In Kiev, With The People Of The Maidan Movement

Feeding the hungry mouths of Maidan
Feeding the hungry mouths of Maidan
Natalya Radulova

KIEV — “Dude, are you drunk? Get out of here!” says Evgeni Dudchenko, a pro-EU protester who works security for the so-called Euromaidan movement, named for the square where the dissidents gather.

He checks out everyone who wants to enter the demonstration area. “If someone is drunk, he’s out of here. Alcohol is forbidden here, and we don’t need any hooligans.”

When I spoke with Dudchenko, there hadn’t yet been all the excitement and violence at the Euromaidan demonstrations. Though two protestors have since been killed and hundreds injured, the government at the time almost seemed to have forgotten that the protests existed. So Dudchenko, a 20-year-old from from the industrial town of Shostka who formerly worked as a salesperson, had time to talk.

“It’s the kind of job you’re not sorry to leave,” he says of the position he abandoned after hearing that protesting students had been chased out of the square in November. “I immediately volunteered to help with security and bought myself a camouflage bullet-proof vest,” he says. “They gave me combat boots. I finally feel like I am doing something worthwhile.” His shift is from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., and he sleeps either on the square or in the protest headquarters at the International Center for Culture and the Arts.

“I wouldn’t say that everything is calm today,” interjects Nikolai Kovalenko, another long-time security ‘officer.’ Kovalenko, like almost all of the residents at the Euromaidan camp, speaks Ukrainian, in contrast to the rest of Russian-speaking Kiev. He is very happy that I speak fluent Ukrainian. “That’s good, because a lot of the journalists here don’t speak Ukrainian, so they write a bunch of nonsense,” he says.

Kovalenko is a careful viewer of Russian television, constantly yelling at the TV during newscasts. “What crap! They say we are here for money! What money? I’m an electrician. I make an honest living. I’m here for my kids, for my grandkids. For their future, so that at least they will have a good life.”

Kovalenko hasn’t really thought about how much longer he’ll continue protesting. Like all of his colleagues, he just says he’ll stay until they win.

But not everyone agrees about what would constitute a victory. Some say that victory would mean Ukraine signing an agreement with the European Union. Others say it would be a victory if those who beat up the original student protesters were sentenced to jail. Still others say it would mean getting rid of President Viktor Yanukovych, who started all this when he suspended a free-trade agreement with the European Union that had been in negotiations for years. To the chagrin of many Ukrainians, Yanukovych has sought closer relations with Russia instead of strengthening ties with Europe.

There are many demands, enumerated in one of the tents with colorful stickers. “Roads without potholes!” “An honest police force!” “No more bribes in preschools!” “Free medical care!”

“That’s right,” says Kovalenko. “As soon as they do all that, we’ll all go home. But until then, we’re going to stay here as long as necessary.”

“Fourth division, to battle"

Mikhail Gavriluk is the manager of the fourth division, and he goes around giving security officers cigarettes, bringing them food, and collecting their clothes to be washed. But his most important task is procuring firewood. There are dozens of field tents around the square, and they have to be heated 24 hours a day. Gavriluk doesn’t heat his own tent, though. “I don’t need many creature comforts. I just cover myself with a blanket, and that’s it.”

Gavriluk says he doesn’t mind “maidaning” until the summer, or until the 2015 presidential elections. “I love this life. We have everything, my heart is content,” he says. “I walk around, say hello to everyone, everyone is cheerful and brotherly, united. This morning we woke up to, ‘fourth division, to battle.’ I ran with everyone else, I didn’t even know where we were going. It turned out that some enemies had come early in the morning to take down our barricades. We pounced on them, and they took off. Victory! Happiness! I don’t know how I’ll live if this all ends.”

“I’m so tired of them!”

Sasha is a student who, until the protests began, made extra money by frequenting Maidan Square in a bear costume and charging people $2 to have their photo taken with him. “They’ve been protesting for 50 days,” he says. “They’ve scared off all the tourists, and I don’t have any business. I don’t care about their politics. I have to pay for my apartment, for food, for tuition. I thought I’d make some money over the New Years holidays. Didn’t happen.”

I agreed to have my photo taken with Sasha, to support his business. Santa Claus, also a student, also offers a photo opportunity. “Families used to come here to relax,” the Santa says. “Who’s going to bring kids here now?” But, in contrast to Sasha, Santa has made his peace with the inconvenience. “Maybe it will actually change something. I’d like to live better.”

In the cafes and stores around Maidan, many people share the protesters’ demands, although shop sales have dropped sharply since the demonstrations began in the square in early December. The souvenir stores adjusted to the new reality quickly, stocking EU flags and other items meant to appeal to the protesters, but the sales people say revenues are still down.

Residents in Kiev definitely help the dissidents. They bring groceries, money, warm food, and invite protesters into their homes to wash up. Although the demonstration seems to be declining in numbers, people in Kiev still come to Maidan regularly, after work and on the weekends.

“This is idiotic”

“I don’t know what will come,” says Aleksei Parakhin, as he sits in a tent labeled “Kharkovsky Region” looking at the fire. “In 2004, we had a concrete goal. But what are we doing now? A month ago, when there were a million people in the square, we might have been able to change something if the whole country had supported us. But now most people who have jobs have left Maidan,” he says. “I don’t think anything will come of it. Look, we are sitting in front of the fire and dreaming about changing the government. It’s idiotic.”

Protests have turned violent this past week (Mstyslav Chernov)

But Yuri, a private taxi driver who left his wife and four children at home to join the protest, says he’s “still proud of Aleksei” and all of his colleagues. “We’re building a civil society here, and in a year or two it will be able to change the country,” Yuri says. “Everyone here has his or her own point of view, but we are learning to compromise and to work out a plan for Ukraine.”

Yuri has been working on a plan — not just for Ukraine, but for the whole world — for a long time. He’s been writing it out on sheets of paper and promises to send me a copy as soon as he types it out on a computer.

Maidan seems to be full of rough, unshaven guys on weekdays — and hipsters. I also met very respectable, bourgeois people, who told me that their biggest problem was finding a parking spot when they came to the protest. But Maidan isn’t a story of hipsters or bourgeoisie. It’s about an electrician and others like him who can’t earn enough for his children and protests “for their future” so that he can feel like a better parent.

But none of them can clearly define what they hope to achieve. They all want life to be better. They want better-paying jobs. They want doctors and the police to stop asking for bribes. They want smooth roads. They want their children to respect them, like the whole country respects them now. They want to somehow reach those goals, even if that means changing the government again.

All around me are men and boys who aren’t considered particularly successful on the other side of the barricades. But here, they’re heroes. They feel powerful and important. Until there is another opportunity to feel like that, they will probably stay. Protecting their pride, their Maidan.

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Iran-Saudi Arabia Rivalry May Be Set To Ease, Or Get Much Worse

The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.

Military parade in Tehran, Iran, on Oct. 3


LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.

Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.

The role of the nuclear pact

Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.

It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.

He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."

The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.

Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.

Photo of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Riyadh's warming relations with Israel

Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."

The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."

Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."

Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.

If nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.

Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.

Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.

For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.

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