Kyiv’s ‘citizen defenders’ maintain nighttime vigil (PHOTOS)


Keeping up the momentum.


Brendan Hoffman

KYIV, Ukraine — Under normal circumstances, Serhiy might have enjoyed a leisurely stroll after work through this charming and tidy central square.

But these are no ordinary circumstances, and Serhiy — a 32-year-old advertising professional from Kyiv — is no longer your average working stiff, at least for now.

He spent the early hours of Thursday morning directing a team of dour-faced young men in helmets reinforcing makeshift barricades around Independence Square, the nerve center of the anti-government protests that have rocked this post-Soviet capital for nearly two weeks.

With his military-grade helmet perched crookedly atop his round head, he cuts an almost cartoonish figure. But it will be no laughing matter when the riot police arrive, he suggests.

“Each person has his own perimeter, and everyone is ready for an attack,” said Serhiy, who, like many others, asked that his last name be withheld for fear of retribution.

After police violently attacked sleeping protesters — many of them students — here last weekend, a climate of tension has descended on those who dig in overnight to keep up the protest’s momentum.

During the daytime, the pro-EU demonstrations are largely hopeful.

Young couples mill about hand-in-hand, listening to opposition leaders decry the authorities from a large stage facing Khreshchatyk, Kyiv’s main drag. Plump elderly women cheerfully bounce to live music performances as the evening settles in.

After midnight, however, much of the square morphs into a well-defended, self-subsistent fortress.

The sound of hammers driving nails into wooden planks pierces the relative calm of night. Volunteer defenders, many in hardhats and other protective gear, huddle together to discuss contingency plans.

Others practice fending off imaginary police assaults with wooden pikes through specially designed holes in the barricades.

The apprehension reflects the worrying turn of events here in recent days. Although the violent police crackdown on the protests — here on the square and later outside the presidential administration — has emboldened opposition leaders, it’s shaken ordinary demonstrators unaccustomed to the heavy-handed methods of Vladimir Putin’s Russia or Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s Belarus.

Official rhetoric hasn’t helped.

While Prime Minister Mykola Azarov expressed cursory regret over the severity of the crackdown last weekend, which left scores of protesters beaten and bloodied, he called the students “well-prepared provocateurs,” and hinted that official tolerance for the mass protests may be dwindling.

“All those who are guilty of illegal acts will answer for them,” he said on Wednesday.

There have also been widespread reports of government-sponsored thugs — or “titushky,” as they’re known in opposition parlance — allegedly dispatched among demonstrators to stir violence and tarnish the protests’ peaceful nature. Critics say they played a key role in provoking the violence outside the presidential administration.

That’s why men like Andriy, a stoic-looking 29-year-old from the western Ukrainian city of Lviv, frisks everyone who enters the perimeter at night, ever cautious of the risks of provocation.

He turns away anyone who’s drunk, suspicious-looking or refuses to be inspected.

“We're ready for anything,” he said.

There’s little legal precedent for this entirely stopgap operation, a citizen defense force that virtually controls a swathe of territory in the heart of this sprawling, concrete capital.

Ordinary police, meanwhile, are nowhere in sight.

But Serhiy, directing the barricades’ defense, insists they’re not the fringe elements that officials such as Azarov paint them to be.

“He basically told the truth when he said there were some 2,500 provocateurs in Kyiv,” he said. "They’re the titushky."

The defense effort illustrates the sense of community that’s risen from the ongoing protests against the government’s refusal to sign key political and trade agreements with the EU last month.

Inside the square, activists run round-the-clock food stands and clothing drives. Loudly humming generators provide electricity for stoves and other accessories that enable the protesters to continue their standoff.

Even in the quietest hours, which defenders say are the most dangerous, volunteers stir industrial vats of tea that steam into the frigid air, mechanically loading trays for distribution among demonstrators camped inside ramshackle tents.

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Viktor Storozhenko, a 23-year-old theater student from the Crimean city of Sevastopol, laments that he misses out during the daytime rallies, which attract thousands of upbeat protesters each day.

But he says his services are needed more at night, when nearly every moment is spent on high alert.

Although Azarov has promised no further crackdowns, and the Prosecutor General has summoned the country’s interior minister for questioning over last weekend’s assault on the square, many here take those developments with a grain of salt.

More than a dozen protesters are said to remain missing, and nearly as many were jailed this week on charges of rioting outside the presidential administration. If convicted, they face lengthy prison sentences.

Widely circulated video footage from the event shows riot police brutally beating and kicking protesters even after they’d collapsed.

“It’s very frightening because you don’t know what they’re preparing,” Storozhenko said while fixing a chinstrap, wound together from black packaging tape, to his orange hardhat.

“I can’t have confidence in a state that’s beaten innocent people.”