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Are Ukraine’s Protests About to Turn Very Ugly?

Are Ukraine’s Protests About to Turn Very Ugly?

The massive pro-European protests in Ukraine’s capital have all the makings of a picture-perfect revolution: a square filled to the brim with demonstrators around the clock, a toppled statue of a former dictator, and riot police shields adorned with flowers provided by protesters.

Thousands of Ukrainians are demonstrating a decision by President Viktor Yanukovych to forgo an association agreement with the European Union in favor of maintaining closer ties with Russia, the country’s powerful neighbor. On Sunday, somewhere from 100,000 to 300,000 protesters gathered in Kiev’s Independence Square (Maidan Nezalezhnosti), which has inspired the hugely popular eponymous hashtag #Euromaidan. It was the largest rally the country has seen since the Orange Revolution in 2004 when the opposition succeeded in contesting a rigged election and ousted the pro-Russian government.

Protesters have now made use of Ukraine’s shared national colors — yellow and blue — with those of the European Union’s flag to create a conveniently nationalistic visual language for a pro-Western protest. Ukrainian women, wearing traditional outfits and sheepskin coats, handed out flowers and warm tea this weekend to the police forces assigned to prevent protesters from entering government buildings. All in all, the protesters look to be winning the media war, especially after they installed a blue and yellow piano in front of a tight riot police cordon where protesters took turns at the keyboard. The image served as a powerful contrast to scenes of a violent police crackdown that marked coverage of the protests last week. Twitter and Facebook exploded. "These gestures are calculated for their media effect — not that it’s bad," Tomasz Bielecki the correspondent for the Polish daily Gazeta Wyborcza in Kiev told Foreign Policy. They’re trying to say "we are not looking for confrontation."

But behind images that seem almost tailor-made for Instagram (including a selfie from opposition leader Vitali Klitschko in front of riot police), the political situation remains unclear, if not utterly disquieting. On Monday, the government increased the number of riot squads in the capital, with protesters fearing a showdown.

As the world watched on Sunday, protesters brought down a statue of Vladimir Lenin, which had stood in the same spot in Ukraine’s capital since 1946, and replaced it with an EU flag, providing the perfect metaphor for ending Russian dominance of the country. But the episode also showed a fair amount of pent up aggression among the protesters. As people hacked at the statue with hammers — and eventually dismembered Lenin — a poster appeared nearby that according to Reuters read "Yanukovich, you are next!"

"The situation looks alarming," Bielecki told FP. "The question is whether the Maidan leaders are capable of controlling the crowd. There is evidence that points to the fact that the leaders are following the crowd and not the other way around."

According to Bielecki, when in the past few days opposition leaders have called for non-violent demonstrations in front of government buildings, the protesters have tended to escalate them and build up barricades. "Every such element could be the spark for a confrontation," Bielecki said.

For others, the protests’ unpredictability and element of people power is exactly what lend them their strength. "At the moment Maidan is an organism controlled by the people and supported by the people (not by parties), and that’s why people believe in it," Eugene Kredentser, a Ukrainian photographer and filmmaker who attends the protests regularly, told FP in a Facebook message. "The good thing is that now you can see that the people of Ukraine begin to understand that the power is with them, and it is all about your will — either you want something to change or not."

For now, the protest’s outcome depends on the government and opposition’s willingness to talk. "If they want to talk, they should be able to come to an agreement in the next two to three days," Bielecki said. One easy way to do so, Bielecki said, would be for Yanukovych to sack the prime minister, Mykola Azarov, one of the opposition’s main demands.

But the protests could easily go exactly the opposite way — toward a police crackdown. On Sunday, Arseny Yatseniuk, an opposition leader in the Ukrainian legislature, claimed that the government would imminently declare a state of emergency, which he said would lead to the "severe forceful suppression of large-scale protest rallies." If Yanukovych takes that drastic step, Kiev could be in for more violence between protesters and police. "If they think that they can suppress the situation with the state of emergency, our response is as follows — this will only escalate the situation," Yatseniuk said. "And the blame for, God forbids, any blood shed will be on Viktor Yanukovych personally."

And that’s when a revolution stops being picture-perfect.