At Kiev’s Maidan, Klitschko says protesters should leave

Ukrainian boxer-turned-politician Vitaly Klitschko, comfortably elected mayor of Kiev, says it is time for protesters still camped out on 'Maidan' square to leave and turn the page. (Reuters)

Behind the reefs of old tires and cobblestones that protected Ukraine’s protest movement against the now-
disbanded riot police, those still camped in the city’s Independence Square face some fundamental questions: Is their revolution over? And is it time to go home?

Days after elections swept into office two politicians who stood with protesters at the barricades during protests this winter, one of those leaders, Kiev mayor-in-waiting Vitali Klitschko, has called on protesters to go home and for the city to return to normal. Now those who toppled pro-Kremlin President Viktor Yanukovych in February are split about their next step, debating where their movement is headed after the landslide victory of chocolate magnate Petro Poroshenko, a longtime politician who supported the protesters but is still a face many of them distrust.

Candles still flicker at rain-sodden makeshift shrines that honor the more than 100 people who died here in February. Dust has turned to mud, then baked to clay, on sidewalks that were stripped of their paving stones to defend against Yanukovych’s security forces. And a thriving tent city is still home to hundreds of people who are a mostly tough crowd that has nowhere else to go. Many of the original protesters have long since returned to their jobs and their families.

“The barricades have fulfilled their function, and they must be dismantled,” Klitschko told reporters in Kiev this week. “Kiev must gradually return to everyday life and concentrate its efforts in that direction, while we are doing reforms, so that they are made as quickly as possible.”

But many here in the square — also known as the Maidan — say they won’t leave until they know that Ukraine’s new leaders will bring real change to the country. Some of the civil society groups that led the original protests counter that the time has come to build a memorial on the square, along with, perhaps, a forum for public debate, but otherwise to pull back and return some measure of ordinary life to central Kiev.

“I’m going to stay here until the system has changed,” said Alexander Fedonyuk, 47, an out-of-work construction worker who on Thursday was sitting on a plastic porch chair in front of a faded-green military tent where three puppies playfully nipped each other. A pile of Soviet-era gas masks sat in a big cardboard box on the pavement. “The courts are the same,” he said. “It’s too early to say whether there’s a difference.”

The demonstrations ebbed and flowed, but there are still some people who camped out in the beginning and never left. Many still in the square live in tents and dress in mismatched camouflage. Some were unemployed to begin with and found purpose in the rhythms and camaraderie of everyday tent life. Others came from Crimea to protest and found themselves across a new border when Russia annexed the Black Sea peninsula in March.

In front of some tents pitched on a wide boulevard that was once a main Kiev thoroughfare, campfires smolder.

The question of what to do with Independence Square is far from unique, especially in the post-Arab Spring era, when many mass protests became closely associated with a single location in a key city.

Cairo’s Tahrir Square was the site of frequent protests against whichever power happened to be ruling — at least until riot police started keeping constant guard. In Bahrain, authorities simply demolished Pearl Square, the heart of the February and March 2011 demonstrations there, days after they crushed the protesters. In Istanbul last year, protests in Taksim Square were sparked by the government’s plans to rebuild an Ottoman-era military building on part of the site, and the government defiantly laid sod to renovate the park after it pushed out an encampment with clouds of tear gas.

But for some protest leaders in Kiev, the activism needs to continue elsewhere in Ukrainian society, not at the makeshift checkpoints on the roads that lead into Independence Square, where men keep all-night vigils. Some groups have suggested turning part of the square into a pedestrian mall but clearing away barricades elsewhere.

“The Maidan is not just about the territory. It’s a thing in life that happened to people,” said Oleksandr Melnyk, a leader of the Civic Sector of Euromaidan, one of the groups that first organized protests against Yanukovych in November.

Those protests were focused on Yanukovych’s last-minute decision not to sign an agreement that would have brought Ukraine closer to the European Union. But they quickly turned into a broader effort to rebuild Ukraine’s civil society and to fight against endemic corruption that had plagued the country ever since its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.

Those who have remained on the Maidan are “marginals,” Melnyk said. “It’s people who cannot find themselves in the new society.”

“The Maidan should be a place for rallies, where people get together to talk about issues,” Melnyk said. “There should be a dialogue between the activists and the government about what to do with it,” he said, adding that “the situation has changed, and with it, the methods must change, too.”

Michael Birnbaum is The Post’s Moscow bureau chief. He previously served as the Berlin correspondent and an education reporter.
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