Near a display of confiscated weapons from elite police who fired on Ukrainian protesters during Kiev’s uprising, Mykola stands guard duty in a shack beside a barricade of tires, wire and park benches.
The hated riot police gone, activists in camouflage mingle with tourists and onlookers at Kiev’s Independence Square, the center of the deadly attacks two weeks ago that ended with the ouster of pro-Kremlin President Viktor Yanukovych. Even as the mood lightens, the camp is bracing for the effects of events in Crimea, where Russian President Vladimir Putin is flexing military muscle and a secession movement is gaining ground.
Ukraine’s new leaders are laboring for political and financial support from the West to pull Ukraine out of a fiscal tailspin. The protesters who drove the dramatic events that put them in power are juggling elation over taking charge with a determination to complete the job in the face of military threats from Russia.
“People are coming together even more in the face of these grave tests, like war,” said Mykola, a 42-year-old builder who asked that his last name be withheld. “The people in Ukraine are more united regardless of their status or wealth.”
On the broad avenues of Kiev, there is a semblance of normality as residents go to work, shop and fill restaurants. Still, the memory of at least 100 slain protesters, flash grenades and sniper shots remains woven into Kievites’ daily lives.
Hundreds of thousands of flowers commemorating the dead cover Independence Square, locally called Maidan and located along the former Soviet-controlled East bloc’s second-most expensive shopping district behind Moscow. Droves of people drop by each day to light candles as activists burn wood to stay warm and cook dinners.
Along the canvas wall of a tent in the camp’s center, visitors filed slowly past a line of photos of fallen activists. A woman, her head wrapped in a silk scarf against the damp cold, wiped her eyes. In front of here was the photo of a beaming 19-year-old Maximov Dmitro, sporting a blue-and-yellow soccer jersey and wearing two medals hung around his neck.
Across Ukraine, tensions prevail. Pro-Kremlin protesters yesterday stormed a government building in the eastern city of Donetsk and a United Nations envoy was confronted by a group of men in Crimea, where Russia-friendly gunmen have seized crucial infrastructure and surrounded military installations.
The events on the peninsula “were a stimulus for most of the population to unite,” Yuriy Yakymenko, an analyst at the Razumkov Center for Economic and Political Studies, said in a phone interview. “The majority of Ukrainians are thinking of themselves as patriots.”
At Independence Square, volunteers toil to clean up the sprawling tent compound, though the hulking barricades that kept riot police at bay for three months still stand and the stink of burnt tires hangs in the air. Some sections are off limits because of an investigation of the shootings.
Yesterday, people milled about the square between dirty army tents and protest art, some listening to poetry being read from the stage, where opposition leaders urged protesters on during three months of cold winter nights.
The euphoria of overthrowing Yanukovych’s government was palpable on Maidan yesterday. As a man dressed like a Cossack played drums to laughing young men standing nearby, visitors said they dropped by to feel the buzz.
Alexandra Kopylova, a 62-year-old Russian-speaking pensioner, said she and her cousin came to “inhale the atmosphere.” The troubles in Crimea, with counter-claims of Russian insurgencies and Ukrainian abuse of Russian speakers, are beginning to wear relations thin.
“I am surprised about my cousin in Russia,” said Kopylova. “When I write to him asking, ‘Are you going to kill us?’ He argues with me because he is overwhelmed with Russian propaganda.”
Kopylova and others in the capital blame Putin for the split in the communities. Some said they are ready and defend their country if the situation escalates.
Yaroslav Zelenko, a western Ukrainian who plans to celebrate his 45th birthday on Maidan on March 13, has worked in Crimea as a builder. When reports of Russian soldiers appearing on the peninsula arrived, he was prepared to return, this time with a rifle instead of a hammer. For now, his Maidan chief told him to stay put.
“My first desire was to run to the enlistment office and sign up,” he said, watching a ping-pong game next to his tent. “There were rumors that Putin’s goal is Kiev. And so I stayed here.”
Still, residents and business leaders in the capital say they need to get on with daily life, even as the standoff continues in Crimea, on the Black Sea 500 miles to the south. The local legislature today called a referendum on joining Russia or staying with Ukraine for March 16.
Viktor Ivanchyk, the chief executive officer of Astarta Holding NV, a Ukrainian farming company traded on the Warsaw Stock Exchange, said that the conflict is about the Kremlin and not the Russian people.
A Russian speaker, Ivanchyk said his company has farmland across Ukraine and life goes on for for most of his growers as politicians wage a war of words.
“We are positive that consolidated efforts of Ukrainian authorities, Ukrainian businesses and Ukrainian society will ensure needed vigor to cope with all challenges,” he said in an open letter on March 4. “In this uneasy time, our company continues to work rhythmically and fully fulfills its obligations towards partners, clients, employees and other stakeholders.”
At the Maidan barricade entrance, where cars are stopped and drivers questioned before being allowed into the compound, Mykola kept his vigil.
“Everyone is just doing his job,” he said, explaining how activists are grouped military-style into teams of 100 paramilitary volunteers. His squad is the 4th Cossack Hundred, and contains Ukrainian and Russian speakers from around the country.
“People keep coming around and supporting us and asking us, ‘Please stay here, stand here, because if you leave, thing will go back to the old times,’” he said. “There is victory, it is too early to say that we achieved a lot.”