Kiev is 'helpless' in east Ukraine. Can it even police the Maidan?

Members of Right Sector and 'self-defense' groups still sit on the square and engage in street fights with other radicals – sending a negative signal about the state of Kiev's control.

Valentyn Ogirenko/Reuters
Members of a Maidan self-defense unit walk past a burnt building on Independence Square in Kiev last month.

At least one enterprising Kiev travel company has started offering walking tours of Independence Square, known as the Maidan, to the few hardy tourists coming to Ukraine these days.

For around $50, a guide will take you among the vast barricades of tires and wooden pallets that were the epicenter of the three-month-long street revolution that ended with the overthrow of President Viktor Yanukovych in February. The guide will point out piles of paving stones, helmets, shields, and ingredients for Molotov cocktails still at the ready, and may helpfully translate conversations with the angry anti-government activists who occupy those fortified encampments in the Maidan and along Kiev's main street, the Kreshatik.

Though the mood on the Maidan is usually calm, even festive, violence still occasionally breaks out. On Tuesday night, a column of about 300 right-wing activists, some wearing balaclavas and many carrying lit torches, attempted to enter the Maidan to "pay homage to the dead." They were blocked by Maidan activists wielding bats, throwing fireworks, and spraying noxious gas. At least one stun grenade detonated. A couple of injured people were seen being carried away from the melee. No police appeared to be on hand to intervene. Restaurants along the Kreshatik hastily flushed out their customers and closed up, some stacking tables and chairs against their windows in what was obviously a well-practiced routine. The Kiev press tersely reported it Wednesday as a clash between radical groups.

Who these marching activists were remains unclear, more than a day after the event. But whoever they are, the scenes they played out here couldn't look much worse for Kiev's embattled interim government, as it struggles to tamp down spreading unrest in Ukraine's east. How can Kiev restore order in the east – a task acting President Olexander Turchynov wearily admitted Wednesday that his government is "helpless" to carry out – when it sometimes doesn't seem able to enforce law and order in its own streets?

The Maidan's uniformed and bat-carrying "self-defense" activists are deadly serious when they tell you the revolution isn't over, and that the interim government created by the revolution – whom some of them call "traitors" and "Russian puppets" – may yet have to be dealt with as Mr. Yanukovych was.

"The Maidan is still here because the revolution is unfinished. Nothing has yet been fulfilled," says Oleg Odnorozhenko, chief ideologist of Patriots of Ukraine, one of three radical nationalist groups that coalesced last November to form Right Sector, a group made infamous by Kremlin propaganda, which describes it as the neo-fascist heart of the Maidan revolution. The Right Sector maintains its Kiev headquarters in the still-occupied Maidan telephone exchange, and has a substantial presence on the square.

Political experts in Kiev, most of whom seem staunch supporters of the revolution, tend to downplay the potential threat posed by the ongoing Maidan occupation and the radical right-wing groups who appear to view it as the launchpad of the next revolution.

And despite at least facial similarities between those groups still occupying the Maidan and the armed men who have seized buildings in Ukraine's east, experts furiously reject any suggestion of a parallel.

One major difference, they insist, is that deadly weaponry appeared on the Maidan only in the late stages of the protest, while guns have been present in the east from the start, along with serious armed violence. Another, they say, is that much larger numbers of people converged on the Maidan than seem to be driving events in eastern Ukraine.

But mainly, they argue, it's the association of eastern rebels with Russia that makes all the difference.

"The Maidan was never a threat to the Ukrainian state, but what is happening in the east definitely is," says Sergei Gaidai, a Kiev-based political consultant. "The only way to deal with a challenge like that is by force, in the toughest way."

Some argue it's a good thing the Maidan protesters are refusing to leave until the government fulfills its promises. After the Orange Revolution a decade ago, which brought the pro-Western Viktor Yushchenko to power pledging swift integration with the European Union and NATO, activists disbanded their tent camps in the Kreshatik and went home. But nothing was accomplished during Mr. Yushchenko's five-year presidency, and a disillusioned electorate chose the pro-Russian Yanukovych to succeed him in 2010.

"We don't want that to happen again. Those people on the Maidan don't trust the government, and so they're not leaving," says Vira Nanivska, honorary president of the International Center for Policy Studies in Kiev. "It may be taken as a good sign, that we've learned from our mistakes, and everyone is thinking differently these days."

Many others argue that the people now occupying the Maidan are not the broader Ukrainian public who made the revolution, but just a few relatively harmless diehards who want to perpetually relive their moment in history's spotlight.

"Most of those who made the Maidan have moved on; most went home, some went into government, others into the militia. These are people who just don't want to leave," says Volodymyr Paniotto, director of the Kiev International Institute of Sociology, Ukraine's leading polling agency.

"It's a problem for the government, and for Kiev citizens who supported them. They really struggled on the Maidan, their friends were killed, they were heroes. The city should return to normal, it's certainly time, but how do you make them go?" he says.

For now, at least, even the hard-line radicals agree that dealing with the Russia-backed insurrection is the priority. Mr. Odnorozhenko of Right Sector claims most of its activists have gone into the new national guard, or joined militias to go and fight the rebellion in the east. However, they will be back, he adds.

"The only thing that's keeping the Maidan silent now is the threat from Russia. The main goal right now is to preserve Ukraine's territorial integrity. Then, we'll see."

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