KIEV — The second anniversary of Ukraine’s pro-European (anti-Russian) Maidan revolution was meant to be the day to remember the victims, to lay flowers around the improvised memorials on Kiev’s Maidan Square, light candles and think of those who died—those who are now called the Heavenly Hundred.
But on Saturday events began unfolding along ugly lines, disgracing the memory of what was called “The Revolution of Dignity.” Dozens of nationalist, uniformed militia, some wearing masks, took over the square in the heart of Kiev, pitching tents with “Veterans of the Orange Revolution” banners on them and a portrait of Jesus, attempting to declare another revolution, which they called “The Third Maidan.”
This is a terrible moment for Ukraine, generally, and this kind of upheaval will only make things worse.
The International Monetary Fund is warning Kiev it will freeze a crucial bailout unless the country takes immediate control of overwhelming corruption.
The fighting with pro-Russian rebels has intensified in the east of the country—every day Ukrainian forces report violations of the ceasefire agreement along almost the entire front line.
The legitimacy of the government is in question. Last week, President Petro Poroshenko encouraged the government to resign. The public support for the president is melting away, with only 17 percent of Ukrainians approving of what Poroshenko is doing, according the latest Gallup poll. The country’s prosecutor general, Victor Shokin, submitted his resignation last week.
The paramilitary activists on the square obviously planned to use the shaky moment for their agenda. On Saturday afternoon, about 50 uniformed men occupied the eight-floor Kozatsky Hotel on the square. Uniformed men, some in masks, did not allow anybody in. A receptionist told The Daily Beast on the phone that the hotel was “booked up.”
Authorities made a few attempts to clear up the occupied Kozatsky, as well as Maidan Square. But a mock gallows remained before the parliament building, as well as a banner with the prime minister’s face depicted as a target.
On Saturday and Sunday police and protesters clashed. Dozens of Ukraine National Guard soldiers struggled to prevent militiamen from protesting on the square, and from setting up more tents.
The sad requiem music that the anniversary organizers played on the Maidan in memory of the dozens of protestors killed by snipers here on Feb. 20, 2014, could hardly be heard, as the new protesters chanted “Revolution!” in microphones, calling hundreds gathered on the square to organize “a powerful Third Maidan to bring down this criminal government.”
On Sunday night hundreds came out on Maidan square for a counter-rally, supporting the police.
Who was behind the calls for a new revolution in Ukraine?
The organizers of the “Third Maidan” introduced themselves as Revolutionary Right Forces (RPC). Their leader, Roman Stoika, a former policeman, was fired from the ministry of interior in 2009 and allegedly joined a band of smugglers.
In 2013, police arrested Stoika for allegedly trying to smuggle cigarettes to Europe on an ultralight plane.
The leader of this weekend’s protests was not mentioned in any coverage of the Revolution of Dignity; his name appeared much later, in the scandalous episode of clashes and shooting between police and radical militia from the Right Sector in Mukachevo, a village in western Ukraine.
On the eve of the anniversary the founder of the Ukrainian nationalist Donbas Battalion, Parliament Deputy Semen Semenchenko, told The Daily Beast why he thought that his force of more than 800 soldiers and he himself began to have problems with the country’s leadership.
“President Poroshenko targets me personally, he deprived me of military status, encourages black rumors around my name; authorities put nine of my soldiers in jail to extract evidence against me,” Semenchenko said.
“The president hates me, because I recently brought thousands to the streets to block elections in the town of Krivoi Rog,” said Semenchenko. “I push to investigate Poroshenko, as I believe that he helped the Kremlin build Novorossia [Greater Russia] in Ukraine,” Semenchenko told The Daily Beast across the street from the parliament, where the deputy stayed with a group of soldiers from Donbas battalion.
Two years ago the Maidan movement was joined by civil activists, hipsters, students, and artists. This time, the protesters on the square were mostly uniformed militia from nationalist movements, war veterans, and some dubious characters with criminal records.
The morning of the anniversary began with a crowd of protesters smashing the windows of what they believed was the Russian-owned Alfa Bank with bricks and cobblestones.
The attackers climbed into the bank through the broken windows, toppled desks, turned chairs upside down.
Some Ukrainian volunteers and politicians suspected that the so-called Third Maidan actually served the agenda of pro-Moscow separatists.
“I do not feel that the people yelling on the square are sincere,” Galina Odnorog, a civil society leader from Mariupol, told The Daily Beast. “If they want to boycott everything Russian, just stop buying Russian products, they should not be smashing the banks.”
Former Maidan civic leaders were not sure about the current protests, either. “The best would be to simply ignore them, as these are pure provocateurs playing in Putin’s favor; it does not surprise me that the ‘Russian Spring’ website covered these protests thoroughly,” former activist and reporter and now a Rada [parleiament] deputy, Serhiy Leshchenko, told The Daily Beast on Sunday.
Meanwhile, the militia camp kept growing.
On Saturday night, two army tents had appeared by a column with a statue of a Ukrainian woman in traditional costume on top. To get warm, protesters burned garbage in trash cans. The sign in front of the entrance to the Kazatsky Hotel said “RPC headquarters.”
A spokesman for the Revolutionary Right Force occupying the hotel, “Oleg,” came out of a back entrance on Sunday morning to explain to reporters that the agenda of the new revolutionaries was “to make authorities respect the constitution and release our friends, patriots, and war veterans from prisons.”
The militia leader claimed that armed battalions from different regions supported the RPC.
On Sunday night, dozens of militia members occupying the hotel lined up and marched along the street to the far-right Azov Battalion’s headquarters. “We are not planning to leave Maidan,” one of them told The Daily Beast.