The message seemed real enough: ‘Urgent! Last night Slava was arrested by the Berkut [Ukr. ‘golden eagle,’ the riot police]. He was in the yellow minibus which the siloviki [members of security forces] threw a grenade at. There were seven others but we don’t have their names yet. His mother is looking for him. Call us if you have any information.’
This one also: ‘Important!! Automaidan members Oleksandr Kravtsov and Serhiy Zelinsky were not at the Darnitsky district police station in Kyiv. Their wives are going round other police stations trying to find them.’
And this one: ‘Automaidan activists are being stitched up with the new crime of «Organisation of mass protests» and could get up up to fifteen years in prison. We must all try to get them out of the hands of the police!'
Such messages were to be found on social media networks early in the morning of 23 January; and they were not sent by Automaidan activists – the community of protesters with wheels; the fake messages are proof that the government has opened up a second front in the battle with the activists. Now they are gunning for Automaidan. In only two months this group has developed into a fully-fledged, mobile and effective protest vehicle, with approximately five thousand members.
Automaidan demonstrated its strength by managing to break through riot police barriers to reach Yanukovych's luxury residence in Mezhyhirya.
Automaidan has demonstrated that it can mobilise several thousand cars to break through the riot police barriers and get to the residence of Viktor Yanukovych in Mezhyhirya. Or to keep the police holed up inside their base outside the city, preventing them from driving to the centre and dispersing the Maidan protesters.
'I realised a long time ago that fifty cars are incomparably more effective than fifty people'
'I realised a long time ago that fifty cars are incomparably more effective than fifty people, in terms of the problems they can cause,' explains Oleksiy Hrytsenko who founded the movement. 'It's no problem to disperse fifty people, but you just try moving on fifty cars.'
This mobility has enabled Automaidan to take on the so-called titushki ('sportsmen' hired by the authorities to provoke people and to beat them up). Automaidan members have caught dozens of these titushki in the streets and taken them to Opposition Headquarters.
A police trap
This success is why the treatment being meted out to Automaidan drivers is so vicious. On 22/23 January the authorities lured the activists and their cars into a nighttime trap: the police launched a false appeal for help and Automaidan members responded. When they arrived at the meeting place, the Berkut were waiting for them. The riot police surrounded the Automaidan cars, then they slashed the tyres, smashed the windows and headlights, and kicked in the bodywork.
On 22/23 January police lured Automaidan activists into a nighttime trap. Photo: Facebook
The police hurled a grenade into it, destroying it completely, leaving only traces of blood and scattered possessions.
Drivers leapt out of their cars. They were seized by the Berkut officers and arrested (including the women, who make up a third of the movement). The girls were subsequently released, but the men were taken off somewhere, their wrecked cars left at the scene of the crime. A Volkswagen minibus received particularly harsh treatment: the police hurled a grenade into it, destroying it completely, leaving only traces of blood and scattered possessions. The owner and his passengers have not been found.
According to eyewitness accounts, three units of Berkut officers were involved in this action; another unit was waiting outside one of Kyiv's hospitals, to nab the Automaidan activists stationed there to prevent the police from taking the protesters injured during the battle at Hrushevsky Street, to the remand cells.
Tracking them down
Since falling into the hands of the Berkut officers, the Automaidan activists had not been seen, so their families and friends (and opposition members of parliament) set off for the district police stations to try and find them. This proved to be quite easy – the trails of blood were still to be seen on the white snow at the entrance. Beating detainees to a pulp has become a habit with Ukrainian policemen.
Beating detainees to a pulp has become a habit with Ukrainian policemen.
Almost twenty four hours later, the Interior Ministry Press Department confirmed that eighteen Automaidan activists had been arrested. They are being charged with group hooliganism [breach of the peace] and resisting arrest, offences carrying a sentence of up to six years.
The court took a long time, practically the whole night of 24/25 January, deciding the terms of their detention in the remand prison. The result was as expected: seventeen of the Automaidan protesters who had fallen into the clutches of the Berkut officers got two months detention, including 73-year old Mykola Pasichnik who can hardly walk. He was taken ill in the court and an ambulance was called, but that had no effect on the judge's decision.
Seventeen Automaidan protesters caught by Berkut officers were given two month prison sentences. Photo: Iryna Gerashchenko
The court did allow journalists to see the after-effects of the Berkut officers' violent attack. Andriy Linets, for instance, has a huge wound on his head and had his teeth knocked out. He too can hardly walk. Others have concussion, broken noses and ribs, and bruised faces, from the blows.
But this is not the authorities' only tactic. During the night of 22/23 January one of the Automaidan leaders, Dmytro Bulatov, disappeared without trace. He is the official face and voice of the movement. His wife says that he left for a meeting with an informant and never returned. She made a statement about her husband's disappearance at the police station, and so far a file has been opened.
At almost exactly the same time, another of the movement's leaders, Serhiy Koba, decided to make himself scarce. On 23 January he wrote on his Facebook page that he had left Ukraine: 'I've come here to open up a new front in our struggle. From today Automaidan columns will travel the roads of Europe to the oligarchs' cottages and offices,' he wrote. Koba is sure that, even though he's not in the country, he can be more effective at liberty than he could from prison. The new laws passed on 16 January mean that, had he stayed at home, he would have been facing up to fifteen years in prison.
'Outright war has been declared on Automaidan'
Other Automaidan leaders are also under pressure. Oleksiy Hrytsenko, founder of Automaidan, has had to go into hiding. 'I'm all right, my friends,' he wrote on Facebook, 'though my car is a bit damaged. Outright war has been declared on Automaidan, although we didn't use force, not once. I've switched off my phone because the line is tapped; what's most important now is to find everyone, and help those who need it. We must stand our ground and save our people,' .
The movement's bank accounts, which were receiving money from all over the country, have also been seized; and the same sanctions have been applied to the main activists: almost all Koba and Bulatov's possessions have been taken, and their driving licences removed.
Taking away driving licences started immediately after New Year
Taking away driving licences started immediately after New Year. This was the time when Automaidan started protesting outside the residences of high-ranking officials, including the President, the Prosecutor General and the Interior Minister.
The Automaidan is showing no signs of slowing down, despite police pressure tactics. Photo: Facebook
Road police [GAI] took to turning up at the homes of Automaidan activists, and intimidating them by handing them a court summons, for allegedly having ignored GAI instructions to stop. There was no ticket or official record that they had actually broken the law, they were informed of their 'crime' afterwards.
The Interior Ministry has refused to supply any information about how many of these tickets have been issued, but Automaidan information puts the figure at about two thousand. Now the courts are considering the activists' cases by the dozen, and also taking away driving licences.
No slowing down
Despite this intense pressure from the authorities, Automaidan has no intention of slowing down. Using every possible means of communication – telephone to twitter – activists take it in turns to do night shifts – no less than ten cars a shift. They drive around the centre of Kyiv and station themselves at various strategic locations, to instantly report on the situation.
The risks are very real, but the determination not to give in to bullyboy tactics is heartfelt: 'We may have to endure losses’ says Oleksiy Hrytsenko, ‘and serious injury if not worse, but if this enables us to guarantee a certain kind of future for everyone, then we will have won.'