What is the atmosphere like in Kiev today and what demands are the protesters making?
I’m in Kiev’s main square and there must be at least 50,000 people here—more people are coming and going because of the cold.
People say that on Saturday there were one million people on the streets. That’s probably an exaggeration, but it reflects the real excitement people feel.
The square is a sea of orange pro-Yushchenko flags. The slogans have not changed since last week: “There’s loads of us and we’re invincible!” and “The gang must go”.
The supreme court is considering the validity of the election result and they may string the process out for a week, but people say they are prepared to stay on the streets for as long as it takes.
Protesters go on demonstrations armed with flowers to give to the police. The political elite has been talking up the possibility of violence, but those on the streets have taken it on themselves to avoid violence.
Are Yanukovich supporters holding their own protests?
I can’t see any Yanukovich supporters in the main square, but I’m told they are up at the train station.
The people here claim that Yanukovich’s supporters are being paid to protest, and that the younger ones can be won over easily. But I haven’t actually met any ex-Yanukovich supporters who have changed sides.
The feeling in the east and south of the Ukraine is very different from the mood here in Kiev.
On Saturday I was in the Donbas mining area in the east of the country. There was a mass meeting of around 150,000 people—but none of the carnival feeling that you find in Kiev.
The people there were violently opposed to what was happening in the west. They called the people on the streets supporting Yushchenko terrorists and fascists.
Yushchenko seems to enjoy genuine popular support in the west of the country. But he is also a part of a tiny rich elite. How do people square this?
It’s a bit like in Britain in 1997 when people’s disgust with the Tories led them to place their enormous hopes in New Labour.
They did so even though Blair was certain to betray them and had nothing in common with them.
That’s the relationship between Yushchenko and the crowds. When you talk to Yushchenko supporters there’s a kind of leap of faith—they say he is going to sort everything out.
I asked several people what they thought about Yushchenko being an oligarch. A rail worker from Lvov and his wife in the coal industry replied, “Look around you—can you see any oligarchs?”
I met a pensioner who had spent her life in the forestry industry. Her pension was around £14 a month. She told me, “I was born under Stalin and I know what corrupt leadership looks like. I’m not being paid to be here. I just want to see this regime kicked out.”
Some commentators in Britain say that people are being duped by Yushchenko—and that the US is the power behind his campaign.
It’s true that the US is putting money into groups like the Pora youth group. But this doesn’t fully explain the movement. The seeds have to fall on fertile ground.
If you ask people on the protests they tell you, “We’re the Ukrainian nation—there are no Americans here.” People say they just want better living standards.
Average wages in the Ukraine are about $130 a month. This is at a time when a kilo of meat costs $5. Many people have to do two jobs and rely on the black market to survive. Prices are going up, and privatisation means bills are rising.
The leadership around outgoing president Kuchma have divided up the country’s wealth in the most cynical manner.
The people in power today were mafia gangs having shooting matches on the streets in the mid-1990s. People are disgusted with it.
I’ve just been talking to a group of oil workers. They work in Lvov in the west of the country on a massive oil pipeline project. They are taking it in turns to come here in groups, using their own money and staying in people’s flats.
They are genuinely in favour of Yushchenko and they believe he can end corruption. They hate Yanukovich. For them the issue of US involvement is irrelevant.
The oil workers from Lvov also talk about how their region has been deindustrialised. They want more jobs and better pay.
So there is real disgust with the existing government—but no real understanding of what Yushchenko represents.
What kind of people are coming to the demonstrations? Are the trade unions involved?
There are many ordinary workers here, but most of the people who will talk are middle class. I think about half the people I’ve spoken to are ordinary workers.
There’s no sign of left wing parties or trade unions having an independent voice in all this. At one point Yushchenko called for strikes, but it was just a slogan.
Certainly there’s no union presence on the pro-Yushchenko demonstrations.
Do you think that the protests could develop a momentum of their own?
The longer the crisis continues, the longer that Yushchenko goes through constitutional channels like the supreme court, the bigger the debates are going to be among the crowd.
The crowds were always to the left of Yushchenko. The movement has grown in size—and its sense of unity and strength is greater than a week ago. But so far there’s no sign of the movement developing politically.
There is a non-stop rock concert and show in the central square. It’s not a centre for political debate like the anti-war demonstrations have been in Britain. But there is a feeling of pride that the nation has finally stood up to what’s been happening for the last 15 years.
While Yushchenko will be happy with a grubby compromise—as long as his big business backers get a bigger slice of the cake—the crowd will only be satisfied if Kuchma and his allies are all kicked out.
For more on the background to the election turn to page 13.
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