Kiev braces for trouble ahead of patriotic holiday

The separatist tensions that have erupted in eastern Ukraine are far enough away from this capital city that people here seem almost untroubled.

Grannies sell flowers outside the Metro, shoppers browse over baby clothes in an underground mall, young people hunch over laptops in WiFi cafes, and many of the daily routines that were interrupted during the worst weeks of February’s revolution have resumed.

But below the surface, residents here are on edge, worried that Ukraine could be torn apart just when their country appeared headed toward a new beginning. On the eve of an important patriotic holiday, many people in the city wonder whether the kind of violent clashes that have bloodied Slovyansk, Donetsk and even Odessa could also strike here.

“The Ukrainian people are doing everything for the most part to be calm. But they’re getting ready,” said Anastasia Shevchenko.

Shevchenko, 20, a former cafe barrista and actress who has taken to wearing army fatigues and bivouacking in the headquarters of the city’s volunteer self-defense forces, said friends and family have already packed “trevozhnii chemodans” — or emergency bags — in case they have to flee.

Map: Russia and Ukraine are positioning their troops for war.

“Of course they’re nervous about what’s going on,” said Vladimir Shtyliov, who drives a taxi. Shtyliov, 40, blames the current crisis on the people who filled Independence Square demanding change. Those protesters got their way when then-President Viktor Yanukovych fled the country in February, and now Ukraine is vulnerable, Shtyliov said. “The disorder is worst of all.”

The jitters have come to Kiev. Fearing provocations from pro-Russian activists, the Ministry of Internal Affairs set up checkpoints outside the city and put security personnel on alert for Friday’s Victory Day celebrations. The national holiday marks Nazi Germany’s surrender to the Soviet Union, but in recent years it has become a rallying point for Russian nationalists. Security officials said they have discouraged civic organizations from staging large events in the city center and taken other precautions.

“I can tell you, we will have a large number of reinforcements in the city of Kiev,” Andriy Parubiy, who heads Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council, told reporters Thursday. He said the security effort would be “unprecedented.”

‘Is there going to be a war?’

But for many Ukrainians, it’s not always clear that the interim government is in charge, or who’s whipping up tensions, or even what’s going on, amid sometimes conflicting reports of violence in eastern Ukraine. Some see the makings of a civil war. Others see Russia’s hand in a “hybrid war” — part fraternal strife, part sabotage initiated across the border — whose ultimate aim is to pull Ukraine back into its sphere of influence. A day after Russian President Vladi­mir Putin appeared to take a step to reduce tensions by calling for pro-Russian activists in the east to postpone a referendum on independence, the separatists voted to go ahead with Sunday’s vote.

“The country is being ripped apart,” said Valentina Goncharova, 51, who sells women’s clothing in a marketplace stall on Kiev’s outskirts. She said her husband is an ethnic Russian, and yet he’s just as disgusted by Putin’s meddling in Ukraine. The fears have trickled down to her 7-year-old granddaughter, who turned away from the television in alarm one day to ask: “Grandma, is there going to be a war?”

“And this is a child, and she’s really scared,” Goncharova said.

People worry that even if Victory Day goes off smoothly, there could still be trouble leading up to a presidential election later this month — an event that people often discuss enthusiastically despite feeling deeply cynical about their choices. To top it off, people feel that Europe and the United States have let them down. What happened, they ask, to 1990s agreements with the West to guarantee Ukraine’s security in exchange for the country’s surrendering its nuclear weapons?

“I see that kind of stress, fear or suspicion everywhere,” said Anatoliy Hrytsenko, a former defense minister who is running for president as leader of the Civil Position party. Ukrainians feel betrayed by the West, he said.

“Putin is a threat for the whole planet, not Ukraine only. That must be understood by President Obama and Europe. So far I don’t see that understanding,” Hrytsenko said. “In the West, they are afraid to start World War III. They don’t understand that Putin already started the war.”

More than a memorial

In Independence Square, the place where the protest movement began last November, the barricades remain, but they now have the feel of an art installation. Techno music pulses from an encampment of tents, bright pink splotches of paint have bloomed on the scorched facade of the trades union building on the square, and visitors snap selfies as they stroll among sandbags. In the center of the Maidan, as Ukrainians call the central square, the faithful sometimes stop to press their lips to an icon hanging outside a tent that serves as a chapel.

Those who remain say the Maidan is more than a living memorial. It is also the place where nerves are most raw and anxiety about the future is keenest.

“Of course we want changes, but we want to make those changes without blood,” said Anton Tsechenko, 39, an unemployed businessman who draped a Ukrainian flag over his shoulders while strolling through the Maidan. He believes Ukraine’s response to the violence so far has been hampered by disorder within the new government and corruption left behind by the old one, but he remains hopeful.

Nearby, Raisa Kucherenko paused before a makeshift memorial strewn with flowers, her outfit set off by earrings and a scarf in Ukraine’s national colors of blue and yellow.

“In Maidan, we gave so many bright and beautiful lives of young people who died for a better life, and we still didn’t get it,” said Kucherenko, 64. “What happened in Odessa could happen in Kiev, because Putin is such a sly person, and anything is possible.”

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