RFE/RL special correspondent David Satter reports from Kyiv's Independence Square on the mood of the protesters, following Russia's bailout offer.
KYIV -- The protesters on Kyiv's Independence Square, or "Maidan" as it's known for short, now face one more disquieting reality: the intervention of Russia. The regime of Russian President Vladimir Putin -- by lending Ukraine $15 billion and cutting the price of gas -- has rescued the Ukrainian economy, at least in the short term. But it has also made concessions by Ukraine's President Viktor Yanukovych even less likely.
The reaction in the square to the news that Russia had come to Yanukovych's support was angry. At a barricade on Institute Street leading to the square, Oleg, a worker from Lviv, said: "These gifts are not a resolution. We come here not for material things but for freedom."
Lena, from Kyiv, who works for an Internet company, said: "The money will go to people at the top. The price of gas for us will be the same."
A young woman leaving the square when asked what Yanukovych had sacrificed to get the money, answered, "He sacrificed the nation." The anger over the Russian credits that pro-government spokesmen depicted as an act of Russian generosity compared to the stingy offer to Ukraine by the European Union demonstrate an important fact about the protest. Opinion in Ukraine may be divided over the protests but the demonstrators have a monopoly on fervor.
The Maidan in mid-December has the characteristics of a national revival with elements of cosmic struggle. Ukrainian Orthodox and Greek Catholic hierarchs lead the crowd in prayers. One woman who was selling Ukrainian-language books told me that Ukraine would decide the fate of the world. At night, the Maidan is a gathering place for thousands of people, regardless of the cold. Young girls give strangers "free hugs," green lasers spell out the words "gang get out" and "unity is strength" on the walls of the surrounding buildings. Rock musicians entertain the crowd and people wave Ukrainian flags in time to the music. Strict discipline enhances the sense of unity. No one is allowed into the square that appears to be drunk. At one of the entrances to the square, a man with a bruised face started shouting that he had been beaten. A crowd gathered quickly and a doctor rushed to examine him. He had been beaten but the guards announced that the scabs on his face were a week old.
The situation in the Maidan is a stark contrast to the official demonstration on December 15 in nearby European Square that attracted from 10,000 to 50,000 people. A worker from the Carpathians told me he had been paid 200 hryvnyas to join the rally. Otherwise, he would have joined the crowd in the Maidan. "I belonged there," he said. There were persons in the pro-government crowds kicking around empty bottles in an improvised game of soccer during the speeches and some demonstrators sat on their haunches with a dazed expression, either drunk or on drugs.
The situation with corruption in Ukraine is similar to what exists in Russia but there are some differences. Ukraine under former President Leonid Kuchma was corrupt and authoritarian. There was progress against corruption in the immediate wake of the 2004 Orange Revolution. Former President Viktor Yushchenko fired thousands of traffic police (before hiring some of them back) but the gesture had an impact. For a time, corruption in traffic enforcement almost ceased. Under Yushchenko, the tax inspections were frequently arbitrary but there was a greater readiness of ordinary citizens to stand up against corrupt officials and to appeal for support to the media and the courts.
Once Yanukovych became president, however, tax inspections emerged as the principal instrument of political control.
Taxes are high. Employers pay 67 cents for every dollar in salary. Much of the tax revenue also feeds corruption. According to some estimates, the return on taxes after corruption is no more than 10 percent.
Under these circumstances, the situation resembles that in Russia. Employers try to understate salaries and the number of their workers and to conduct as much as possible of their business offshore. This leaves them vulnerable to prosecution for tax avoidance in the event of a conflict with the authorities. Members of the Verkhovna Rada are also vulnerable. In the absence of reliable safeguards against conflicts of interest, many ran for parliament in order to defend their businesses and willingly trade political obedience for the security of their investments.
The demonstrations broke out suddenly but they reflect built-up frustration on the part of Ukrainians over the conditions under which they live.
Many of the demonstrators are afraid that if they fail, the European future they imagine will disappear and they will fall permanently under Russian control. Oksana, a Kyiv journalist, said: "If Yanukovych wins, we're afraid that there will be no further elections. Yushchenko did not interfere in the elections but now we will have the Yanukovych first term, then the second term. It will then be the first term for his first son and then the second term, and then the first term for his second son."
There is also fear that if the protesters are not successful in changing the regime, there will be widespread repression. The demonstration on December 1 was accompanied by an automobile procession in which drivers rode through Kyiv honking their horns in support of the protesters. Apparently, license plate numbers were written down because many of the drivers were subsequently summoned to the police for questioning in connection with nonexistent violations.
After nearly three weeks, the protest shows no sign of waning. Instead, its food-services and self-defense brigades have all become institutionalized. The determination is, in part, a reflection of desperation. Many protesters see Euromaidan as their last chance for a better life. Arseniy Yatsenyuk, the leader of the Batkivshchina (Fatherland) party, said in a speech that Yanukovych behaves like a personal tsar and treats people like "cattle."
At a fire at one of the barricades, a group of men were discussing Yanukovych's house, which they said featured a gold-plated toilet and a private zoo with llamas and kangaroos. Viktor, a bricklayer from Ternopil, said, "You can't live on what you earn and Yanukovych and his family steal."
I asked if they thought Yanukovych should be put on trial for abuses, like Tymoshenko. They said he should. One suggested that the prosecutor should look into how Yanukovych acquired his zoo. Another said, "There is only one animal missing from his zoo." I asked what is that? He said, "Yanukovych himself."