The Euromaidan movement is centered in the Ukrainian capital Kyiv, but its eventual success or failure could be determined in cities like Kharkiv or Dnepropetrovsk.
Euromaidan supporters are trying to force the resignation of President Viktor Yanukovych and broaden economic opportunities for citizens. They also would like to see Ukraine orient itself more toward the West, namely the European Union. Yanukovych’s administration is steering the country back into Russia’s close embrace.
A political stalemate has settled over Kyiv, which has been gripped by protests for almost three months. Neither side at present seems to have the strength to score a decisive blow against the other. American and EU diplomats, meanwhile, are struggling to develop an aid package that could sway political debates in Kyiv. Political observers are also keeping an eye on Russia, which, after the Olympic spectacle wraps up, is widely expected to make a power play in Ukraine.
Ultimately, Yanukovych’s fate may depend on how well he can defend his political heartland – the mainly Russian-speaking cities of eastern Ukraine, especially the industrial centers of Kharkiv and Dnepropetrovsk. Small cracks have appeared in the president’s base; tiny protests are occurring in Kharkiv and Dnepropetrovsk, despite a heavy-handed response by local authorities. If the Euromaidan movement can make significant inroads into eastern Ukraine, Yanukovych could quickly find himself in an untenable position.
In Kharkiv, Euromaidan supporters like to gather in front of a monument to Ukrainian literary hero Taras Shevchenko. One day recently, a relatively small group of protesters showed up in minus-20 (Celsius) weather. “Glory to Ukraine!” one shouted. “East and West together!”
Such zeal is more the exception rather than the rule in Kharkiv these days. Most residents simply appear to be trying to maintain their normal routines. When asked about the political situation in Ukraine, smiles are apt to quickly disappear from their faces. It’s hard to get a good read on the public mood because many believe that speaking out, especially in favor of Euromaidan, carries a risk of retribution.
In trying to counter the Euromaidan movement, officials have not only relied on security forces, they have deployed goon squads. Dubbed titushki by some Ukrainian media outlets, these mercenary thugs are often used to sow mayhem among protesters. They are also suspected of being involved in a variety of dirty deeds, such as the late December stabbing of 32-year-old Dmytro Pylypets. He reported that two strangers approached him as he was walking home in Kharkiv one evening and stabbed him four times.
A journalist in Kharkiv, speaking on condition of anonymity, said pro-presidential forces were trying to keep a tight lid on the flow of information. “I can come each day and cover the demonstrations against Yanukovych, [but] my newspaper will never publish a single line about them,” the journalist said. “In the past, we had 10 TV stations and six newspapers; today it’s three times less, and they’re detained by allies of the regime.”
If the Euromaidan movement is going to gain traction in Kharkiv and elsewhere in eastern Ukraine, it will have to win over people like Alena Pidgorna, a 20-year-old university student. Pidgorna and her friends prefer to gather these days at a place called the Doma Café, which they see as a refuge from the political debates swirling about them. Political discussions are informally banned within the café’s confines.
Pidgorna expressed dislike for Yanukovych, but stressed that the Euromaidan movement was addressing problems in an improper way. “They want to impose their views,” she said, referring to Euromaidan supporters. “Here, we think it’s better to work and feed family. We feel angry, because they occupied some public buildings. We want change, but not war.”
She added that the Euromaidan movement hadn’t mounted a convincing argument to her, or her friends, that it represented a genuine alternative. “If he [Yanukovych] leaves, we don’t have any other candidate who is not corrupted,” she said. In her mind Euromaidan is associated mostly with inconvenience; last month her stipend arrived two weeks late because of the upheaval in Kyiv.
Jonathan Alpeyrie is a freelance photojournalist based in New York.