The first thing I saw in Kyiv, after settling into the hostel and heading out to explore the city, was a large section of the Kreshchatyk St footpath cordoned off, filled with colourful tents and people waving flags and singing. I had no idea what it was all about but thought I’d get closer and take a look.
I soon noticed the many police officers, including riot police with their perspex shields, keeping a very watchful eye on the activity. That made it pretty clear that the people were protesting about something, but not having any idea whatsoever about Ukrainian politics I didn’t know what it was about.
There were two ‘camps’; one full of people singing and chanting with red and white flags, and one full of people half-heartedly waving black flags. I wanted to get i a bit closer; just ahead of me was a pack of journalists pushing forward to photograph someone who was being led through the crowd through an arcade into a big building, so I figured it was safe to take photographs. I had my camera out, and I’m not sure whether the riot police knew I was a tourist or mistook me for another journalist but they pushed people out of the way so that I could get almost to the front, up in with the journalists. Given that all the signs and flags and shouting was in Ukrainian I didn’t have a clue what they were demonstrating about but it seemed interesting.
I found out later that the demonstrations were due to the trial of Yulia Tymoshenko, the former Prime Minister of the country who had been charged with corruption and abuse of office in brokering gas deals with Russia. Plenty more charges were later added, and continue to be added.
I started talking to people about their feelings toward Tymoshenko and the trial, and found that many people were very supportive of her; while some denied her guilt regarding any or all of the charges, even those who felt that she may have abused her position believed that the charges and the trial itself were an example of typical Ukrainian ‘democracy’, where charges are laid purely to get rid of political opposition. After all, corruption is endemic in Ukrainian society and especially government, and every politician in the country is dirty; it’s only when they’re causing trouble that selective ‘justice’ is applied to get rid of them. Another common feeling was that she was charged because she’s a woman – gender discrimination is still standard practice, and what a man can get away with a woman can’t. There was a lot of anger towards the government, and a lot of frustration that laws only apply when the government wants to be rid of powerful opposition. They felt that if Tymoshenko was charged with abuse of office and corruption, the whole government should be indicted.
One thing that a number of people claimed was that the anti-Tymoshenko protesters were all paid to attend; I was unable to confirm this as of course no one would admit to that, and the anti-Tymoshenko people were less willing to talk to me. One who spoke a little bit of English called her a Socialist and a Fascist in the same sentence, so I’m not sure as to how much he really knew about the politics of the woman he was demonstrating against.
The demonstrations continued every day that I was in Kyiv, and I heard that when Tymoshenko was sentenced to seven years in prison the protests became a bit nastier and resulted in a number of clashes between the pro- and anti-Tymoshenko camps and police. However, while I was there the protests seemed quite peaceful – despite the riot police I didn’t see or hear anything more than flag waving and singing.
I must have lost some photos after all, as I’m unable to find the sneaky pictures I took of the lines of riot police surrounding the demonstration area.