Snowy Tent City Holds Soul of Ukraine Protest
Alexandra Kondratyuk, a 20-year-old philosophy major, has spent three freezing nights crammed with half a dozen other students in one of the canvas domes filling the pavement just off Independence Square.
Scattered among more than 1,000 tents are food stalls, heaps of garbage awaiting removal, and even bigger piles of donated clothing, boots and shoes awaiting distribution. Despite appearing chaotic, the tent city has strict rules: Identity documents must be shown to get past barricades and guards, and neither alcohol nor weapons are allowed.
“We are like one family, sisters and brothers,” Kondratyuk said of her fellow campers. “I haven’t seen such a situation anywhere, so I will stay here until the end, when we get to our destination.... We want Yushchenko to be our president.”
Part political theater, part Woodstock, the encampment near the city’s main square has become the front line in the campaign to have opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko declared the legitimate winner of the Nov. 21 presidential vote. Protesters say they are bound by the sense that they have the power to alter the course of history.
Yushchenko’s supporters have been scoring significant victories. On Saturday, they celebrated when Ukraine’s parliament called the official results declaring Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich the winner fraudulent and invalid. Earlier last week, the nation’s high court ordered that the official vote count not be published, thwarting plans for Yanukovich’s inauguration.
Orange ribbons, scarves, balloons, banners and even an artificial orange Christmas tree crowned with a Santa Claus cap festoon the makeshift city. Orange is the color of Yushchenko’s campaign, and the protest here is being called “the Orange Revolution” -- a takeoff on Czechoslovakia’s peaceful 1989 “Velvet Revolution” against communism and last year’s similarly nonviolent “Rose Revolution” in Georgia.
As Kondratyuk spoke Saturday, Nadezda Necheporenko, 66, thrust a homemade fried dumpling into her hand. The university professor had come with a friend to distribute food to the young campers.
“I want to help them,” Necheporenko said. “Our election is a lie, and I want the main bandits to pay for what they have done.”
Supporters of Yanukovich staged their own massive rally Saturday in the eastern city of Donetsk, the prime minister’s power base. Television broadcast scenes of tens of thousands gathered in that city’s main square to back his claim of legitimacy.
In Ukraine’s largely Russian-speaking eastern region, Yanukovich is seen as someone who will encourage good ties with Russia and keep the coal mines open, whereas Yushchenko is viewed by many as a Ukrainian nationalist who might close the mines as part of market-oriented reforms and fail to protect the cultural rights of the country’s Russian minority and Russian-speaking Ukrainians.
Thousands of Yanukovich supporters have also come to Kiev to rally outside the city’s main train station.
But in the capital, the streets belong to Yushchenko’s supporters, who with every passing day become more convinced that they will prevail.
Kondratyuk said that by moving into the camp, she had managed to influence Russian friends in Moscow who favored Yanukovich so strongly that political differences had begun to strain their friendship.
“When they heard that we’re here all night in the snow and rain, they wrote us and said, ‘We understand you,’ ” she said. “They feel they are in warm flats and we are in cold tents, and now they understand and want to help us. We feel like winners.”
Russian President Vladimir V. Putin backed Yanukovich before the election and during the postelection struggle, and Russian media have strongly favored the prime minister.
Yushchenko wants closer ties with Western Europe and the United States. So the battle here has taken on aspects of an east-west clash within the country and beyond its borders.
About half this country’s citizens speak Russian as their first language, and half speak the closely related Ukrainian. Yanukovich campaigned on a pledge to make Russian a second official language, whereas Yushchenko’s power base, aside from the capital, is in the Ukrainian-speaking western part of the country.
Kondratyuk said that in heavily pro-Yushchenko and largely bilingual Kiev, she can already see a backlash against speakers of Russian.
“Maybe five days ago, people spoke in Russian,” she said. “Then when we had a meeting here, all the people began to speak in Ukrainian. Five days ago, when I got on a bus, I only heard the Russian language. Now people speak much less Russian.”
In some eastern regions, many people are convinced that Yushchenko would not represent their interests. As the possibility of a Yushchenko presidency appeared to grow in the last few days, some politicians there began to talk of demands for autonomy or even separation from Ukraine and federation with Russia.
Though largely populated by students, the encampment is home to a cross-section of Ukrainians.
Most residents stay in their own tents or ones distributed from a nearby former Soviet cultural center, which is now being used as a protest base.
More than a dozen military-issue brown canvas tents, each one big enough to sleep dozens, went up in the last couple of days. Two small light-colored tents had green marijuana leaves painted on them. One green tent had the words “Skinheads Forever” painted in orange on its side.
“We are Ukrainian skinheads,” Bogdan Kovtonuk, 23, a factory worker, proclaimed proudly. He and his friends were backing Yushchenko, he said, because they viewed Yanukovich as linked to “crime syndicates.”
Many opposition supporters charge that the prime minister is backed by rich businessmen from the Donetsk region who gained their wealth illegally.
“The tent city is a protest against Yanukovich, the mafia behind him and the people supporting him,” said Sergey Ershenko, 27, one of the campers. “We want to have a democracy even better than the American one.”
With a light snow falling, Ershenko said he felt very comfortable. “Everyone is warm. We are only lacking California sun,” he said.
Larisa Sedolaka, 47, a real estate agent and the mother of Ershenko, visits the camp after work to help distribute coffee. “My son has been here for four days,” she said. “I have two sons, and I want them to live in a free, democratic country. Young people are here to stand up for their future.”
Oleksandr Kaminsky, 49, an ethnic Ukrainian and Georgian citizen, said the tent city was “the foundation on which the bricks of the nation are being built.”
He said he wasn’t very comfortable, but was impressed by the encampment’s rules.
“We have a ‘dry law’ here,” he said. “Only sober people can build democracy. This is something very special.”
Kaminsky expressed confidence that the encampment would not be violently cleared, citing reports that police, security service personnel and the city prosecutor’s office were supporting the protesters.
Lilia Yasinskaya, 22, a teacher from a town in western Ukraine, said she had been spending days at the encampment but nights with a host family.
“I leave at midnight and come back in the morning,” she said. “I was standing here, and a woman came up and offered to let me stay at her apartment.”
She added that she was ready to stay for the long haul: “I lack only cosmetics. Otherwise, I have everything here.”