Independence Square in Kiev, Ukraine, has erupted again into dramatic clashes between protesters and police, and looks increasingly like the something from Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables. Three months ago, disgruntled protesters gathered in the town square to protest unfair economic conditions. Huddled together in tents on the city square, they sang songs. It was “the music of a people who will not be slaves again.” In January, a leader of the group was kidnapped. He was beaten, one ear was cut off, and his hands were pierced like Jesus. Dmytro Bulatov survived the torture to become a hero to protesters gathered on the Maidan. But violence has returned to the square, and people on both sides are dying.
Tuesday night was punctuated by explosions. Witnesses were uncertain if they came protesters’ fireworks or police action. Protestors formed a human chain, passing wood, bricks, rocks and other building blocks for barricades against the police offensive, which was launched Tuesday night as bonfires roared in Independence Square, three blocks from the Ukrainian parliament. Police wielding shields and swinging sticks forced their way through protesters, but were met by protesters swinging bats, as well.
By early Wednesday, 19 people were dead, and 114 had been taken to the hospital. Casualties began to mount when protesters set fire to the building which houses the ruling Party of Regions. Opposition leader Vitali Klitschko met with President Victor Yanukovych for talks after hours of clashes Tuesday. Yanukovych has promised to address the nation.
In an effort to suppress the demonstrations authorities have used water cannons, and traffic into Kiev has been restricted. Olesya Orobets, a spokesperson for the protesters said ambulances had been barred from reaching the area medical facility set up outside the parliament building.
The prosecutor general blamed the protesters for the violence, “opposition leaders should take the responsibility” for the death on destruction on the streets of Kiev. “It is the opposition who announced a peaceful rally,” which the prosecutor general proclaimed had “turned into violent standoff.”
Against a backdrop of Les Miserables-looking barricades, Independence Square in the Ukrainian capitol of Kiev erupted into violence and drama. It was the Ukrainian people enacting their “song of angry men” in response to the speaker of parliament’s refusal to allow opposition members to register amendments to a vote limiting the rights of the President and restoring the nation’s 2004 constitution.
Tuesday night flames engulfed the trades union building, an opposition stronghold in the square. From a stage set up on the square, protest leaders urged demonstrators to gather sheets to catch anyone needing to jump from the building. A boy, who has since been declared a hero, climbed a wall of the union building to save a girl from the flames. Later in the night it was reported that riot police had reached the sixth floor of the trades union building, after entering through a second story window.
Vice-President Joe Biden has expressed “grave concern” over “the crisis on the streets of Kiev.” Biden has called upon President Yanukovych to withdraw the security forces from Independence Square. Ukraine’s Foreign Minister, Volodymyr Ohryzko, has warned the US and EU that “the policy of non-interference” will result in a collapse of the European dream. He went on to described “a terrifying East Asian Empire,” which he said “will eventually swallow you.”
Ukraine has long been split between Russian-backed “haves” in the country’s east and western have-nots. In Soviet times, eastern Ukraine, where people speak Russian, received far more investment for infrastructure and education. Western Ukraine, which has its own distinct Ukrainian language, has long lacked universities, factories and other building blocks for growth. Western Ukrainians look westward to Europe for economic salvation.
Protests in Ukraine began peacefully in November of last year, when President Viktor Yanukovych tabled an agreement that would have led to greater European Union support. Instead, Yanukovych turned to Russia for an economic bail-out.
Before violence broke out, demonstrators asked merely for early parliamentary elections, in an effort to cure widespread corruption. Now Protesters look to oust Yanukovych with early presidential elections, as the Les Miserables drama rages on in the Ukraine capitol’s Independence Square.
By Melissa Roddy