Pro-govt rally in Kyiv highlights division in Ukraine

By bne IntelliNews December 17, 2013

Harriet Salem in Kyiv -

"I am here to support stability, I am here for the future of Ukraine, for my grandchildren," Anna Egorovna told bne standing in Mariinsky Park.

Eregorovna was one of the tens of thousand supporters that arrived in Kyiv over the weekend of December 14-15 to attend a pro-government rally. Most of the demonstrators, who braved below zero temperatures camping out in Mariinsky, said they travelled in organised groups from eastern and southern regions of Ukraine - the heartland of President Viktor Yanukovych's Party of the Regions. The rally, organised by the state, is the response to the large anti-government protests that have gripped the country's capital since Yanukovych's last-minute decision in November to withdraw from a deal that would bring Ukraine closer to the EU.

But if the intention was to show the government are still a force to be reckoned with, then it was a major misfire. The pro-EU crowd that appeared on the main square, the Maidan, over the same weekend, estimated at up to 200,000, dwarfed the number of pro-government supporters by nearly twentyfold. And several reports suggest the government's "supporters" were in fact receiving paycheques for their endeavours. "It is very clear by looking at these people, who they are and when they come from," said Dimitry, one of the barricade guards in the square that has now been dubbed Euromaidan. "Many are homeless or poor. They are not here to support the government, but because they give them money and alcohol to be here."

Most people at the Mariinsky camp denied the allegation that they were being paid for their support. "I am here because I want to be, not because I was told," said Eregorovna. "The whole of Crimea is supporting President Yanukovych in this difficult time," she added.

Another rally attendee, a 26-year-old Russian solider based in Ukraine's east, told bne that, "just because people are being paid to be here, it does not necessarily mean that they would not have come anyway."

Yet the atmosphere lacked the electric spark of the Maidan, where turnout this weekend was higher than ever following the December 11 police assault on peaceful protesters, which has angered Kyiv's citizens. "I have not so much been to the Maidan, but when I heard this news then I decided to come, because this is not just about the European Union any more I think, but it is now about democracy for Ukraine," said Vladmir Shevchenko, from Kyiv.

The December 15 news that the EU has suspended work to renegotiate terms for the free trade and association deal, has only fuelled the flames. The Ukrainian government's arguments, which include a demand for €20bn to offset the cost of the pact, have "no grounds in reality," tweeted the EU enlargement chief, Stefan Fuele.

"This news is very disappointing" Shevchenko told bne. "It seems we go further and further into the arms of Russia, and there is no way out if we finish with the European Union."

Western politicians have been keen to express their solidarity with the largely pro-European demonstrators. At the weekend US Senator John McCain told the crowds: "We are here because your peaceful process and peaceful protest is inspiring your country and inspiring the world... Ukraine will make Europe better, and Europe will make Ukraine better."

The appearance of popular Ukrainian band Okean Elza on December 14 at the Maidan also proved a hit, with tens of thousands descending on the square to dance shoulder to shoulder, letting out a roaring cheer as green laser lights spelled out "Ukraine loves the EU" during the show.

In stark contrast, back at the Mariinsky camp the atmosphere was subdued; protesters sat round bonfires drinking vodka and beer, occasionally leaving the warmth of the fire to attend speeches at the stage, or get a portion of the kasha hrechana [a Ukrainian buckwheat porridge] being dolled out from stoves fuelled by old military generators.

Yet whilst momentum seems to be favouring the anti-government demonstrations, the Ukrainian winter will be long and hard, and it remains to be seen whether protesters can hold out. Yanukovych could just play a waiting game.

And some are warning that the public should be careful of following the simplistic narrative of pro-Europe west and pro-Russia east that has long been used by politicians as a means to divide the country. "Politicians on both sides of these meetings have tried to divide people and have tried to divide the country people," said Andri Mykovski, on behalf a Euromaidan citizen's initiative that attended the pro-government camp to bring messages of unity from the Euromaidian. "We want to come here and tell people that should be no divisions between Ukrainian people only politicians."

"Let's shake hands, please smile," suggested one of the placards. "It is OK to speak Russian in Kyiv," read another - a reference to the country's contentious language divide.

"We want to tell people that there is no violence on Euromaidan as they are told, this is mainly propaganda and we come with peace and love," said Mykovsky, who is from the western city Lviv. But his message got no further than entrance to the area surrounding the speech podium, where security guards refused to let the group pass.

As dark fell on Mariinsky on the evening of December 15 the pro-government supporters drifted away, leaving the arena mainly empty, save for a few vodka soaked youths dancing in front of beautiful young Ukrainian women miming folk songs. Queues formed around the edge of the park as the attendees prepared to board buses back to their home cities. "We are glad that we are go home to Odessa," said one woman, "it is very much cold for being here."

Meanwhile, on Maidan protesters danced to rock bands until the early hours when snow finally saw them retreat back to their makeshift camp.

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