Ukrainian Revolution Lives On -- in Pup Tents

KIEV, Ukraine -- Anna Savina, a 76-year-old pensioner, used to live in an apartment near the western Ukrainian city of Lviv. Now she lives in a tent outside parliament.

"When I got thrown out of my apartment, I fled with nothing but what I had on me, and six months now, I am here. I'm waiting for the president to help me," said Savina, whose neat bun and smooth, flowered dress belie the fact that her home is a green canvas pup tent, one of dozens sprawled out like a gathering military assault force in a leafy downtown park.

A protester sets himself on fire in front of the Ukrainian parliament building in central Kiev. A group of demonstrators gathered in central Kiev to protest against corruption among Ukrainian high officials. Police managed to put out fire and deliver the protester to a hospital.

In the tents next to her and elsewhere in Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, are ethnic Tatars whose families were unjustly deported from the Crimea in 1944. Students protesting the closure of a shoe factory in central Kiev. Human rights activists demanding the imprisonment of Ukraine's former president.

Here in Ukraine, where tens of thousands of protesters encamped in the capital's main square last winter helped bring down one of the most entrenched authoritarian governments of the post-Soviet era, democracy lives in tent camps.

There's a small village of tents on the sidewalk outside the Kiev mayor's office, another one near the presidential offices and assorted bivouacs outside municipal offices across Ukraine.

Pedestrians downtown thread their way gingerly through a gauntlet of mattresses and tents labeled with signs saying "Shame on the Old Regime" and "New Generation: Defense for the Defenseless." Lawmakers going to work are greeted by the scent of sizzling meat and onions wafting out of pots on portable gas stoves that serve the three dozen or so protesters encamped outside.

Across Ukraine, dozens of these ad hoc protest sites have sprouted over the last few months, thrived briefly and disappeared. They have been erected by citizens who learned during the winter's Orange Revolution that the surest way to get a response from their government was to establish an annoying presence directly in its face.

"Yesterday, I sent a telegram to President [Viktor] Yushchenko, telling him if he doesn't meet with us, I will personally set myself on fire," said Nikolai Gubenko, a stern, self-styled corruption buster from the town of Simferopol in the Crimea, who has been arrested 15 times in the last three years. He is protesting the plethora of judges and police that he says are crooked.

"We must understand who tricked us, who deceived us. Was it Yushchenko personally? Or his entourage?" he asked.

It went without saying that Yushchenko, the charismatic opposition leader who became Ukraine's new head of state in January, had his work cut out for him when he swept into power on the myriad, long-suppressed hopes of millions of Ukrainians who created the Orange Revolution.

What he perhaps didn't count on was the ferocity of the domestic political battles still facing him and the extent to which the revolution itself would inspire citizens of all stripes to take a direct role in their own corner of the fray.

Many are calling it "revolutionary chaos."

The status of up to 3,000 formerly state-owned companies is in limbo as the new government considers deprivatizing them. A pricing crisis sparked lines at gas stations and an open confrontation between Yushchenko and his prime minister, Yulia Tymoshenko. An estimated 18,000 new government officials have moved in, not all of them sure how to do their jobs. Thousands of small and medium-sized businesses filed for closure this spring in the wake of a tax reform scheme that was haphazardly imposed, then withdrawn.

Last week, Yushchenko, clearly exasperated at the persistent top-to-bottom corruption in the government, simply disbanded the bribe-happy traffic police, leaving motorists, to say nothing of law enforcement authorities, in a state of confusion.

"What we're seeing is a time of uninstitutionalized freedom. We're seeing a time of purely popular politics," said Vadim Karasyov, director of the Institute for Global Strategies in Kiev.

"Although Yushchenko and the new elite have come to power, they have not yet gotten a hold of it," he said. "And when people's expectations are as inflated as they are, whatever follows is inevitably going to fall short."

The new government has also been criticized for failing to hold leftovers of the former regime accountable for past corruption. Hundreds of court cases have been filed, and a number of regional leaders and federal officials have been dismissed, but very few have gone to jail — certainly none of the top officials and businessmen in former President Leonid D. Kuchma's entourage.

Some of the protests around Kiev center on allegations that wealthy politicians close to Yushchenko may be behind the move to force an old shoe factory employing 1,500 workers out of its prime real estate location in the city's Pechorsky district.

"There is a clear lobbying of their own business interests … and at this point, it's hard to make an argument that [some of the former Kuchma officials are] worse than any of them," said Sergei Yevrushenko, director of international affairs for the Pora youth movement, which marshaled thousands of youths into the streets to help bring down Kuchma.

Three weeks ago, Pora was registered as a political party, and it is moving swiftly to hold the Yushchenko government accountable for its pledges.

"In areas we consider crucial," Yevrushenko said, "they're spinning their wheels."

Oleg Garyaga, a 28-year-old lawyer and businessman who helped organize food, shelter and warm clothing for the street protesters over the winter, said his family's garden tool business in the central Cherkasy region was one of 17,000 small and medium enterprises that filed for closure this year.

The move came after the government adopted a sweeping, middle-of-the-year amendment to the tax laws that in effect would have raised taxes on Garyaga's company from $480 to nearly $12,000 annually. The government rescinded the measure after protests by businesspeople, but it had earned a measure of distrust.

"Under the old system, if you wanted to develop your store or buy property, you had to pay bribes. You had to go to a multitude of bureaucrats to get anything done. Now, it's starting to change," Garyaga said. "But keeping in mind the revolution was fueled by high expectations, when the government makes these kinds of mistakes, it's a big disappointment."

Unlike the huge, well-organized tent encampment over the winter that brought down the Kuchma government, the new tent camps are decidedly ad hoc — and some of the inhabitants already inclined toward the bohemian. At the parliament encampment, drinking water comes from nearby fountains and food is brought in by a small political party supporting the protesters' causes. The nearby public toilet is open from 8 in the morning until 8 at night.

"After 8 p.m., this beautiful city park gets covered with 'land mines,' " said Gubenko, the anti-corruption activist. "There are places where it is impossible to breathe."

Sometimes, sympathetic citizens invite residents to their homes to shower. Other times, campers bathe in the Dnieper River, or at least, the men do. "What the women do, I don't know," Gubenko said.

Savina, a retired nurse, said she moved into the camp partly for lack of options and partly to protest against housing authorities in her home region, who she said seemed impervious to her pleas for help in finding a home. She had been thrown out of her apartment by her son, she said.

"My son had remarried and kicked me out of my apartment so as to sell it," she said, acknowledging that there had been long-running conflicts in the family over the issue.

"It happened at 3 a.m. I decided to get up and make myself some tea, and my son runs out of the bedroom in his underwear. He says, 'Mother, Mother, get out of the apartment or I'll kill you! I'll throw you out the window!'

"And my daughter-in-law came in and said, 'We'll give you an eternal apartment. We'll bury you in a garbage heap where they will never find you,' " she added. Savina left the flat immediately, she said, but could not persuade city officials to give her another place to live.

Since moving to the tent camp, she said, she has intercepted the new president to tell him about her plight.

"When he was about to set out for Brussels, I caught him, and he told his subordinates to prepare documents within five minutes to help me," she said. "I have the documents, on presidential letterhead. It is a request to the mayor of my town to resolve my housing issue. But they have done me no good."

Yuri Lyashenko was also frustrated with bureaucracy when he doused himself with gasoline on the edge of the parliament camp on July 7 and set himself momentarily on fire. The 50-year-old lawyer and business owner from the southern Kherson region said he was protesting the seizure of his business by corrupt local government officials.

Sitting in a small pup tent, his arm wrapped in a bloody bandage and his face and hands covered with oozing burns, Lyashenko said he set himself on fire in a moment of unbridled emotion after months of traveling from one government office to another in an attempt to recover his business.

The small shopping complex he built was seized by rival businessmen, he said, acting on the authority of a corrupt local official who had not been fired by the new government. When he traveled to Kiev to file a complaint, he said, the paperwork was forwarded to the official he had criticized.

"If the authorities don't immediately clamp down on this corruption, it will be too late — it's already getting to be too late," Lyashenko said. "What we're seeing is the dawn of neo-corruption. And this is not only my tragedy. This is the tragedy of the entire Ukrainian people."

Some camp residents said the authorities were beginning to listen.

Inna Hlyva, a 19-year-old philology student sporting black nail polish, large hoop earrings and an Egyptian ankh necklace, said administrators and professors at the university no longer demanded bribes for admission or grades.

"Honesty has begun to awaken in people," she said.

But Olga Yeryomenko, the coordinator of a small human rights organization who demonstrates daily outside the Kiev mayor's office, is not so sure. She said the police have tried to disband her group's camp at the presidential offices.

"There's a second revolution coming," Yeryomenko said. "The first revolution was paid for from the outside, but in the end it was only a dress rehearsal for what's coming, a true popular revolution."

Source: The Times