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People Power in Kiev Fuels Electoral Protest Action


Massive street protests in Ukraine's capital and other cities following the disputed presidential elections have transfixed the nation and the world by their sheer size and zeal.

Ukraine's political opposition has turned its anger over what it says was government-supported electoral fraud into the largest peaceful protests the nation has ever seen. Highlighting the split threatening to divide the nation are the thousands of pro-government supporters also demonstrating in the capital, sometimes alongside pro-opposition forces.

They come to the snow-covered streets by foot, subway, bus and train. They come from downtown Kiev, and from as far away as Crimea. Young and old, rich and poor, politically-jaded, and naive Ukraine's opposition protesters are joined by one idea: democracy.

Kiev student Vyacheslav, 25, says he and the other protesters stand for freedom and will do so until they win. The protesters say the election was not free nor fair and opposition candidate Viktor Yushchenko is the true winner.

The task of organizing the tens of thousands of people like Vyacheslav falls to just one man, soft-spoken Kiev native, Andrei Miroshnichenko. Political strategist turned protest organizer, Mr. Miroshnichenko says his job, like Ukraine's politics, changes by the day. He says the two-week-old protests have grown so much that his work now includes efforts to help the so-called political enemy, supporters of declared-winner Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych.

Mr. Miroshnichenko says his helpers have begun seeking out pro-government supporters as soon as they arrive in the capital, Kiev, offering them food, warm clothes, blankets, and places to sleep. Many of the so-called Yanukovych supporters say they were brought to Kiev against their will. Once here, they say they are offered little to no help from the government. Mr. Miroshnichenko says it is little wonder that they are soon seen standing on Independence Square.

As for orchestrating the massive protests, Mr. Miroshnichenko says that has been easy. He says the protests have taken on a life of their own. He says they are now being driven more than anything by the Ukrainian people's sheer will and organizational efficiency. Mr. Miroshnichenko says says when the protests first started families took turns appearing on the square. One day the mother would protest, the next the father and son, he says. Now, he adds this system has been replaced by rotating apartment blocs and, in some cases, whole neighborhoods and factories. Andrei says he also has had an overwhelming response at the grass-roots level, with literally thousands of people calling each day to offer whatever help is needed. He says the effort is basically financing itself thanks to the goodwill of the Ukrainian people and the local business community.

Information technology specialist, Igor Mirolubenko, 20, is one such person who answered Mr. Yushchenko's call to stand up for the Ukrainian nation. He and his father spent their one weekend day off recently traveling around the city, delivering orange juice, sausages and other essentials to the buildings where protesters are being housed. Igor is quick to point out that he and his father are far from unusual.

"If you go to the Kreshachtick [Kiev's main street] you will see hundreds of people doing things free of charge from cleaning streets [to] shoveling snow and everybody is doing something," he said. "And today I saw a very old granny, she brought some home-made cookies and you know when you see such things happening it is unbelievable."

Igor smiles and says it is the positive mood that he will remember, long after the protests are over.

As the days wore on, there was a definite shift in the mood among pro-government supporters, who began their days in Kiev's streets celebrating the declared win of their candidate, Viktor Yanukovych. But as that win fell under international examination, due to allegations of widespread voter manipulation and fraud, the pro-government supporters took on a much more defensive tone. Regional leaders in Ukraine's east began encouraging Yanukovych supporters to head to the capital to defend their win in the face of the rising anti-government protests. And the mood in the capital's streets took on a more volatile tone, as pro-government and pro-opposition supporters faced off directly in the city's streets. There was jostling and jeers, as well as minor violence reported. There have also been signs of cracks in the pro-government camp with key Yanukovych campaign officials resigning over the electoral crisis.

By the second week, with tensions rising over the threat of autonomy in the east, pro-opposition supporters pledged to keep things peaceful and playfully tried to woo those in the east to their side.

The opposition supporters call for people in Donetsk and Lugansk to join with them as one. The massive street protests are also fueling a bit of a marketing frenzy, as shop windows are decorated in orange, the color of the opposition party. In one such store, shoppers are offered a 10 percent discount for every orange scarf or pair of gloves they buy.

Another entrepreneur has created a life-sized poster-board figure of opposition candidate Yushchenko, next to which smiling protesters pose for photos with the man many here in Ukraine are calling the "people's president." The opposition protests even inspired a popular new rap song called, Our President. This popular refrain says," No to falsification," and "Yes to Yushchenko." We are so many people together, it says, it is impossible to beat us.

The song continues that the people will not accept lies, only the truth and with the truth, the hope of a win for their candidate, Viktor Yushchenko. Pro-government supporters do not have a rallying song. But they often repeat the refrain that the demonstrations happening in Kiev and other cities around the nation are "dangerous," and "unconstitutional."

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