As police fled Lviv on Ukraine’s western frontier with the European Union, Marko Slyusarchuk donned a yellow vest and was deputized.
The 19-year-old engineering student answered the mayor’s call for volunteers to patrol Lviv’s rain-drenched pedestrian zone and downtown streets to keep the peace. Officers deserted as protests that started a day’s drive away in the capital Kiev spread across the nation and toppled the government.
“Most policemen ran away because they knew everyone was aware of corruption” on the force, said Slyusarchuk, before handing his reflective vest, the closest thing to an official uniform, to a replacement on the night shift. “Now it’s time for us to take responsibility and rebuild Ukraine from scratch, like the Phoenix rising from the ashes.”
Lviv, whose architecture reflects its roots in the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, was quick to reject Kiev’s authority as the country slid into violence and political strife. Local civic and business leaders for years have openly criticized the presidential administration of Viktor Yanukovych, who was ousted on Feb. 22 and faces an arrest warrant three months after he snubbed an EU trade agreement for a $15 billion Russian deal.
Ukraine is one of Europe’s largest agricultural producers and a key corridor for Russian natural gas to Europe. The interim government said the country needs $35 billion of financial assistance to avoid default.
Lviv, a city of 760,000 that over the centuries has belonged to a succession of rulers including the Poles, Lithuanians, the Hapsburg Monarchy, Nazi Germans and Soviets, sided with pro-Western protesters both during the 2004 Orange Revolution and the current deadly demonstrations.
Activists in Lviv are claiming the slogan that hangs from City Hall: “A Free City for a Free People.”
Utilizing old emblems, such as the red and black banner Ukrainian militias carried against the Nazis and Russian-led Soviets during World War II, Lviv activists say the refusal to recognize the ex-president’s legitimacy was to create a unified stance with Kiev protesters and not to promote separatism. Like angry citizens across the country, they are demanding a system free of corruption and lasting change after the promise of the Orange Revolution died.
“There will never be a separation or division of the country,” said Lviv Mayor Andryi Sadovyy in an interview yesterday. “We need to be united because the reform path is difficult.”
While the economy floundered and markets sank under Yanukovych, who denied allegations of corruption, the president lived a lavish lifestyle. His now-vacated mansion and compound, replete with a lake, a barge and petting zoo, has quickly become a tourist destination for thousands of gawkers.
“It’s surprising when you see how weak Yanukovych’s base turned out to be in the east and the south,” said Joerg Forbrig, a senior program officer at the Berlin bureau of the German Marshall Fund of the U.S. “He grossly overestimated his power base and many observers underestimated how fed up people in the east are with his kleptocracy.”
While Lviv has supported the demonstrations in Kiev, the risk of an east-west split is not over. As Lviv sides with the EU, only 85 kilometers (52 miles) away, some other cities have been rocked by pro-Russian protests.
More than 2,000 people rallied for closer ties with Russia in the southern city of Odessa, according to TV channel 5. In Kerch, also in the south, marchers replaced a Ukrainian flag at the mayor’s office with Russian and Crimean flags, the Unian news service reported.
The opposition is following the lead of “armed extremists and thugs whose actions pose a direct threat to the sovereignty and constitutional order in Ukraine,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said in a statement on Feb. 22.
With a resolution to the uprising against Yanukovych’s government still not fully clear, Lviv residents have taken the law into their own hands.
With the lack of a functional police force, the mayor created civil-defense units with some of them armed. He said such an initiative is necessary until a national parliament passes supervision of the police to local governments.
As in Kiev 540 kilometers to the east, the city center of Lviv is still occupied by anti-government forces who are protecting a tent camp on Prospekt Svobody, or Independence Square. Thousands of candles were lit to remember the 13 Lviv activists who died in Kiev last week.
Many vowed to stay until a new parliament is formed and the political situation is stabilized before standing down.
“We believe some level of surveillance and pressure over politicians is needed to avoid a return to the failure of the Orange Revolution,” said Ihor Koval, 22, who guarded the entrance to the sprawling tent camp.
The Orange Revolution was sparked by Yanukovych’s first electoral win. As many as a million protesters occupied downtown Kiev and other cities until the nation’s highest court threw out the victory after finding evidence of fraud.
A rerun led to the presidency of Viktor Yushchenko, whose battles with his premier and co-leader of the Orange Revolution, Yulia Tymoshenko, caused reforms to falter and the election five years later of Yanukovych.
With Yanukovych’s disappearance and a warrant out for his arrest in connection with as many as 82 protest-related deaths, new presidential elections will take place on May 25.
Some activists in Lviv still carried truncheons yesterday, while some were waiting for a bus to carry them to Kiev, in case more violence erupts or political leaders backslide on promises. Along with the blue and gold EU flag, the red and black flag of Ukrainian partisans flew above the camp.
“After years of rule by the crooks, we are striving for young people in government,” said Bohdan Kushlik, 34, an electrical engineer who started his own business a year ago. “New people need to set western standards soon all over the country. That’s the only direction. Otherwise we will become Russia’s prey.”
As activists milled around the Lviv campsite where Polish, German and Czech tourists normally stroll during summer visits, Taras Havrylyuk was drawn to the candlelight memorial to honor a a neighbor who died in the Kiev clashes.
“We can’t be sure at this point if such a sacrifice will pay off,” Havrylyuk said, sipping hot tea doled out by camp volunteers. “But I hope my kid’s future can’t be worse than what we are having now.”
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