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As Ukrainians prepare for polls in May to elect a new leader following the toppling of Viktor Yanukovych by pro-European protesters, a correspondent in Kiev describes how
he witnessed the brutal folly of a petty criminal turned president bring about his own downfall
Underneath the awning of a cafe in the heart of Kiev, volunteer doctors wearing red crosses did their utmost to lend dignity to the dead. Each corpse was laid down gently and covered with a blanket or sleeping bag.
After 10 bodies had been placed in two neat rows, an Orthodox priest clad in black robes appeared seemingly from nowhere. As gunfire rang out over Independence Square, he chanted a blessing over the dead. Stray shots were echoing nearby, but he continued with his incantations; a knot of people paused and bowed their heads in silent prayer.
So it was that ordinary Ukrainians responded with dignity, steel and courage to the bloodiest day in their country’s history as an independent state. Together with a colleague, I was able to confirm that 29 people were shot dead in and around Independence Square – which all Ukrainians know as the “Maidan” – on Thursday 20 February.
In two cases, I saw the coverings slip to reveal telltale bullet wounds to the head. The fearful people nearby had no doubt what this signified: “snipers” was the word they whispered. Since then, the evidence has only accumulated and today there is little room for doubt that Ukraine’s old regime chose, in its death throes, to deploy expert marksmen to pick off its enemies in the Maidan.
The sniper assault was, so I thought, intended to sow panic before the main attack. Instead, it turns out that the precise and clinical blows delivered by the snipers represented a final throw of the dice by Viktor Yanukovych, the soon to be ex-president. For months, this burly former electrician, who served time in a Soviet jail for theft and assault in his youth, had been trying and failing to deal with the protesters massed in the Maidan. In retrospect, his inept handling of the crisis almost guaranteed his own downfall.
The trigger for the demonstrations was Yanukovych’s decision last November to reject an association agreement with the European Union in favour of accepting a US$15 billion (£9bn) loan from Russia. Immediately afterwards, thousands of pro-European protesters massed in the Maidan. At that time, their sole goal was to register their fury over what Yanukovych had done. They accused him of spurning Ukraine’s European destiny in favour of the embrace of Russia.
Ukraine is bitterly divided over the great question about its future: should the country be a normal European democracy, firmly anchored in the West, or a satellite state in Moscow’s orbit? By appearing to choose the latter course, Yanukovych had brought the pro-European tradition on to the streets.
But the crowds were not shouting for his downfall: they just wanted to register their anger. And the rallies coincided with the onset of one of the harshest winters the world has to offer. Temperatures that hovered around minus 10°C by day – and minus 20°C at night – duly took their toll on the protesters in the Maidan.
By early January, it seemed entirely possible that the rallies would simply fade away. A sensible leader would have sat back and allowed that to happen. Instead, he chose this moment to ram nine draconian security laws through parliament, banning almost all forms of public protest. At the same time, his police became more heavy-handed, killing at least two demonstrators in Kiev on 22 January. The combined effect was to draw thousands more people on to the Maidan. And this time they had one overriding demand: the downfall of Yanukovych. By his own folly, he had transformed a dwindling collection of protesters into a mass popular movement dedicated to hurling him from office.
As their numbers rose, the demonstrators burst out of the Maidan and began occupying public buildings, capturing the Ministries of Agriculture and Justice along with Kiev City Hall. At this point, Yanukovych appears to have grasped his error. His response was to seek to appease his enemies by tossing them one concession after another. The hated security laws were all repealed barely 12 days after being passed. Yanukovych sacked his entire Government, including his prime minister. He granted an amnesty for the people in the rallies and released scores from prison. Were the protesters satisfied? Not in the slightest: they stayed in the Maidan and paralysed central Kiev.
Soon, Yanukovych had tossed all his allies overboard and thrown his enemies every last bone, except the one they most wanted – his own departure. By last week, it was clear that Ukraine’s crisis could end in only two ways: either Yanukovych would go, or he would try to crush the rallies by force. Remarkably, he ended up doing both.
On Tuesday last week, the security forces launched an offensive designed to clear the protest camps once and for all. Police armed with batons, tear gas and stun grenades managed to capture a series of barricades and break through to reach the Maidan itself. By Wednesday, only one defensive line made of old tyres and furniture lay between them and their foes. Then, astonishingly, the protesters managed to retaliate with a counter-attack of their own. That night, they hurled themselves against the police lines and succeeded in recapturing every inch of lost ground, seizing back all the lost barricades and routing the security forces. In the space of a few hours, they turned the tables on their enemies.
The sniper attack on 20 February was Yanukovych’s answer. Having tried and failed to clear the camps with the police offensive, he sought to terrorise the protesters into submission with a volley of snipers’ bullets.
As the gunshots echoed off the buildings, I took cover on the fringe of the Maidan. Like other journalists, I was wearing a bulletproof jacket and helmet. But many thousands of people with no such protection stayed in the square as the bullets cracked overhead and dozens of comrades were shot down around them. Nothing – not even fusillades of live rounds – would cause them to retreat.
When the guns fell silent and the bodies were carried away, Yanukovych’s enemies were still masters of the Maidan. They had not yielded an inch. At that point, the president appears to have realised that he lacked any answer to the raw courage of his enemies.
The following day, he threw in the towel, fleeing Kiev under cover of darkness on Friday night, apparently bound for his old political stronghold in eastern Ukraine. When he made a despairing television broadcast from a secret location on Saturday, last week, Yanukovych looked shattered and bewildered. The events of the previous hours had shown that nothing he could do was equal to his opponents’ bravery.
David Blair is chief foreign correspondent of The Daily Telegraph.