Kiev protesters hold mirrors to police - literally - as new confrontation looms

Ukraine's parliament issued new bans on antigovernment demonstrations Thursday. Mirrors are just one unusual tactic protesters are deploying to prompt some soul-searching by police.

By , Contributor

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    A pro-European integration supporter stands holding a mirror opposite a police line blocking the government quarter in Kiev, Ukraine, on Dec. 30.
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Dozens of women stand shoulder to shoulder in silence, inches away from Kiev’s violent riot police.

Some are grandmothers in headscarves, others are fashionable young women with bright lipstick. All of them are holding up mirrors to the armed officers’ faces.

“It was tense at first; I was a little scared,” says Kateryna Maksym. “But like with mirrors, you have to show positive energy to have it reflected.”

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The mirror protest is one of the latest tactics at Independence Square – known here as Euro Maidan – where Ukrainian demonstrators have barricaded themselves over a half-mile and hunkered down through cold winter nights since Nov. 21. And the situation could be set for a confrontation this weekend, after Ukraine's national parliament swiftly passed a bill targeting the protests in a fistfight-marred session Thursday. The sweeping 100-page bill promises fines and jail time for anyone who attends mass rallies, disturbs the peace, or defames public officials.

Initially targeting President Viktor Yanukovych’s sudden shift from European integration to closer ties with Russia, demonstrators are now focusing on corruption and police brutality.

While the number of those taking to the streets has fallen over eight weeks, activists have deployed creative tactics to keep people engaged. They're expecting a huge turnout Sunday in response to this week's ban.

Holding a mirror to the police

Kateryna Kocalyshyn says destiny led her from the western city of Lviv to Independence Square. “The corruption, the false arrests: You have to do something about it,” she says.

Ms. Kocalyshyn read about the protests and attended pro-Maidan rallies, which are popular in the country’s west. Then in the early hours of Nov. 30, hundreds of paramilitary police in Kiev violently dispersed a group of 1,000 students, injuring dozens and leaving three still unaccounted for.

Thousands like Kocalyshyn trickled in from across the country. Some 500,000 protesters gathered at Maidan that weekend. She's since regularly come to Kiev, leaving her disabled son with relatives and spending days assisting with logistics.

On Dec. 30, a month after the violent crackdown, local activist Oleg Matseh approached dozens of women like Kocalyshyn and Ms. Maksym. He gave them mirrors and asked them to stand at the front of the police line.

“People felt a need to do something to commemorate this,” says Maksym. “This was something nonviolent and productive.”

In two lines spanning 50 yards, the women held mirrors for half an hour against a line of mostly young men drafted for military service. Some mirrors had stickers that read “Is it me?” while others asked “Who am I protecting?”

At the end, some women kissed the mirrors, and offered the police a kiss if they opened their shields; a few obliged.

Kocalyshyn says she's inspired by her compatriots. She's lived for years as a widow raising a severely disabled son on a monthly stipend of 248 hryvnia ($30) while embezzlement regularly makes headlines.

“You can't live like I do and not do something about it,” she says, her eyes filling with tears.

She now stays for week-long visits, volunteering in the nearby seven-floor office building that political parties have rented out to protesters. She prepares food, lays out cots, and directs people to the impromptu medical clinic.

Protests banned

Roman Pavlidis, a sailor from Odessa who's also volunteering in the protest center, is skeptical of the mirror protest.

“I don't think this action changed anything,” says the former police officer. “When they fight you with force, you have to fight back.”

Violent clashes erupted last weekend when police tried to disperse a group outside a court house last Saturday. The next day, 50,000 took to Independence Square after a week of calm during Orthodox Christmas.

Mr. Pavlidis says only half of his Russian-speaking hometown support the protesters, who have been portrayed as noisy radicals.

Thursday's bill was passed by a show of hands rather than electronic vote. It was supported by 235 of 450 legislators, mostly from the country's south and east, where economic and cultural ties to Russia remain strong.

The bill bans events using loudspeakers, tents, or stages – all of which were still present at the square on Thursday evening. Individuals can face 15 days in prison or fines of $640, while groups can be fined $1,275. Those causing a "mass violation" of public order could face 15 years in jail.

The bill, passed late Thursday evening, also requires nongovernmental organizations who receive foreign funding to declare themselves "foreign agents" – a loaded phrase from the Soviet era essentially meaning "spy." Russia has similarly implemented use of the term to mark NGOs there.

The US State Department expressed "deep concern" in a statement Thursday.

"Some of these measures will restrict the right to peacefully protest and exercise the freedom of speech, constrain independent media, and inhibit the operation of NGOs," wrote spokeswoman Jen Psaki. "Both the process and the substance of the Rada’s actions today cast serious doubt on Ukraine’s commitment to democratic norms."

Opposition parties tried to block Thursday's bill as well as the national budget, at one point blocking the Rada's speaker podium. Dozens of legislators threw punches, leaving one with a bloody nose.

Reflection

At the square, demonstrators have continued to replicate the first mirror protest, using everything from pocket mirrors to IKEA stands that they've rolled in. They've also tucked flowers into the shields of riot police and passed them cups of tea on cold nights.

Mr. Matseh, the man behind the mirror protest, one night wheeled a piano to a line of riot police, where demonstrators played the national anthem.

Activist groups admit their numbers have dwindled since a crowd more than 100,000-strong toppled a statue of Vladimir Lenin in early December. They're counting on Thursday's bill to spark a large turnout this coming Sunday during the country’s Epiphany holiday.

“The government is reacting because it sees things are changing,” Maksym says. “We need change here, to bring our system to legality."

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