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For Maidan, Ukraine's Election Is Not The End

Maidan protesters remain in Independence Square, keeping guard despite the election of a new president. When will they leave? The vegetable gardens and henhouses suggest no time soon.

Maidan protesters aren't going anywhere.
Maidan protesters aren't going anywhere.
Yanina Sokolovskaya

KIEV — Ukraine's current leaders have a healthy respect for the Maidan protesters, who both brought them to power and could take that power away at any moment.

"In general, Maidan said that it will stick around until the presidential elections, and then disperse after the election of a legitimate leader," Ukraine's President-elect Peter Poroshenko said during the campaign.

In an interview with Kommersant, he expressed hope that Ukraine would not repeat the mistakes of the early 20th century, when Ukraine lost its independence due to "internal strife, chaos and the Makhnovshchina," the latter being an anarchist army of peasants and workers during the Russian civil war.

These days, Kiev residents use the Makhnovshnina moniker to describe the "heroes of the revolution," the Maidan protesters who still occupy the city square and main street. But in his comments, Poroshenko probably wasn't likening Maidan protesters to the Makhnovshchina, instead referring to separatists in eastern Ukraine.

In fact, none of the "nationally oriented" political leaders allow themselves to criticize Maidan protesters who have decided to stay in the capital indefinitely. It's dangerous to enter into conflict with them because even a politician who has won election fairly could be accused of betraying the revolution's ideals — and quickly share the same fate as the last president to do so, Viktor Yanukovych.

Maidan activists seem to agree that it's too early to leave the square. They say they intend to wait not just for the president to be elected, but for the new government to be formed and for the parliamentary elections to take place. That means Maidan will be around throughout the summer and into the fall, at a minimum.

The activists have even planted dill and radishes in former flower beds and have set up pigsties and henhouses between tents. That has made Kiev's untrusting residents fearful that these guests will overstay their welcome.

"We are even gathering a third Maidan, because the new government still has the same civil servants, and we don't like that," says Maidan activist Peter Stepanenko.

The idea for a "third Maidan" actually originated with former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko. The Orange Princess was the first to warn that if an oligarch won the election she would call on people to protest again. Stepanenko likes that idea. He calls himself Maidan's "guard" and didn't even travel home to vote.

"It's difficult to get home," he explains, showing a copy of his passport.

When asked why he didn’t ask to vote elsewhere, he says he shouldn't have to go to the trouble. "My duty is to make sure there isn't trouble on Maidan," he says. "So that provocateurs from Crimea or Chechnya don't get in with bombs."

Today's Maidan camp

Despite the active search for saboteurs, Maidan looks more like an open-air museum than a military camp. There is no sign of armed self-defense soldiers. They recently stopped carrying weapons and are apparently listening to Poroshenko, who has warned that armed individuals need to leave the city center.

At the entrances to government buildings still controlled by Maidan activists, I did meet a couple people armed with clubs, but they were the exception. It's more common to run into "revolutionaries in civilian clothes," especially at Maidan's Internet cafe. It's impossible to stay in the cafe for long, because the tent where it is located heats up quickly in the 40 °C temperatures. (104 °F)

"As you can see, everything is quiet today," the cafe's systems administrator Andrei says when I visit on Ukraine's election day. He explains that he absolutely planned to vote, clarifying that nearly every candidate's program was good. The problem, he says, is whether their ideas would actually be implemented.

"The president doesn't own the country," he says. "He is hired by the people to be the manager. And if he does a poor job, if he tries to cheat the people, he will have to answer to Maidan."

Nearby, in the improvised canteen, a self-defense fighter named Viktor sits in the shade as visitors take photos with "Viktor the Cossack." Tourists in Kiev love Maidan, and it has become an essential stop on any visit to the city. There is everything for tourists here: food, drinks, even magnets made to look like the two-kilo gold brick activists found at Viktor Yanukovych's lavish home.

The signs in front of Yanukovych's former residence are no longer protesting anything. Instead, they are advertising snacks. On offer are plov, kebabs, beer and ice cream. At the entrance, people in camouflage collect 20 hryvnia (about $1.70) in return for "maintaining order on the territory." I ask whether they are planning to vote.

"We are guarding a place of national interest," one of the guard answers. "The vote will happen without us. Then we will evaluate the result and decide if this government works for us."

Experts in Kiev seem uncertain that the new president will be able to overcome the anarchy. "There will absolutely be a third Maidan," says political scientist Constantine Bondarenko. "It is unavoidable, because the people have felt their own power. And it will be hard for the new leader to meet their demands."

It is essential that the new Ukraine authorities convince Maidan activists to go home, because that's the only way Ukraine will be able to build a stable government. But it's still unclear who will be able to do that. And Maidan still has to wait for the autumn harvest. After all, it's not for nothing that these peasants from Western Ukraine have sowed their kitchen garden.

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