The Lives of Ukrainian Protesters Hang in the Balance

What I saw during the Orange Revolution that may spell doom for the Protesters 

For nearly two months, hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian people have taken to the street protesting their president’s allegiance to Russia.

Even after more than two decades after Ukraine declared its independence from the Soviet Union, the Ukrainian president refuses to break away from Putin and Russia. The Ukrainian are desperate to embrace democracy and sever the Russian ties. The Ukrainian people are begging Europe, and the United States in particular, to support their revolution towards democracy.

Thousands of Ukrainians have barricaded themselves in tents on the major street in the center of Kiev, the capital of Ukraine in frigid temperatures.

To put some perspective on the protests, it would be the equivalent of tens of thousands of Americans setting up camp and shutting down Constitution Avenue in Washington, D.C. in Minneapolis weather.

In the last week, the president forced through severely anti-democratic legislation which made it illegal to protest in the streets. Police shot and killed at least 4 protesters. Journalists and protesters have “disappeared.”

The police and army humiliate protesters at their whim, like this 17 year-old boy who was stripped down only to socks and punched around. Going beyond anything the NSA is accused of doing, the government is tracking the protesters and sending out big brother text messages telling the protesters that they are participating in an unlawful protest.

Every day I turn on the news about the protests hoping for the best but expecting the worst. I fear that as the president becomes more desperate, he will send in his brutal Berkut police or the army, or even Russian enforcers to annihilate the encampment and protesters.

I fear the worst because I saw the foreshadowing of a crackdown.

Almost ten years ago in December 2004, the Ukrainian people had likewise taken to the streets and shutdown the city center. In 2004, the people protested a rigged election in which the pro-Russian candidate for president had claimed victory. This pro-Russian candidate is Viktor Yanukovych, the current Ukrainian President.

Worldwide attention had turned to Ukraine not just because of the crooked election and enormous protests, but also because the pro-Democratic presidential challenger, Viktor Yushchenko, was poisoned by a high concentration of Agent Orange at a state dinner. The poisoning had disfigured his once attractive face but he lived.

As a result of the protests and worldwide condemnation, the Ukrainian supreme court declared that a new election would be held on December 26, 2004.

City Center of Kiev

I went to Ukraine to work as an international monitor to ensure the fairness of the new election. I was no great human activists by any means. I went primarily because my mother, born in Ukraine who fled the country during World War II, wanted to go and I decided to accompany her.

Going to Ukraine, a country of 50 million people and the seventh largest in Europe, was in may ways like going back in time. The plane serves mashed potatoes and boiled meat. I exited the plane by a ramp to the runway and walk a couple hundred yards through blowing snow to the terminal. The architecture, the facilities, the infrastructure all seemed to me to be leftover from the 1970's.

But, the people were kind and hospitable. Strangers would invite you in for lavish home cooked meals. And, even with my poor command of the Ukrainian language, I was embraced and welcomed by the people. If you ever need an ego boost and feel your likability and popularity soar, spend a few days with the people in Kiev.

We arrived a week before the election for training. I relied on my mother to fill me in on the training so I could spend some time sightseeing and soaking in the rally for democracy. I had soup on the frozen streets in the tents of the protesters, bought a case of instant coffee and made myself an instant star. The people were hopeful that they could bring about change but I always sense an underlying uneasiness.

Pasted up on many walls were, “Missing from Protests” Flyers. I noticed that among the college students that you’d expect in such a protest, older men, many clearly carrying handguns, interspersed. The students called them their protectors.

The government had its own enforcers. Two sharply dressed man approached me to find out what I was doing in their country. A group of students and protesters had to surround me and pull me away, explaining that they were likely K.G.B. and any further conversation would only lead to trouble. The men had such a presence that I would have sworn each was eight inches taller than me. I looked at a picture I took of afterwards, I was actually taller.

Government enforcersacross teh fence from some of my rescuers

My reason for fearing for the lives of the protesters stems from my experiences on election day. We hired a driver as security and were responsible for visiting polling places outside of Kiev. The region was pro-Yushenko so we were expecting much trouble as was contemplated in the Eastern part of the country where the Russian loyalties run strong. People, young an old came out in droves.

There’s no laws requiring accommodations for the physically disabled so I was especially impressed seeing an elderly woman with one leg get out of her wheel chair to hop up on one crutch to the second floor gymnasium polling station.

Everything seemed to go smoothly at the polling stations we visited until evening when the Commissioner requested that we come back to their major polling station when they count the votes. She said that armed men had taken the ballot box at the end of the last election and returned it an hour later with a much different result than was expected.

We stayed deep into the night as they went through the arduous process of counting the votes by hand, then double checking and triple checking their results. Despite some rumors of people outside ready to steal the ballots and a few other interruptions, nothing suspicious occurred.

Outside the polling station at 3:00 a.m.

But here’s where I still get shivers. Driving back after 3:00 a.m. on December 27, 2004, our car was stopped at several check points by soldiers. The army had basically surrounded the city. We drove by a battalion of tanks and heavily armored vehicles pulled off to the side of the road. My sleepy head was fully awake as we passed the roar of the idling tank engines. I don’t think I've ever seen a more intimidating sight and all I could think was the wood pallets surrounding the protesters camp did not stand a chance.

When we finally reached the city, we couldn't drive near the square to our apartment. The driver dropped us off several blocks away. The city, which had been vibrant at all hours throughout my stay, had now grown eerily quiet and fog had settled among the buildings. I had grown pretty familiar with the neighborhood so I started leading my mother through the alleys on the quickest route back.

Suddenly, we turned a corner to be greeted by machine guns of a battalion of riot police. After the guns were lowered, the commander waved us on our way. Then, in every shaded alley, we saw hundreds of heavily armed riot police and soldiers lurking.

It was clear that the police and armed forces were poised to put an end to the protests in one swift clean-up. Fortunately, that command never came down.

But, will the command come from the President now. Will tanks roll through the peaceful protesters now? Will hundreds or thousands of protesters be slaughtered?

The United States must step up its support of a people’s cry for freedom and democracy. Isn't that who we are? If not, isn't it who we should be?!?

Time for the U.S. to support former heavyweight boxing champion turned presidential candidate, Vitali Klitschko. Time for the United States to follow Vitali’s words to his countrymen: “The authorities have announced a war on Ukraine and their acts led to military actions in central Kiev, I call on all citizens and patriots to protect their country and their future.”

Vitali Klitschko risks his life daily at the head of the protests