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Tensions Rise as Kyiv Debates Future of Independence Square

  • Henry Ridgwell

Nearly seven months after Ukraine’s former president, Viktor Yanukovych, fled the country following mass demonstrations in Kyiv's Independence Square, the protest camp - known as ‘Maidan’ - still occupies the center of the city. The activists say their continued presence is still necessary, but many local residents want the square cleaned up. And tensions are rising in Independence Square.

Svitlana, an activist from Kolomiya in western Ukraine, gently tends to her tomato plants that are fast ripening under the summer sun in Kyiv’s Independence Square.

She and her friends have made a vegetable garden on what was, during Ukraine’s bitter winter, the front line between the protesters and security forces. The weapons of resistance have been replaced with trowels and spading forks.

Even though peace has returned to Kyiv, Svitlana said that did not mean the Maidan protests should end.

She said they were demanding total purification to get rid of the corrupted officials, and a full investigation into the shooting of protesters on Maidan.

Over a hundred protesters in Independence Square were killed when security forces opened fire in January.

The protests led to the ouster of President Viktor Yanukovych. In May, Ukraine elected a new leader, Petro Poroshenko. Many Kyiv residents, like local store worker Valya, said it’s time to move on.

Valya said that as Kyiv residents, they supported the protesters, they gave them clothes and food. “We thought it was necessary and that’s why we helped. But now I don’t think Maidan plays that role anymore. It will not take us anywhere,” she said.

Residents complain Independence Square has become a haven for crime. Kyiv’s Mayor - opposition figure Vitaliy Klitschko - told VOA the Maidan protest camp no longer had a purpose.

He said Kyiv residents were donating money, which was used to buy the flak jackets that we were short of in the conflict areas in the east. And yet here, "in Maidan, the men are wearing flak jackets? This is the first question to answer. The second is why we sometimes hear gunshots, we hear of robberies, and attacks on the media,” he said.

But there are many observers who argue the political revolution is not finished.

Among them is policy analyst Valerii Pekar, of the group International Forum Ukraine.

He said that parliamentary elections were one of the first Maidan demands, and now it was hard to know whether these elections would actually take place.

Pekar went on to say many of the younger Maidan protesters left Kyiv to fight pro-Russian separatists in the east, alongside Ukrainain government forces.

The Maidan activists, who are now on the frontlines in the east, he said, demanded that those who were left on Independence Square - most of them senior citizens - keep occupying the area. They realized that it could be occupied by anti-Ukrainian forces, he added.

Mykola Bondar leads a Maidan group calling itself the ‘4th Cossack Hundred’. He and his fellow protesters are determined to stay.

“If they try to clean Maidan forcefully,” he warns, “we’ll respond appropriately. Until the changes we all gathered on Maidan for are fulfilled, no-one will clear anything,” he said.

The battle on Independence Square is now between the protesters who say their job isn't finished, and many residents who want their historic city cleaned up and returned to normal.