On my way to work yesterday afternoon, I passed the police HQ again on Sakharova Street. The armoured personnel carrier had not returned, the street was empty of people and traffic was moving smoothly (for this congested city). Renovations were ongoing on the neighbouring burnt-out Security Service HQ. So, at this site of ongoing protests, things seemed peaceful, as if some normality were returning to relations between police and activists belonging to Maidan Self-Defence. The previous evening, so on Sunday, returning by bus from an outlying suburb, I had seen a joint patrol by police and activists.
However, on my way to work yesterday I soon felt that this peace was odd and something had to be amiss. The main gates to the police HQ were locked shut and tyres were blocking the entrance. Even during the stand-off with the armoured personnel carrier parked outside, the police HQ continued to operate and the doors were open to citizens (except when there were physical blockades of the doors, as I wrote). Tyres, including a burnt one on the spot that the APC had occupied, are a symbol of the protests in Ukraine, whether in the west, Kyiv or the east. And padlocking and chaining the doors shut from the outside also seemed unlikely on the part of police trying to protect themselves. Something was definitely amiss, yet there was not a single person in sight, whether from the Self-Defence side or from the police.
It was clear that some form of protest had taken place, but it was not until I got home and could check the local press websites and news portals that I could figure out what had happened. The clearest image is given by this video news report from Channel 112 provided by Ruslan Kotsaba, local civil society activist, satirist and journalist – and now also parliamentary candidate in the upcoming by-election in the city. He was there at the time when the abovementioned tyre was burning and explains that the protest is part of the long-term campaign against the nominated head of police. Kotsaba then speaks to an activist from the Maidan Self-Defence group who outlines the organisation’s position.
This young man, who cannot be considered articulate, is the coordinator of Self-Defence in Ivano-Frankivsk city. He first declares that the group are against “the inactive authorities who are failing to participate in state-formation processes”. He then adds that we “had asked, begged for a decent head [of police], one who was born in our region, someone we more or less know, who will work towards raising up our country [kraj].” He suspects the authorities are “shoving on us short-term servants who might steal from the country, destroy our country, who might carry out illegitimate elections or might falsify them”. The coordinator then stresses that Self-Defence feels previous protests have been ignored and now “we’ve had enough. Either you start to work properly and listen to the community, or you should retire. We’ll create order ourselves.” Kotsaba, the journalist, then ends by stating in his ‘back to the studio’ bit that this is “sad news but it will repeat”.
While the Self-Defence coordinator claims that his group represents “the community”, hromada, so conceived as the people of Ivano-Frankivsk, I would suggest that Kotsaba’s conclusion is closer to the general mood of the city. People are generally tired of this politicking that Self-Defence supports, provincial concerns effectively, while the east of the country is under threat. Oddly, this means having to agree with a statement from the local branch of Right Sector. The organisation denied any involvement in yesterday’s protests outside the police and security service HQ and deemed them “damaging to the Ukrainian cause”. Right Sector Ivano-Frankivsk added in its statement its suspicion that those involved were “seeking to install their people in positions of authority in the city”. The statement from the Self-Defence coordinator, after all, suggests a desire to have someone familiar, someone local, so – in all likelihood – someone well-versed in local networks and systems of nepotism, protection and mutual back-scratching. So, essentially, someone unlikely to rock the boat or bring about reforms to systems of corruption. There are, after all, strong suspicions in the city that some elements in Maidan Self-Defence are connected to possibly not-entirely-legitimate business interests, hence a somewhat selective approach to sorting things out where corruption is suspected.
This opinion piece from the local press suggests that Self-Defence is in danger of becoming a mercenary or “commercial” group, available for hire to push through a particular sponsor’s demands. After all, the author argues, it is pretty odd that certain names that mean nothing much at all to the people of Ivano-Frankivsk are being put forward as candidates for the posts of head of the Security Service or police.
According to this report, meanwhile, there was “pushing and shoving” at yesterday’s protest, with “activists” managing to enter the building. This resulted in “a compromise”, so a meeting between “activists” and the head of the Security Service (SBU) in Ivano-Frankivsk region was organised. So, the Maidan Self-Defence have extended their protest to seek, further, the removal of the head of the Security Service, too, accusing him of having worked against Maidan activists during the winter protests of 2013/14 and continuing to harm Ukraine. There were also concerns voiced that some members of the SBU “Alpha” unit had been involved in some kind suspected of “terrorist attack” on gas pipes in the Rozhnyativ district of Ivano-Frankivsk region which caused significant damage to a pipeline running from Siberia through Ukraine to Uzhorod and on to the EU.
A Civic Council has been formed to enable facilitation of communication between the Ministry of Internal Affairs organs (police and SBU) and the population. However, the Self-Defence activists are against this council since they believe that it is unelected. However, I don’t recall any election to establish the legitimacy of these people conducting their variant of mob democracy. Those “activists” present at the meeting decided that any further action should be postponed until the conclusion of the elections, contrasting with the coordinator’s concerns, expressed in the video interview with Kotsaba, that falsification was feared. Still, as Kotsaba suggested this “sad”, I would say farcically tragic, story is likely to run and run.
Even today there were threats to make the action more radical, although the Armoured Personnel Carrier is not going to be used as “it is being prepared for war”, according to this report. There are still calls in this report for compromise although this means not selecting the nominated head of police, whose home region of Volhynia seems to be facing a more intense stand-off with police in Rivne with an infamous Right Sector activist having been killed by state agents operating with the current Kyiv government.
While the calls for compromise might sound optimistic, I’d say that if the local police can’t exert enough authority to get rid of a burnt tyre from the front of their building with no one around, or remove a padlock and tyres from their own HQ’s main entrance in an otherwise peaceful city – then there is a definite deficit of democracy and authority.
Meanwhile, yesterday on the square by the Regional Administration Building the Maidan Self-Defence camp remains in place, albeit much smaller than at its height. Some workmen, meanwhile, were repairing some of the stairs and stonework around the square which had been damaged partly by protests but mostly by skateboarders who were still out in force yesterday. In the above photo you can see the monument which is now a site of contention. The two figures, musicians representing east and west Ukraine, were once united by Lenin. Now the plan is to partly recycle the monument by including a new sculpture. However, the city council cannot decide if marking Maidan or commemorating the “Heavenly Hundred” is the best way to achieve the desired effect. I suspect that it is too early to tell whether more apt is marking the overthrow of a government or the tragedy inflicted by it, celebratory or mournful is the choice.
As regards mourning, this poster stuck on the wall of the administration building proclaims “Eternal Glory to the Patriots of Ukraine”. The photo shows Ihor Ivanov, a Right Sector fighter killed in Odesa. “To the eternal memory of a Hero of the Ukrainian nation.” It then cites psalm 48:21 in a call for vengeance. While some national media have been more subtle and expressed greater decorum in response to the Odesa tragedy, this poster is perhaps more typical of a response I have noted among some here which makes an ethically-questionable clear division between Ukrainian heroes killed and Others, those killed who – following this logic – must have been enemies and are deemed non-Ukrainian. The response to Odesa is something I considered elsewhere on this blog.
After a period where those claiming to speak for the community attempted to claim the square outside the city’s White House and the Maidan-era tradition of rallies for their own cause, as I wrote here, the square is once again a car park for many suspiciously expensive motor cars belonging to employees at the Regional Administration and elsewhere. While the most radical point of Maidan “activist” resistance to the post-Yanukovych order in the city meant removing the EU flag from the balcony where Self-Defence and Right Sector addressed sparse audiences, that flag is now back with the red and black “Bandera” or UPA nationalist flag relegated to position at the side. However, any great enthusiasm for the EU and what it might promise is not really in evidence in the city, barring the by-election campaign by local businessman – he part-owns the Bukovel ski resort in the nearby Carpathian Mountains – Oleksandr Shevchenko. The Europe Day celebrations in the city were a huge flop, judging by these images. That is probably why this report stuck to text only despite its declaration that “people support the event solidly” in the city.
A better-attended event, filling the Vichevyj Maidan (Rally Square), was the visit of Radical Party leader and presidential candidate Oleh Lyashko, recently seen questioning a “separatist” capture and filmed wearing only his underpants. Lyashko filled the square, perhaps not packing as much as Petro Poroshenko’s visit did, but then Lyashko himself was the sole attraction in this case rather than the massive show that Poroshenko put on. Lyashko’s populism was also evident in him singing the now famous anti-Putin song, Putin Hujlo (Putin’s a Cunt – sorry if you’re reading this in Russia, I think it’s illegal to use swear words there now – here’s some asterisks for you to use where necessary П**** Х****). Lyashko, however, got the tune a bit wrong. Maybe it’s a regional difference, like in church when people from different areas sing the same hymn quite differently.
More reflective of the current mood, perhaps, is this city-centre attraction, a makeshift archery game with Yanukovych and Putin as targets. Yanukovych’s portrait had far more holes in it. Perhaps he’s an easier target, rather than now more hated?
And so, that’s my update from Ivano-Frankivsk for now. A bit of political posturing and dangerous games with the police; the election campaigns go on; popular dislike towards Putin takes various forms; the EU seems less popular than it could have been; but – what goes without saying but hasn’t been said explicitly here – everyday life carries on and prices, for now, have stabilised with the dollar costing about 12 UAH for a few weeks now.