitschko, isn’t willing to step into the ring, denouncing the violence as the work of a minority of “provocateurs”. Acting as a sort of intermediary between the government and the people, he’s not really giving it much welly besides urging Yanukovych to announce immediate elections in order to alleviate tension. This tension, or what most would term flagrant abuse, is of course a huge danger to the people, but dismissing the protesters as rotten meddling kids only risks prolonging the struggle.
What’s needed here is more than just a call from the EU for the government to repeal its new, laughably corrupt laws. Ukrainians want and need help, and so far they have been ignored by anyone in a position of relative power within their own borders. Any European politician concerned with the diplomatic future of the continent needs to take this attack on the right to expression seriously and begin non-violent action in solidarity with the Ukrainian people. Conciliatory negotiations need to be had and reassurances of the benefits to Ukraine of a more cohesive Europe must to be put to the President before it is too late. On a public level too, we need to demonstrate that we support the fight for political manifestation on a global scale, not just where it’s most visible to us. The longer this country is ignored by our representatives in the European Union, the bleaker the fate of those, like us, hoping to live in an unfettered expressive society, whose people can be as fierce and as shameless as cavegirl.