For Ukraine's Neighbors, Euromaidan Is A Revolution For All
December 17, 2013
KYIV -- Among the dozens of tents lining Ukraine's Independence Square is one bearing the distinctive red-and-white five-cross flag of Georgia.
Inside, Giorgi Zhvania keeps another flag draped around his shoulders as he and fellow Georgians work in three-hour shifts, organizing food and other logistical support for the Euromaidan protests. In their off hours, they sleep in the city administration building, which has been occupied by demonstrators since December 1.
Zhvania, who works for a Georgian nongovernmental organization called Free Zone, has been in Kyiv since the start of the protests and until they end he'll stay on Euromaidan -- as Independence Square has been dubbed by the protesters -- till the end.
'There are 10 of us Georgians here on Euromaidan,' he says. 'I've personally been here more than two weeks, almost from the first day of the resistance. I want to work with the Ukrainian people and my Ukrainian brothers shoulder to shoulder to get rid of the corrupt government and to secure a better future in the European family. It's a desire we all share.'
Zhvania is just one of hundreds of Georgians, Belarusians, and other post-Soviet neighbors who have traveled to Ukraine in recent weeks to support what many see as a common fight against Russian influence.
The influx has included politicians, including former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili and Moldovan ex-Prime Minister Vlad Filat, who have both seen their countries struggle to elude Moscow's grasp.
But it also includes students, activists, and ordinary citizens eager to cheer on Ukraine or -- in the case of authoritarian countries like Belarus and Azerbaijan -- to simply share the thrill of a bold public protest that they are unlikely to witness in their own, more repressed countries.
Not everyone has been able to attend the Euromaidan protests, which have convulsed the Ukrainian capital since President Viktor Yanukovych decided against closer ties with the European Union amid mounting pressure from Russia.
Liberal Russian politician Boris Nemtsov, who emerged as a strong supporter of Viktor Yushchenko during Ukraine's 2004 Orange Revolution, was blocked from entering the country on December 12.
But Pyotr Verzilov, a political activist and the husband of jailed Pussy Riot member Natalia Tolokonnikova, has traveled to Kyiv, where he says the Euromaidan protests are far more sophisticated than the demonstrations that erupted in Russia following the disputed parliamentary elections in December 2011.
'The hundreds of thousands of people who are taking part in the Maidan events now remember the incredible uprising their country experienced in December 2004,' he says. 'What happened in December 2011 in Moscow was the first sign of civil society in Russia after nearly 20 years of absolute calm. The authorities, terrified by the situation, responded harshly, and our civil society wasn't ready to continue and support the fight on a mass scale after the presidential elections in 2012.'
Nowhere have the Euromaidan protests inspired more excitement than in neighboring Belarus, where the country's last major protests, in December 2010, were violently suppressed by riot police and ended in mass arrests.
Young Belarusian activists have streamed into Ukraine to share in the Euromaidan events, in one instance even hitchhiking across the border when Belarusian authorities forced their bus to turn around.
Maria Kvitsinskaya, a member of Belarus's Youth Front movement, told RFE/RL that it may be years before her country, now under the grip of autocrat Alyaksandr Lukashenka, is ready to stage a 'maidan' of its own.
In Ukraine, we see even the rectors of large, prestigious universities calling upon their students to join the protests, we see oligarchs putting big money into supporting it, we see companies allowing their employees to take time off to participate in the protests,' she said. 'It's impossible to imagine similar things in Minsk.'
Other Belarusians said they took heart from the camaraderie shown them in Kyiv.
Alyaksey Janukevich, the head of the BPF party, was among the protesters who arrived in Kyiv bearing the red and white flag of the Belarusian opposition. He says he was impressed by the scale of the Euromaidan protests -- and pleased by the warm welcome the Belarusians received.
'Our first impression -- compared to the Orange Revolution, which I also witnessed -- is that everything is better organized,' he says. 'There are places for people to eat and get warm. And just as it was during the Orange Revolution, many people come by when they recognize the flag, and they use the word 'siabry,' [the Belarusian word for 'friends']. Others ask about the flag and then say, 'Siabry, thank you for being here with us.' It's nice to hear things like that.'
Other opposition politicians took to the podium, clearly relishing the chance to attach their own political struggles to those of Ukraine -- and to speak openly, through an amplified sound system, about their troubles back home.
Isa Qambar heads the Musavat opposition party in Azerbaijan, where the oil-rich ruling regime of Ilham Aliyev has used police beatings, fines, and arrests to disperse repeated protests ahead of the country's presidential elections in October.
Speaking on Independence Square on December 15, Qambar drew a round of applause as he described the challenges Azerbaijan's opposition has faced in seeking better ties with the West at a time when Aliyev has refused to embrace either Russia or the EU.
'It's not only the future of Ukraine that's being decided [here] today, but also the future of the entire European territory of the post-Soviet space,' he said. 'So it's a choice that we all share. Now in Baku there are similar pro-democracy demonstrations; people are protesting against the authoritarian regime of Aliyev, against corruption, against the illegal violation of human rights. And the people of Azerbaijan are demanding the Euro-integration of Azerbaijan, just like Ukraine.'
One country watching the events in Ukraine with a sense of resignation is Armenia, which experienced its own stunning flip-flop in September, turning its back on an EU Association Agreement in favor of joining the Moscow-led Customs Union.
'They've made the right demands,' a Yerevan resident who was closely following the protests said. But asked if similar demonstrations could ever be held in the Armenian capital, he sadly shook his head.
'We don't have them because people... what should I say?' he asked. 'The people seem to be asleep. They don't understand what's good and what's bad for them. That's the thing.'
Written in Prague by Daisy Sindelar, based on reporting by Koba Liklikadze in Kyiv, Vital Tsyhankou in Minsk, Mark Krutov in Moscow, Dmitry Volchek in Prague, and Lilit Harutiunian in Yerevan
Copyright (c) 2013. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.
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