Strategy Remains Elusive For Ukraine Opposition

KIEV, Ukraine -- One of the most effective, and affecting, sights on Maidan, the independence square that antigovernment protesters have made theirs for the past month, is a simple wall of wooden blocks.

A protester waved the Ukraine national flag from the roof top of a building in Independence Square during a pro-European rally in Kiev on Sunday.

There are hundreds, in jagged formation, each with the name of a village, town or city etched in black.

The contrast with the neighboring glass and metal sheath of a mall, boasting global luxury brand names, is powerful.

The wooden blocks relay, simply, and in keeping with an impoverished country still tied to the land, the geographic scope of the protest, and the participants’ wish for what they say they need: a just society.

“Ukrainian people know what justice feels like,” said Oleksandr V. Turchinov, a lawmaker for the opposition.

“It is a very important element for people seeking to live like Europeans.”

The mall and its global brands feel more like a misfit in this country of 46 million, where a schoolteacher might earn $200 a month.

While there is a nascent middle class, wealth in Ukraine is rare, usually vast, and associated with corruption.

Just as clear as the gulf between wall and mall is the gap between the exuberance of the protests, and translating that dedication into action that will get the opposition to President Victor F. Yanukovich the political change it seeks.

The past month has been full of stirring solidarity, but a strategy remains elusive. 

“Ukraine is not for sale; that is why people are standing here,” Mr. Turchinov, a former head of security services who is now in Parliament for the Fatherland opposition party, said a day after Mr. Yanukovich returned from Moscow with what he and President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia hailed as an economic lifeline of $15 billion and a steep reduction in the price of natural gas.

The terms remain unclear, but the Russian move took the wind out of the sails of protest, with the opposition leaders not conveying their next step and the Maidan crowds dwindling rapidly, even if the determination of those defending its barricades, or camping out in tents, remained palpable.

On Sunday, though the protest turnout was again large, the tenor of the day was one of acknowledgment that the movement was ebbing, with speakers encouraging people to keep turning out through Christmas and the New Year.

The established opposition leaders, several of whom have been in and out of government posts for years and know the president well as a tough political animal, admit to being surprised by the popular protest after Mr. Yanukovich walked away from a proposed deal for closer political and trade ties with the European Union.

A month on, the opposition leaders have kept pledges to appear almost nightly for the crowds and demanded amnesty for a few dozen who were arrested, but lack much of a plan.

What they seemed to rally around this week was the idea of building a political movement out of the hundreds of thousands who have passed through EuroMaidan, as the current protests are known.

Presidential elections are set for March 2015.

The aim seems to be to make it impossible for Mr. Yanukovich to rig his way to a second term, perhaps by forcing him to make a mistake so blatant that Ukrainians again take to the streets in protest, but this time also armed with an exact, agreed program of change.

No one here said so, but this might have echoes of Serbia under Slobodan Milosevic.

He negotiated his way out of huge street protests in 1991.

In 1996-97, after three months of nightly protests in Serbia that received little support in the West, he cracked down violently.

By 2000, after a lost war against NATO over Kosovo, neither the Serbs nor Mr. Milosevic’s security apparatus would sustain him, and he was forced out after rigged elections.

That Maidan now did not achieve its immediate goal of ousting the current government does not mean that it was not a success, said Yuri V. Lutsenko, a former interior minister and now an opposition leader.

Arseniy P. Yatsenyuk, also of the Fatherland party and a seasoned politician, said it was even a virtue “that there is no one Messiah on this Maidan,” unlike in 2004, when hundreds of thousands rallied in the so-called Orange Revolution behind Viktor A. Yushchenko and Yulia V. Tymoshenko, who later squabbled and squandered their terms in power.

Mr. Lutsenko agreed.

“Everybody thought we won the Orange Revolution at the time, but it turned out we lost,” he said.

“Everybody today thinks we lost, but we won. EuroMaidan won. We planted the seeds to form a pro-European majority in Ukraine.”

Mr. Yanukovich, who made a 100-minute live television appearance on Thursday, did not convince everyone he was firmly back in charge.

Like many others from eastern Ukraine, which is closer to Russia, he labors to speak good Ukrainian.

In the last 20 minutes of his questioning by sometimes bold, though handpicked, journalists, he lapsed into Russian.

When asked if he would seek a second term, he cited only a Russian saying to the effect that “every fruit has its season.”

But Mr. Yatsenyuk, who said he had been watching and working alongside or against the president for 12 years, emphasized that there was no doubt Mr. Yanukovich would run again.

To that end, he said, the president “made a decision — it’s not even to go to Russia, but to join Russian values, instead of European values.”

“I won’t say we lost,” Mr. Lutsenko said.

“Yes, some people wanted more. They wanted Yanukovich’s head, but we have no law on impeachment, so that was never possible. We showed the Orange Revolution was not a one-time fairy tale, but a feature of Ukraine. Civil society exists.”

Evgenia Tymoshenko, the daughter of whose mother, the former prime minister, was jailed more than two years ago under Mr. Yanukovich after being convicted of abusing power, also embraced what she called “people power.”

“I think that people started now not only believing in themselves,” she said, and “organizing themselves even without needing politicians to do that for them but also realizing that they have power to at least win these little victories.”

Many of the people on the square said they were standing there for a better future for their children, or even grandchildren.

For others, it was more a personal matter of no turning back.

Volodomyr Fedishin, 34, a construction contractor from Lviv, was working the entrance to one of the barricades on Maidan on Wednesday evening, with a walkie-talkie in his pocket.

“I’ll stay,” he said.

“I have no choice. I fought the police. If I go home now, I will go to prison.”

Source: The New York Times