On Kiev's streets, anti-government protesters see long game ahead

After the Ukraine government easily defeated a no-confidence vote and warned that police would use force if necessary, protesters dug in for the long haul.

Sergei Grits/AP
Protesters try to stay warm while gathered in Independent Square in Kiev, Ukraine, early Wednesday morning. Ukraine's opposition failed to force out the government with a parliamentary no-confidence vote Tuesday, leaving political tensions unresolved and a potential standoff between protesters and the country's leaders looming.

It is after midnight and the streets around Kiev’s Independence Square are filled with thousands of protesters holding banners, flags, and wrapped up tightly against the bitter cold.

Many are huddled around barrel fires to warm themselves from freezing temperatures, while onstage, rock bands, opposition politicians, and members of the Orthodox clergy take their turn urging protestors to keep their vigil. Volunteers wander through the crowds offering sandwiches and bowls of soup.

“I wouldn't be standing here if didn’t think we would eventually be successful,” says Ivan Kitchatyi, a financial specialist, standing in the midst of the protestors. “But we may have to be here for a long time.”

Earlier Tuesday, Ukraine’s government survived a no-confidence vote called by opposition parties, following days of street protests during which hundreds of thousands of demonstrators have gathered in Kiev and other cities to demand the resignation of their government. On Sunday morning, police clashed with protesters as they attempted to clear the square, which swelled the number of those taking to the streets.

The protests began after the government of President Viktor Yanukovych signaled it would back out of a deal to join an European Union partnership program. They have since escalated and increasingly become an indictment against the sitting government and the whole political situation in the country, which many see as corrupt and in the pockets of the oligarchs, super-wealthy businessmen who control major portions of the economy.

During a heated parliamentary session on Tuesday, where Prime Minister Mykola Azarov faced a barrage of abuse from opposition politicians, the government easily secured enough support to survive the vote. Shouts from the thousands of protesters gathered on the streets outside were audible inside the chamber. 

“I don’t understand why the opposition pushed the no-confidence vote since it was clear they didn’t have a majority,” says Kyryl Savin, director of the Kiev office of Heinrich-Böll Foundation, a think tank allied with Germany's Green Party. Indeed, the vote fell 40 votes short of the 226 needed for passage.

“No one in the opposition really knows how to proceed with what is happening, which is a big problem,” he adds.

Following the vote, opposition leaders vowed to continue the blockade of government buildings until new elections were called. The party of the president. meanwhile, issued a statement calling on its supporters to go out onto the streets to defend government buildings and ensure the continued running of the country.

“Kiev is not the capital of the opposition, it is the capital of our whole country,” the statement said.

With huge protests expected this weekend, there are now growing concerns that clashes could occur between opposing groups of protestors on the streets of Kiev. During Tuesday's session, Prime Minister Azarov apologized for police violence against protesters, but warned that the government wouldn't shy away from force if provoked.

"We have extended our hand to you, but if we encounter a fist, I will be frank, we have enough force," he said.

“The government supporters are likely to be people paid and brought in from poorer regions in Ukraine,” says Yaroslav Pylynskyi, director of the Kiev office of the Kennan Institute, a US-based research center. “There could be violence – we just don’t know what will happen.”

Back in Independence Square, as the night gets colder protesters are adamant that they will not leave until they see positive change in their country.

“The vote in parliament today was very difficult to see,” says Dira, an art student, who had just delivered a bag of groceries to one of the makeshift soup kitchens within the square. She declined to give her last name. 

“I want to live in a free country. Here, students, old people, too many people have a bad life. When I was in Europe I saw what it could be like,” she adds. “Everyone in Ukraine needs to go out from their houses and say ‘No’, to send a message to the government.”

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