The numbers of protesters in Kyiv’s Independence Square, or Maidan, appears to have diminished over the year-end Christian and secular observances. For example, Anatoliy Hrytsenko - a leading member of the Ukraine’s opposition party Batkivshchyna recently blogged that there appeared to be fewer demonstrators camped out now than were seen in previous weeks. The pro-European, anti-government movement has lost some intensity in terms of the numbers of protesters actually showing up since President Viktor Yanukovych signed a number of economic agreements with Russia in mid-December 2013. The rejection of the agreements was initially quite vocal and intense as thousands of protesters filled the Maidan, putting them at odds with security forces. Christian religious leaders actually placed themselves bodily as a buffer between protester and government forces and led those present in prayers for peace. Catholic and Orthodox priests, and Protestant pastors, have been seen providing spiritual guidance as well as food and other support to protesters.
A protest on January 12 drew 50,000 people - fewer than expected. However, hundreds of thousands may still come out on Sunday, January 19, when Orthodox Christians celebrate the feast of Theophany or Epiphany. Over the weekend, a group calling itself Automaidan staged a series of mobile protests by travelling in convoys of cars to picket at the luxury homes of President Yanukovych and some of his supporters. Opponents of the government assert that protests such as Automaidan may be more effective than simply standing in the cold on Independence Square.
A former interior minister of Ukraine, Yuriy Lutsenko, who is now a member of the opposition, was beaten by police and seriously injured in a confrontation with riot police on January 10. He was taken for intensive care at a local hospital while more than a dozen people were injured in clashes between police and demonstrators after a court sentenced three Ukrainian nationalists to six years’ imprisonment for a plot to destroy a statue of communist icon Vladimir Ilyich Lenin in 2011. Some protesters, even those whose sympathies are not nationalist, condemned the harsh sentences as politically motivated and lacking due process of law.
Former Interior Minister Lutsenko’s beat-down by police appears to have shocked Ukrainian public opinion. Ukraine is still reeling from video that showed violence meted out by authorities on protesters on November 30 of last year. No prosecutions have emerged for misuse of force by officials.
Some observers in Ukraine feel confident that President Yanukovych cannot win the presidential election scheduled for 2015 but fear that he will get even tougher with his political opponents and pro-Europe protesters. The leader of the Batkivshchyna opposition party, Arseniy Yatseniuk – has been talking about leading a strategy for next year. The official leader of the party is former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko is in prison, having been convicted on corruption charges widely regarded as politically motivated.
Analysts indicate that Yanukovych and his party and wealthy supporters, since they rely on support from Russia’s Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, see no need to make concessions. Even while they are not immune to pro-Europe appeals, it appears that they are hedging their bets rather than wholeheartedly support the protesters.
Protesters have demanded nothing less than the resignation of Ukraine’s current government and have perhaps overshot the mark. They say that they will continue to protest until achieving their goal. The current opposition is middle-aged and uninspiring, while the protesters are fervent and largely young. They do not have the figure of the glamorous Timoshenko to rally around. Timoshenko, who with her good looks and traditional coif and European bias, became a living symbol of Ukrainian identity and independence in the face of Russian hegemony.
Yet, the nationalist and spiritual dimensions of the protests appear unlikely to go away. Orthodox priests, for example, lead daily prayers at Independence Square calling for peace under a large icon of the Crucifixion. And the encampment and protests at the square have won accolades for their unprecedented level of organization. Observers see it as a significant improvement over the so-called Orange Revolution of 2004 that brought in the pro-Western government of President Viktor Yushchenko, who lost a 2010 presidential bid and thus ushered in the Yanukovych government. Relations between the respective governments of Ukraine and Russia have improved steadily ever since.
Countless volunteers have braved the sub-zero cold in Ukraine to lend support to protesters, preparing food, clothing and shelter. A Ukrainian living in the U.S. told Spero News that this Jan. 18-19 weekend could prove to be the clash between the unstoppable force of the Yanukovych government and the immoveable resistance of Maidan.