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Conservation protests in Kyiv: a civic re-awakening?

Disillusioned by the failure of the post-Orange Revolution coalition, Ukrainian civil society has so far appeared unable to resist the Yanukovych regime’s regression into authoritarianism. But starting with a burgeoning conservation movement, is Ukraine now following in Russia’s footsteps, asks Yegor Vasylyev? 

Yegor Vasylyev
6 June 2012

Ukrainian civil society, which rose up in protest against the election stolen by Viktor Yanukovych in 2004, has for several years appeared dormant. The profound disappointment of many participants in the Orange protests with the consequences of active political engagement has left political parties on all sides with no support bases. In the place of genuine protests, the phenomenon of fake protests populated by paid, fake ‘activists’, has proliferated. This sorry state of affairs has only strengthened people’s resolve to turn their backs on politics altogether.

When the regime of President Yanukovych put two of Ukraine’s leading opposition politicians, Yulia Tymoshenko and Yuri Lutsenko, behind bars last year, turning a blind eye to the outrage of the international community, there was little in the way of large-scale public protest. Meanwhile there has been only token resistance to the growing number of violations of democratic procedures in parliament and the unchecked nepotism that pervades government.

Recently, however, events of an apparently non-political nature have sparked spontaneous protests, despite the fact that they had very little organisation, leadership or advertising. Online social networks were used for spreading the message and proved capable of bringing hundreds of people together overnight.

‘When the regime of President Yanukovych put two of Ukraine’s leading opposition politicians, Yulia Tymoshenko and Yuri Lutsenko, behind bars last year, turning a blind eye to the outrage of the international community, there was little in the way of large-scale public protest.’

The most significant protests have taken place in Kyiv, the cradle of the 2004 uprising, and the cause has been outrage at the threat of the spoiling of historic and picturesque locations by construction sanctioned by the authorities.

Battle for the green hills of Kyiv

The ‘Picturesque Alley’ (Peyzazhna Alleya), overlooking the hills of the historical centre of Kyiv, is a long-time favourite walking path both for locals and visitors. It’s a beautiful place to take a stroll on a sunny day.

The location is also valued highly by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which wishes to build a residence block in the middle of the lovely grounds. The Ministry secured a land lease from the city council as far back as 2004, but in 2009, with construction imminent, there was a robust protest. Local residents and others funded a group of artists to create a park of sculptures and children’s playgrounds in order to make the place even more spectacular and block the construction. The idea worked well – the story was picked up by the media and consequently the Ministry’s land lease was revoked in court.

However, this year the Ministry has made another attempt to gain the land and has once more been granted permission to go ahead with construction. The public response was impressive. On a chilly March morning, more than two thousand people gathered at the Alley to protest. In addition, well-known musicians have pledged to perform in support of the protests, while thousands have signed a petition against the construction.

This time the Ministry was forced to address the public outcry, and in a recent press release announced that it supported the public demands to conserve the park and path, and would therefore not move forward with construction. At the end of April, Kyiv City Council voted to revoke the land-lease. Nevertheless, the defenders of the Alley are taking nothing for granted and are remaining vigilant in case plans are surreptitiously resuscitated once more.

construction-sergei-svetlit.jpg

Andriyivsky Uzviz, for centuries the street of Kyiv's artists and intellectuals, is prepared for 'reconstruction' earlier this year. (Photo: Sergei Svetlitsky / Demotix, all rights reserved)

Kyiv’s loveliest street vs Ukraine’s richest man

It is no wonder why, when the stories like that of St. Andrew’s Descent (Andriyivsky Uzviz) are unfolding.

Andriyivsky Uzviz neighbours the Alley and leads downhill to the city’s historical Podil district. Locals call it Kyiv’s Montmartre. Surrounded by green hills and crowned with St Andrew’s Church at the top, the cobbled street and its small houses have long been home to Kyiv’s artists and architects and constitute one of Kyiv’s top tourist attractions. 

In November 2011 the street was suddenly closed ‘for reconstruction’ by the city administration, with no public consultation and no response to questions posed by city historians and archaeologists. After simmering anger, public outrage broke out in April, when YouTube footage emerged, showing buildings on Andriyivsky Uzviz being demolished.  On Monday (9th) the city was buzzing with rumours that the beloved street would disappear, making way multi-storey office centres and oligarchs’ new residences.

The facts are, however, that three buildings were demolished by ESTA, the construction company owned by Rinat Akhmetov, Ukraine’s richest man and the main sponsor of President Yanukovych’s Party of Regions. These three buildings were not on the list of historically and culturally significant monuments, but at least one was a part of the street’s unique mix. The community-owned land was leased to Akhmetov’s company by city council rulings made 2005 and 2010 for construction of a trade centre and office apartments.

In the course of drawn-out negotiations, the company finally obtained consent from the city authorities to proceed with the project, designed by a French company. Though historians and architects sounded the alarm, pointing out that the new seven-storey trade centre and parking would still be unsuitable for the street’s architectural design and landscape, the construction was given the green light. Once the municipal works on the reconstruction of Andriyivsky Uzviz commenced, ESTA also started the realisation of their project.

Social media

The public reaction was swift. Overnight, the YouTube video was watched 15,000 times and a Facebook group, the Defenders of Andriyivsky Uzviz, was joined by thousands in the space of a few hours. A group of activists called for immediate action and decided to bring a sample of the rubble created by the construction work to the office of Akhmetov’s company, located opposite the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

At 7pm on Tuesday, hundreds of Kyivites gathered near the office. The entrance and the nearby streets were blocked by riot police and some mysterious men in civilian clothing prevented those carrying the rubble from passing. When several young men tried to pull the rubble out of the nearest container, it was immediately confiscated by a circle of policemen. Following a dispute with the police, one woman was beaten up and taken away by an ambulance.

The protesters nevertheless managed to pour some rubble to the office entrance and demanded an end to the demolition. They were addressed by a representative of the construction, who first pledged to restore the demolished buildings’ façades and, subsequently said that the current project would be abandoned in favour of another – the construction of an art centre – in a consultation with the city’s community. 

Though the gathering was entirely spontaneous and had no political patronage, Vitaly Klychko, the world champion boxer turned politician, also turned up, promising to assist the activists in defending their rights and interests. But as he left soon after making this impromptu address, he was quickly assailed by negative chanting, accusing of jumping on the PR bandwagon.

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Riot police accompany demonstrators bringing rubble from the construction site at Andriyivsky Uzviz to the offices of the construction company, owned by Ukraine's richest man, Rinat Akhmetov. (Photo: Sergei Svetlitsky / Demotix, all rights reserved)

On Saturday, more than 1,000 people assembled to demand the preservation of Andriyivsky Uzviz. Unlike other rallies over recent years, there were no party flags in sight, while many protesters brought young children. ‘I see now, the city is alive’, said a 70-year old participant, Oleksander Pavlovych. The protesters marched to the city council to make their demands. ‘Spread the message, bring your neighbours and friends and stand for the city and yourself!’ called one of the activists on the stairs of the administration building.

The bigger picture

Since the day the demolitions at Andriyivsky Uzviz were uncovered, the city authorities have given every sort of a pledge to assure Kyivites. However, people simply don’t believe them; nor do they believe in the newly-promised reconstruction and the switch from one project to another. Previously, pledges to stop private constructions at historical places, parks and children playgrounds have in fact preceded the acceleration of construction work.

Kyiv’s mayor, Leonid Chernovetsky, and his ‘team of young professionals’  – who themselves are sadly infamous for their involvement in land- and property-related fraud – have been sidelined following Yanukovych’s election as president and his appointment of Oleksandr Popov, a Party of Regions member, as head of the city administration. In effect, Yanukovych has dismissed Chernovetsky and replaced him with Popov, although Chernovetsky retains the nominal title of mayor while his powers have largely been removed. A construction-engineer turned KGB officer and a former minister of Yanukovych’s Cabinet, Popov looks likely to assume the role of mayor, with increased powers, in the next year or so.

But Popov is already known for his habit of not keeping promises and his reputation is suffering further with the events at Andriyivsky Uzviz. Many see him as a dependent bureaucrat, controlled by powerful Donetsk kingpins who dominate the country. Among activists, it is popular to compare current events to the 13th-century Tatar-Mongol invasion of Kyiv, which brought total devastation to the city.

Meanwhile on 28 April ESTA announced on its website that it would proceed with demolition of the rest of the buildings on the leased land. At the same time, another company began to deploy construction equipment at a historical (although it had been hastily removed from the official list of historical and cultural buildings last year) courtyard on Kontraktova Square, right at the bottom of Andriyivsky Uzviz.

‘Kyiv is certainly not the only city in Ukraine to play host to civil protests recently. They are taking place all over Ukraine and in increasing quantities, primarily as a reaction to injustice and the lack of response from the authorities.’

Kyiv is certainly not the only city in Ukraine to play host to civil protests recently. They are taking place all over Ukraine and in increasing quantities, primarily as a reaction to injustice and the lack of response from the authorities. In the southern city of Mykolaiv, a demonstration forced police to arrest the rapists of Oksana Makar in a case that shocked the country. Meanwhile in Kharkiv and Odessa people have come out to protest the manner in which elites are able to escape prosecution when they cause death by dangerous driving, demanding justice to ‘mazhors’ following shocking car-incidents.

In Ukraine there is a deep distrust of governmental institutions, the police, the state prosecution and all political parties. But to date, this distrust has manifested itself in too chaotic, incoherent and passive a manner for it to be clear that civic activism could pose a real threat to the authorities, checking the regime’s malpractices. The numbers involved as activists are still not large enough to really threaten the authorities. Moreover, there is competition among the leaders of the activists, and they may be prone to be co-opted by the authorities: already one has been co-opted by Akhmetov’s company, to work in a new role, ‘coordinating the public expert council’ of the Andriyivsky Uzviz construction project.

‘I have seen those eyes once again, for the first time since 2004’, says a protester at Andriyivsky Uzviz. ‘You will see – this wind will bring the storm’. His friend disagrees: ‘Don’t dupe yourself – these few are the only ones who care. The rest [of the Orange Revolution protesters] will never get involved again’. At the moment, you have to say that both views are valid – the future lies in the balance.

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