A REVOLUTION has taken place in Ukraine. It still lacks a name, but the events and their traces are unmistakable: the burnt buildings on the Maidan (Kiev’s central square), more than 80 dead, barricades that had withstood government forces for months, the lingering acrid smell of burnt rubber, and in anger, hatred and tears for the dead. As befits a revolution, events unfold with neck-breaking pace.
Viktor Yanukovych, the thuggish, ineffective and corrupt president of Ukraine is gone—nobody knows where. The new interior minister has issued an arrest warrant for him. His erstwhile supporters, including his own party, have dumped him. His Russian backers denounce him as a traitor for his failure to drown the revolutionaries in their own blood.
For their part, the protestors—a varied grouping under the banner of Euromaidan—are commemorating the heroes of the revolution and demanding retribution to those who used snipers against them. On a hill where many died from gunfire, candles spell “Glory to Heroes”. Flowers are everywhere.
Yulia Tymoshenko, Mr Yanukovych’s arch-rival, who spent the past two years in jail, is back and was cheered by hundreds of thousands on Maidan. Alexander Turchinov, her right-hand man, has been elected the speaker of parliament and acting president. A new pro-European government is being formed, while the economy is collapsing.
The revolution represents the victory for those who came out on the streets three months ago after Mr Yanukovych ditched a European deal—which is not everyone. A large part of the population in the ethnically Russian east and south of the country are enraged that power in Kiev has been seized by a rival political camp: Ukranian pro-European nationalists. A huge question is whether the revolution presages Ukraine’s disintegration. In search for the answer, your correspondent travelled to cities which represent two different Ukraines: Lviv in the west of Ukraine and Kharkiv in the east.
A large banner decorates the classical 19th façade of Lviv’s city hall that dominates an Italianesque square: “Vilne Mesto Vilnikh Liudei” [Free City of Free People] it proclaims. The banner appeared few weeks ago when protests in Kiev evolved into a revolutionary movement. Western Ukraine—and Lviv as its spiritual and cultural centre—was one of the main factors behind recent events. Its resolve not to submit to the corrupt and authoritarian rule of Viktor Yanukovych sustained EuroMaidan not only spiritually, but physically. Thousands travelled to Kiev to defend it.
On Friday night many returned in coffins. A moving ceremony was held on Lviv’s own Maidan for two of its sons. Priests intoned prayers. Thousands held candles and chanted in deep and sometimes choked voices: “Glory to the Heroes” and “Heroes do not die”.
One of the most important European trading and university cities since the 14th century, modern Lviv has been Soviet Lvov, Polish Lwów and Austro-Hungarian Lemberg in the past 100 years. It was seized by the Soviet Union in 1939 but guerilla resistance was intense, and broken only in the 1950s. Lviv’s sense of its own belonging in Europe was supported by its architecture and its history of resistance to the Soviet rule. It jubilantly supported the Orange revolution in 2004 and was bitterly disillusioned by the failure of that revolution’s leaders, notably Viktor Yushchenko to modernise and reform the country in the years that followed.
In the election of 2010, most Western Ukrainians simply did not turn up to vote, letting the Russian-speaking eastern and southern part of the country elect Mr Yanukovych against another failed Orange candidate, Mrs Tymoshenko. Yet Mr Yanukovych never really controlled Lviv. Every governor he appointed was soon kicked out; his Party of Regions had no presence in the local parliament. Riot police and internal troops from Lviv refused to disperse protestors. In fact, says Andrei Sadovyi, the mayor of Lviv, the local riot police asked the citizens to block their unit to disable them from leaving their barracks. As fighting raged in Kiev, several police stations, a prosecutor’s office and a military base were sacked in Lviv and a 1000 pieces of firearms were seized. After an explosion inside a military unit, two charred bodies, one in riot-police uniform, were found.
But as the regime disintegrated, Mr Sadovyi, a native of Lviv, asserted his authority and brought order to the streets within hours. Although uniformed police are nowhere to be seen, some 2,000 men including some plain-clothed officers are preventing looting or mischief. Also patrolling the street are members of Right Sector—a block of several nationalist organisations which has a political as well as a military wing to it. It was the Right Sector in Kiev that radicalized the protest and led the revolution. Lviv displays formidable discipline and self-organisation in its self-policing: taxi drivers use their radios to report anything suspicious.
Speaking in his elegant office decorated with a map of Galicia, the former Austro-Hungarian province of which Lemberg was once the capital, Mr Sadovyi says Ukraine can function as one country only if economic powers and political responsibilities are decentralised to city level. This would not split the country but ensures that it stays together, he says.
“There is no separatism in Lviv. We want Ukraine to stay as one country—this is what our men were dying for in Kiev,” he argues. In the past two days, Lviv’s Maidan made its own demand to Kiev, including exposure and investigation of those associated with the killings and complete overhaul of the entire political system, not merely a change of leaders. Mr Sadovyi says the best way to achieve this overhaul, given the inherent weakness of Ukraine’s own elite, is an immediate association deal with the European Union.
On the face of it, the mood in Kharkiv—the first capital of Soviet Ukraine—could hardly be more different. Much of its Russian-speaking population sees the revolution in Kiev as a coup by the Western-sponsored Ukrainian nationalists who will suppress the rights of the Russians. (The provocative vote by Ukrainian parliament to drop Russian as one of official languages in the country did little to dissuade them).
The first capital of Soviet Ukraine, Kharkiv is twice as large as Lviv and was home to some of the Soviet’s largest military and industrial complex plants. It is not just a predominantly Russian speaking city. In many ways it remained as much of a Soviet city as Lviv a Galician one. Appropriately the fight in Kharkiv between pro- and anti-Maidan revolution forces unfolded around the statue of Lenin, the leader of the Bolshevik coup of 1917. A night before, a group of young and aggressive radicals from the pro-Maidan camp tried to topple the giant statue but met resistance from the equally aggressive goons—former policemen, sportsmen and criminals—who differ from them more in affiliation than in style.
Over the past months many of them were brought to Kiev to fight alongside the government forces, beating up and shooting protestors. They were chased out from Kiev, but they are determined to defend their own city. The leader of a militant anti-Maidan organization, Evgeny Zhilin, called on the government to arm his men. Luckily nobody did and instead an arrest warrant has now been issued for him.
The fight around Lenin statues bespeaks the lack of a new post-Soviet narrative in Ukrainian politics since independence in 1991. On February 23rd, Russia’s Red Army Day, several hundred people, deeply Soviet in their rhetoric and their appearance, gathered at the feet of the giant Lenin statue calling for confrontation with the NATO-sponsored “fascist collaborators” who overthrew the government in Kiev. On the opposite side of the square young and fairly aggressive radicals from the pro-Maidan camp occupied the building of the local administration, banging baseball bats on their metal shields. In between a thin line of policemen tried to keep the peace.
The main authority in the city, for now, is in the hands of Gennady Kernes, a popular mayor of Kharkiv and until recently one of Mr Yanukovych’s staunch supporters. When Mr Yanukovych’s government fell, Mr Kernes along with the region’s governor, Mikhail Dobkin, vanished from the country. The new interior minister, one of Mr Kernes’s predecessors and foes, opened criminal investigation against both men.
Yet two days later after the regime fell, Mr Kernes was back, landing in a Kharkiv airport in a private jet from what he described as a business trip to Geneva with a stop-over in Moscow. It was clear he did not come back to fight for Mr Yanukovych but to preserve his own power. “Mr Yanukovych is now history,” Mr Kernes said to the dozens of cameras which greeted his arrival. Riding to the statue of Lenin in his black Land Cruiser with bodyguards in bulging coats, he told your correspondent that he recognised the victory of Maidan and his only priority now was to defuse tension in the city.
As a legitimately elected mayor, Mr Kernes has much to trade for his safety and his post in Kharkiv, including the support of the population and the Russians. Yet, he has no interest in Kharkiv splitting off from the rest of Ukraine or becoming a Russian vassal. For all their differences Mr Kernes is as popular in Kharkiv as Mr Sadovyi is in Lviv, and they are after the same thing: a de-centralisation of economic and political power. Zurab Alazania, the head of the Mediaport news agency in Kharkiv, says that for all of Mr Kernes’s faults the worst thing that the new government could do would be to arrest him on trumped-up charges. “If the new government did this, we would know that it is no better than the old one.”
While politicians in Kiev are scared to mention federalisation because of its separatist undertones, in reality it is already happening. The biggest danger for Ukraine’s integrity is not federalisation, but that Russian interferes and exploits it. That could involve an attempt to annex Crimea, carelessly given to Soviet Ukraine by Nikita Khrushchev in 1954. Over the weekend 20,000 people were out on the streets in Crimea, welcoming back riot police from Kiev as heroes. Russian armoured vehicles have already been spotted around Sevastopol, home to the large Russian naval base.
Mr Putin clearly has no interest in defending Mr Yanukovych. He may have also decided that since Ukraine’s shift towards Europe now looks all but inevitable, grabbing Crimea quickly is the best Russia can do.