Inside The Maidan That Wasn't
2 November, 2017

Two weeks have already passed since a tent camp appeared outside the Ukrainian parliament. The protesters living in these tents clashed with police during the first two days. Now the situation in the camp is calm, and its residents have settled in.

Hromadske took a look at life in the protest camp from the inside: the everyday routines, schedules, plans, rules, bans — how the demonstrators live outside Parliament.

Sunday, October 29 – 8 a.m. Three men haul larges jugs of water into the camp outside Parliament.  “We’re going to cook bograch — that’s borscht from the Zakarpattya region,” one explains as they move past the line of police officer who have encircled the camp with a metal fence.

The camp looks empty and quiet in the morning. Most of the inhabitants are dressed in camouflage. Anyone is allowed to live here, even the homeless, the only requirement is no alcohol abuse. Photo credit: Anastasiya Vlasova/HROMADSKE

“Only sober people in their right minds can enter here. Even homeless people — so long as they’re sober,” says Veniamin Lensky from Kharkiv. He’s almost the only security guard who doesn’t hide his face under a balaklava.

“We’re gradually finding common ground with the police. I don’t think they’ll use serious force against us. But could police who were former Berkut send thugs? That’s another matter,” he says, referring to special police forces who fatally fired on demonstrators during the 2014 Euromaidan protests.

Lensky’s colleague says he hides his face for security reasons: he doesn’t want law enforcement to come search his home.

This early in the morning, the camp is empty. Ivan Slobodyan from the Movement of New Forces political party — led by former Georgian President and Odesa Regional Governor Mikheil Saakashvili — calls himself the tent city’s “coordinator.” He says that between 300 to 500 people are sleeping here.

We meet Slobodyan in a big, round tent labeled “Information Headquarters.”

In the square next to the Parliament building is a large round tent, which they call the “Information Headquarters” (view of the tent city from inside the round tent). Photo credit: Anastasiya Vlasova/HROMADSKE

“Me made Information HQ so that journalists could warm up from the cold,” he says. “If anyone comes and wants to stay in the camp, we tell them where they can move in and we receive requests about city needs.”

The camp is set up “in the best traditions of Ukrainian self-organized protest,” Slobodyan says. He explains that the tent city is divided into two sections: “military” and “civilian.” The former is made up of 20 tents on Hrushevsky street, which are largely occupied by representatives of volunteer military battalions from the civil society organization Vyzvolennya, which is coordinated by Yehor Sobolev and Semen Semenchenko, deputies from the Samopomich party.

Meanwhile, the “civilians” settled into Mariyinsky Park in front of the Ukrainian Parliament. There, supporters of Saakashvili pitched around 40 tents between the trees.

This is where you can pitch tents and where they accept tent city applications. Photo credit: Anastasiya Vlasova/HROMADSKE

Slobodyan organizes a short excursion to this part of the camps for us. One noteworthy site is the tent where Saakashvili himself has promised to spend the night. Two security guards stand at its entrance.

“Does Saakashvili really sleep here?” we ask Slobodyan.

“Yes, of course.”

“Then let’s go visit him and have a look inside,” we suggest. “Or is he still sleeping?”

“No, right now he isn’t here. He left on business,” Slobodyan says.

Representatives of the “civilian” part of the camp have pitched tents in Mariyinsky Park. Photo credit: Anastasiya Vlasova/HROMADSKE

The camp residents cannot remember exactly when Saakashvili goes to sleep and when he wakes up. They joke that they don’t follow the politician. The “civilian” camp has its own security guards, but they decline to speak with journalists.

Meanwhile, the “military” camp has its own field kitchen. Residents of the tent city begin gathering there at 9 a.m. “It’s a common kitchen and we organized it together, us and the soldiers,” Slobodyan says.

The “military” part of the camp (20 tents on Hrushevsky Street) mainly consists of volunteers. Photo credit: Anastasiya Vlasova/HROMADSKE

The “civilian” section houses the first aid point.“We’ve been here since October 17, when the protests began,” says a medic named Alla. “Today, we’re laying linoleum. Once we’re done, we’ll invite you to visit, but, for now, sorry.” Alla recounts how, in 2013, she was a medic at the Maidan protests. Then, she went to the front line.

“After [living through] minus 20 degrees celsius in Debaltseve while under mortar fire, Mariyinsky Park is a resort,” she says.

The tent in the “civilian” part of the camp where Movement of New Forces party leader Mikheil Saakashvili  seems to be living and sleeping. Photo credit: Anastasiya Vlasova/HROMADSKE

Not far away, an old man is eating potatoes from a plastic cup. “We’re going to make demands or kick them out,” he says, nodding in the direction of Parliament. “The people have already lost patience. I have a pension of 1,172 hryvnya [$43]. How can you live on that? But they live well.”

Around 11 a.m. the square in front of Parliament fills up. Pensioner Halyna Oleksandrivna tells us that she lives in a tent and came to Kyiv from the Sumy region. She says that she actively studied the the protesters’ demands. We ask her to clarify, hoping to hear more about the three main demands: ending parliamentary immunity, creating an anti-corruption court, and passing new election laws.

The tent in the “civilian” part of the camp where Movement of New Forces party leader Mikheil Saakashvili  seems to be living and sleeping. Photo credit: Anastasiya Vlasova/HROMADSKE

“Yeah, I read the program. That parliament won’t exist anymore,” she says. “There will only be Cossacks. We’ll only have 50 people in the legislature.”

Meanwhile, Semen Kryvonis — another Saakashvili comrade — is asking protesters to fill out a form with potential new demands.

“Frequently, they propose that the demonstrators demand, for example, a freeze on utility tariffs, early parliamentary elections, and other such things. We have a committee that counts the votes. Today, at our council we’ll announce additional demands,” Kryvonis says.

Medic Alla is a resident of this tent, which serves as a medical center. Photo credit: Anastasiya Vlasova/HROMADSKE

On the square outside Parliament, we meet Artur, who appears to be a bit older than 20. This is the first young man we have seen in the camp.

“Yesterday, I returned from Europe,” he says. “I heard that there was a protest going on here and I came to have a look. I haven’t decided yet whether I support it. I’m watching and analyzing the situation. So far, I see that there aren’t many people here.”

Shortly before noon, demonstrators wait in anticipation on Constitution square, while more people gather. Photo credit: Anastasiya Vlasova/HROMADSKE

We also meet Oleg from the city of Cherkasy. He calls himself a fighter from Ukraine’s Anti-Terrorist Operation — the official government name for the campaign against Russia-backed separatists — and recalls how he took part in the “blockade” of trade with the temporarily occupied territories in Ukraine’s east.

In the “military” section of the camp, not far from the kitchen, we see a sign that reads “Mobilization Point.” Several people are sitting on plastic chairs nearby. One of them introduces himself as Lieutenant Colonel Sergei Akimovich from the Donbas Battalion’s Internal Corps, but asks us to call him “Akim.”

Saakashvili’s allies handing out questionnaires on potential new demands to anyone who wants them. Photo credit: Anastasiya Vlasova/HROMADSKE

“The mobilization point was created to recruit people to defend the civilian sector of the tent city,” Akimovich says. His colleague, who declines to give his name, tells us about the qualities a candidate should have to join the “military” camp.

“The most important thing is to be able to frown and have a stern face,” he says.

“But you’re not very stern,” we say.

“That’s because I’m the good guy in this ‘zoo,’” he answers with a smile. Then he takes us on a tour of the “military” camp. We look into some of the tents.

Tent city inhabitants. Photo credit: Anastasiya Vlasova/HROMADSKE

“Here are guys from Vinnytsia, and here are some from Sumy,” he tells us. Each tent can house ten people. Inside is a small table, floor mats, and a quilt.

“Do you think it’s okay for you guys to block Hrushevsky Street?” we ask.

“We didn’t block it. Back on October 17, law enforcement closed it. And we just set up our tents behind their backs. So all the accusations should be against the police,” he jokes.

On stage, Saakashvili talks of dissolving parliament. Photo credit: Anastasiya Vlasova/HROMADSKE

We return to Akim and ask him about his long-term plans.

“This is a peaceful protest,” he says. “There are no weapons in the camp. A few of the people have legally registered hunting guns at home, but they aren’t bringing them here.”

“For now, the plan is to wait until November 7, when the MPs will return from abroad,” Akim adds, implying that the parliamentarians — who are currently on vacation — are up to nefarious business overseas. “And we’ll make them pass laws. We’ll be here until then. But we’re not planning to storm the place or anything…”

The camp kitchen starts working first thing in the morning. Photo credit: Anastasiya Vlasova/HROMADSKE

Akim also reveals the protesters’ new demand: the MPs should confirm the procedure for impeaching the president.

At noon, the protesters’ council meeting begins. A bit over a thousand people are on the square outside Parliament. Onstage, the MPs involved in organizing the protest take turns addressing the crowd. But since the demonstrations began, the number of MPs has fallen noticably.

Protesters from both the “civilian” and “military” parts of the camp eating together in the morning. Photo credit: Anastasiya Vlasova/HROMADSKE

Mikheil Saakashvili speaks last. Again, he calls for the dissolution of the Parliament and, should the protesters’ demands not be met, early elections.

“We cannot stand here forever,” Saakashvili says. “There should be a hundred times more of us and we should find other peaceful ways [to protest] beyond just living here right under their windows.”

Meanwhile in the field kitchen, the cooks have just finished preparing the borgach they promised earlier. Tent city residents gradually begin heading to lunch.

/By Matthew Kupfer