KIEV, Ukraine - It is part rock concert, part political rally, part cultural festival - but Ukraine’s ice-hardened ‘Euromaidan’ protest is all revolution, exactly as organizers want it to be.
“A revolution of conscience” is how one protester described the defiant occupation of Kiev’s freezing cold main Independence Square.
The protests erupted on Nov. 21 after President Victor Yanukovytch’s made a U-turn decision not to sign a partnership deal with the European Union, that had been years in the making, and instead turn to Moscow, Ukraine’s Soviet-era master, for help saving the economy.
Now, the movement has sparked a wave of anger against government corruption and has turned into a wider challenge against Yanukovytch’s entire government.
“Our president does not respect our rights. He treats us like animals….It’s not about Europe or Russia, it’s about changing this government, because it cannot be like this anymore,” said one unnamed protester on a recent evening.
Protesters are now calling for the president and government to resign, which he has refused to do. Attacks on the protesters by riot police have only further fueled anger and neither side is showing any sign of backing down.
Aykut Unlupinar / Anadolu via Getty Images
Pro-European Union protesters play music to entertain the crowd in Kiev's Independence Square on Sunday.
The protesters have turned the square- “maidan” as it is called in Ukrainian - into an encampment, controlling its entry points and hunkering down, thwarting repeated eviction attempts by riot police.
“This is what Ukraine looks like,” said another protester who didn’t want to be identified. “All walks of life from all across the country.”
The spontaneous outburst of mass protests caught everyone here by surprise. “No one anticipated this was going to happen and galvanize the nation so quickly,” said Max Estravi, a Ukrainian-Russian journalist living in Kiev.
The strength and survivability of the movement is partly in its numbers - 200,000 people braved sub-zero temperatures on Sunday to rally for the fourth weekend in a row against Yanukovych's decision to shun Europe in favor of closer ties with Russia.
"I am here against the criminal authorities, joining Europe is a secondary goal," Oleksander Vdovin, a 25-year-old engineer in Kiev wrapped in a Ukrainian flag during protests in Independence Square told Reuters.
“I feel like if I’m not here, we won’t have any future,” said one woman who said she’s come to protest every day since Nov. 22.
However, its success comes from the initiative and discipline of organizers, who have taken over two key buildings adjacent to the square – a union headquarters and Kiev’s City Hall – and set up a massive stage with concert-sized speakers.
These areas have been used to host news conferences, rally protestors, coordinate fundraising drives and manage social media contact with sympathizers across Ukraine and around the world.
Viktor Drachev / AFP - Getty Images
A protester stirs food on Independence Square in Kiev on Monday.
An endless supply of entertainment, political literature, tea and above all Salo – pork fat - keeps the participants well-fed, engaged and entrenched in the square.
Volunteers have been handing out sandwiches, blankets and firewood to keep people warm and tents have been donated to ensure that people don’t leave the square in large numbers.
At night, groups of young men and Ukrainian war veterans – some who fought in Afghanistan when Ukraine was part of the Soviet empire – patrol the perimeter of the square. They keep a watchful eye on the side streets where the Berkut – riot police and some say hired thugs – could try and agitate, or possibly attack the crowds to disperse them.
To prevent that from happening, they have erected high barricades made up of scrap furniture, wooden pallets, barbed wire, empty barrels, all solidified in place with snow and compacted with ice. Protesters have found a way to use the freezing cold weather to their advantage. They are not going anywhere.
“We hope that European Union, America and all countries they will support us. We don’t want blood. We want help before something happens, if something happens,” said the daily female protester.
But those in the square know the government won’t leave quietly, either. It has many powerful allies who have a lot to lose if Ukraine is to modernize, reign in corruption and shift away from its Soviet-dominated past.
Accusations ring out against the current president and his “family” of close business and political confidants, who are accused of mismanaging Ukraine. Protesters say the government is ruining the country by abusing power, eroding human and basic civil rights and allowing corruption to pervade all levels of society from the courts to city halls.
Huge screens on both sides of the stage ensure that the protest messages are visible and heard. A gigantic screen on the side of the trade union building lights up the square at night. You could not miss what is happening in Kiev, even if you tried. That’s the message that organizers want to drive home to Ukrainians – that they cannot escape their conscience.
How will this end? The government and its security apparatus may try and clear the square by force, even if it involves declaring a state of emergency and martial law to impose a curfew.
The opposition and the government might enter into talks in order to agree possible early elections or a caretaker government.
Where the square goes, so too will the future of Ukraine.
Reuters contributed to this report.
First published December 17 2013, 3:33 AM