Occupy Kiev City Hall: Ukrainian protesters find refuge in city offices

Protesters angered over a government decision spurning closer EU ties are digging in for the long haul. Kiev City Hall is ground zero.  

Efrem Lukatsky/AP
A volunteer stands with hot meals for Pro-European Union activists, as they lie down, as a form of protest against the arrest of students detained during a clash with police in front of the entrance of the General Public Prosecutor's office in Kiev, Ukraine, Friday.

City Hall resembles more of a refugee camp than an administrative office these days.

Hundreds of people, of all ages, are crammed into the government building. Many are warming themselves from the freezing night. In long rows, they are curled up on the floor, covered in borrowed blankets, sleeping. Others doze in chairs, or stand in spartan corridors, eating from piles of cheese and salami sandwiches made by volunteers using donated supplies or sipping hot tea from plastic cups. Outside, on the building’s granite façade, a spray-painted message reads: “Headquarters of the Revolution!!”

With the protests that have increasingly paralyzed the Ukrainian capital now entering their third week, occupied City Hall has become the hub of operations, the chief site of resistance against the government and President Viktor Yanukovych, not to mention a place for out-of-towners to rest and sleep.

Sparked by President Yanukovych’s decision to spurn closer ties with the European Union, the protests have swelled to become the largest and most sustained since the 2004 Orange Revolution that resulted in his losing the presidential election. This time around, the protests are serving as a referendum on what many see as a stagnant, corrupt economy whose promise for prosperity could, some believe, be better realized through closer ties with the EU.  

As protests intensified last Sunday, following a failed attempt by police to clear one of the city’s main squares, demonstrators occupied City Hall, as well as several other nearby government buildings, and refused to leave.

On Thursday, police told demonstrators that a city district court had given them until Tuesday to vacate the public buildings they currently occupy. City Police Chief Valery Mazan threatened harsh measures if the protesters defied the order.

Acting Mayor Oleksandr Popov, who is a presidential appointee, has reportedly said that he will count on prosecutors to identify those responsible for the illegal occupation, which has blocked the workings of the city administration.

Late Thursday night, volunteers guarded the main entrance and furniture was piled up to block alternative entrances to the building. Inside, a makeshift medical facility, manned by university medical students, offered cold medicine and pharmacy drugs to anyone in need.

Upstairs, a row of tables were piled with donated food, with dozens of volunteers standing behind them cutting bread and cheese. The simple fare is very welcome for many of the protesters who are spending their days, and sometimes whole nights, in the nearby square. Other volunteers hand out cups of steaming tea.

Despite the threat from the authorities, those involved in the occupation were adamant that they won’t give up the building.

 “We won’t leave voluntarily,” says Anton Symkovych, a professor from the National University of Kiev-Mohyla Academy, who was spending the night in the occupied building. “This is our base. We can stay here, get warm, and then go back out to protest around the city and Independence Square.”

“We don't want to go out, and we don't plan to go out,” says Viktoria Murych, a Kiev-resident and one of the organizers of the occupation. “Within these walls people can eat, rest, sleep, it is an important place.”

Fearing a violent police response, protestors have barricaded the building – on the main stairwell a barrier of plywood makes it all but impossible for more than one or two people to pass by at the same time.

“I think if we don’t leave they will come in hard, the military way,” says Khrystyna Protsiuk, of the western city of Ivano-Frankivsk, who has been coming to the building since Sunday and also refuses to leave.

“I don’t like this government, this president. I want to be part of European Union, not Russia. I don’t see a future in the Russian zone,” Ms. Protsiuk says.

On Friday, in what appeared to be an attempt for government supporters to gain attention, about 1,000 mainly Orthodox Christian men and women marched in a different part of Kiev. Many of the signs and chants took the position that closer ties with the European Union would result in greater acceptance for homosexuality in Ukraine.

Many pro- and anti-government demonstrators, and city officials, are girding themselves for a new influx of people this weekend, which could swell protests to record numbers, as well as increase the potential for disorder or violence with police. Opposition organizers have called for a mass gathering of a million people on Sunday.

Inside City Hall, organizers have scattered collection pots around, for those wanting to donate. Mounds of donated winter clothing fills a corner, where volunteers also hand out tubes of toothpaste. No alcohol is allowed inside, and volunteer guards check peoples’ bags on the way in.

“Everything operates smoothly here,” says Mr. Symkovych, the university professor. “Self-governance is a joke in Ukraine; this is the best self-governance we’ve ever had.”

By morning, as groups of protestors headed out to join the demonstrations, and with snow already beginning to fall, those inside began cleaning up and preparing for a new day of demonstrations. A projector screen flicks on, showing news articles from Ukrainian websites about the ongoing protests.

“We will stay here until the end,” Ms. Murych says. “We know maybe the police will come and force us out. They may beat us, but we will stay to the end; this is our strong position.”

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