It’s after midnight and a former Ukrainian special forces officer going by the name of Jean is racing into central Kiev to round up reinforcements.
There’s chaos at the palace of deposed President Viktor Yanukovych. Jean and his team of eight volunteers, who include a middle-aged owner of a textile business and an unemployed boxer, need to keep order in a city largely abandoned by official law enforcement since Yanukovych’s overthrow on Feb. 22.
“There are so many things to control,” said Jean, as he drove a black minivan with flashing lights through the streets of Kiev. Kalashnikov and Remington rifles and a flak jacket were on the floor. “We are for cleanliness, order, stability and not for lawlessness and looting.”
The flurry of activity reflects a country where the government security forces went from deadly confrontation with protesters to desertion in a matter of days. Now, self-appointed groups rule the streets after most of the police fled in the aftermath of the uprising. While Kiev is mostly peaceful, there is no central authority in full control.
As the speed of change sinks in among Ukrainians, the risk is that security will eventually break down if the police force isn’t reconfigured and returned to the streets.
“The fact that the situation in Kiev is relatively calm is due to the fact the city is in a state of shock,” said Fyodor Lukyanov, head of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy in Moscow. “They must receive official legal status, otherwise these troops cannot sustain any law and order.”
Jean, dressed in desert combats, would only give his nickname, which he adopted because of his fondness for martial arts and Jean-Claude Van Damme when he was younger. He and his armed comrades are part of what Ukrainians are calling Self Defense, the main group that defends Maidan, the capital’s central square that was at the heart of the revolt.
Yet the uprising has the air of potential lawlessness. At the mansion built by the former president, replete with an ornamental horse, pet ostriches, a golf course and a replica galleon, 25 drunken armed militia members had reportedly barricaded themselves inside. Some carried guns, others knives. “No shooting, use only words,” Jean ordered his men.
By 5 a.m. the situation had been resolved. The trouble-makers were searched and sent on their way after a last volley of verbal abuse from them. A large gold bowl with cups was found hidden in a box with a fire extinguisher.
Back at Maidan, young men brandishing Kalashnikovs occasionally swagger through the square. The protesters who pour in every day with flowers to honor the fallen are still waiting to see the complexion of the delayed new government.
“When there is a turning point, when we have a complete change of authority, chaos is inevitable,” said Halina, 66, a pensioner from Kiev who declined to give her last name. “You can’t change everything in one day and ask new authorities to reinstall order immediately.”
Less than a week after a slaughter that left at least 82 dead, Kiev’s central square is a scene of victory and mourning. A candle-lit trail of flowers marks the final path of protesters who charged up the square’s eastern slope to take on the security forces before they were gunned down.
In the background, priests on a stage chant prayers and Ukrainian songs for the dead. Mourners stand bowed, some weeping. Elsewhere in the square, men form a line to sign up for Self Defense duties, fewer than last week though still in numbers, according to one of them, Oleh, 43.
“People gathered in groups in my neighborhood to patrol streets,” said Lyudmyla, 59, a pensioner holding the hand of her five-year-old grandson. “Before, cars were set on fire. Now there’s nothing like that. We have order.”
Khaki-clad militia operatives are everywhere, many wearing masks and motorcycle helmets, outnumbering the few official police who have remained on duty. Outside the central bank, volunteers from Self Defense guard the building and its vaults.
Teams are swapping with each other regularly and there is a rapid reaction squad, like Jean’s. He said that on the weekend he stopped a car driving out from the central bank and found cash worth about $80,000 and packs of golden coins. The new head of the central bank confirmed the robbery.
“Without us today nothing works,” said Igor, whose volunteers were guarding the bank on Feb. 24. Like all the members interviewed, he didn’t want to give his full name because the situation remains volatile. He would only go by his nickname, Pasichnyk, or Beekeeper. “Cooperation with police is well-coordinated, they listen to us and behave politely.”
Many of the militia’s leaders have been in the square for the past three months. Most of them joined protests against Yanukovych’s decision to turn his back on a European Union trade deal after the confrontation turn violent.
Police tried to remove students from a protest camp on Nov. 30 with what many considered excessive force. The square then turned into the center of anti-government clashes.
With the protest movement consisting of dozens of factions under one broad umbrella, it’s hard to know exactly what’s going on. Of special concern is who controls the weapons. Andriy Parubiy, a Ukrainian lawmaker and chief commander for Self Defense, put the number of people with handguns at about 100.
“Those people are not ours, they are unorganized,” said Parubiy, who has spent almost every night overseeing Maidan’s barricades since November. “They came here to attack, not to protect. This is kind of a problem. It is important for us to have a quick and legitimate shift of power.”
Another problem is the size of the some of the units, which can consist of as many as 300 people. Small teams usually make up the more agile task forces and consist of experienced and well trained men, according to people in the militia.
Bullet, a female former paratrooper, is a deputy commander of a group of 30 on patrol in downtown Kiev. They keep watch over barricades and also act as traffic police.
“We are the buffer between the police and potential attackers,” said Bullet, who said she served in Iraq.
Decisions on undisciplined fighters are taken quickly. The whole militia unit caught by Jean’s men at the Yanukovych residence was dismissed. A search of bags and clothes found they tried to steal things such as socks, alcohol, perfume and a gold-painted plate. Two of the men were wearing business suits from Yanukovych’s guards over their own flak jackets.
The next night, some of them milled around Self-Defense’s headquarters, asking for readmission.
The unemployed boxer in Jean’s team was from the Chernivtsy region in western Ukraine. He went by the name Nemets, or German. He said there are about 20 incidents a night and he hasn’t had time to relax the past three days. The athletically built Jean said he weighed 94 kilos (207 pounds) three months ago and has lost eight kilos during the upheaval.
Parubiy said he was nearly choked to death by tear gas last week. He’s also looking forward to a rest.
“It’s very hard,” the commander said. “In a year’s time, Ukraine will be different. Then I think maybe I will join a Buddhist monastery.”