Somewhere between war preparations and street theater, the barricades along the roads in Ukraine offer a sign of where the country may be heading.
KIEV — “Blockades Or Bridges” read the electoral advertisements for the Party of Regions, Viktor Yanukovich’s old party, which has not yet been banned in Ukraine and is currently busy preparing for the upcoming presidential elections.
The party’s president candidate is largely symbolic, but the campaign slogan gets right to the heart of the matter: There are blockades all around the country now, and that’s a clear illustration of Ukraine’s current state of affairs. “Bridges” instead represent a better past — even though it is now common for some in Ukraine to refer to that past as corrupt.
In the past several days, blockades that had been located 30 kilometers from the city borders have moved inside Kiev, and are manned by traffic police. For the police, this is a stroke of good luck: Instead of roasting on Maidan’s concrete, they can sit behind sand bags, hiding from drivers and getting out of their seats only if the drivers are speeding.
On route N01, which was previously well-known for being the road to the former home of ousted President Viktor Yushchenko, the following strange scene played out on a recent day.
“Do you help our self-defense?” a driver asked the police.
“Move along, young lady,” an officer responded.
The police don’t have any chance to relax. Their compensation was reduced during the “Winter Uprising,” during which two of their colleagues were shot and the rest were afraid to go outside. The behavior of the police force has remained basically unchanged under the new government.
Occasionally, the checkpoints are also manned by a couple of guys in camouflage, and one in a black uniform.
“Who are you?” I ask.
“We are the Maidan self-defense force. We are controlling the perimeter.”
Feeding the fighters
There are “controllers” living both on the Maidan square and in apartments, and they go to the blockades as if they were heading to work. The residents in Kiev feed them, house them and give them non-alcoholic beverages, since alcohol is forbidden among the Maidan fighters, at least officially. The fighters explain that they inspect suspicious cars, and prepare to prevent “enemy weapons” from entering, or at least signal that they are near.
About 30 kilometers away, there is another checkpoint leading to a small Ukrainian town. The people manning it are local, and for them the most important task is to prevent troublemakers from entering the town — Kiev is not really that important to them.
Blockades have now set up at all of the major entrances to Kiev. There is even one on the “government” route, which leads from the Koncha-Zaspa neighborhood, where almost all of Ukraine’s current and former government leaders live, into Kiev. The blockade there is small, and doesn’t even cover a full lane of traffic — appearing to be purely symbolic. It’s dangerous for self-defense fighters to stand on the road, even if they are wearing full body armor because drivers with a government motorcade have the right not to stop and may decide to plough on through.
The Kiev-based political scientist Dmitri Kasyanov who also personally has to travel to and from Kiev says that the barricades are primarily a nuisance for drivers. “They aren’t even really barricades, they are some kind of emergency construction made out of mud, and there’s no warning to slow down. At night they are practically invisible,” he says sardonically. “Strange people with automatic weapons man the blockades wearing sneakers, striped helmets and carrying striped batons. They regularly stop me and insist that it is for my own safety. They would be better off mowing the grass and picking up the garbage, but as it is they are falling asleep from boredom and wouldn’t even notice a line of tanks passing by.”
The most rigorous blockades are to the city’s south, although that is the road from Odessa that just recently experienced bloody violence. At the three blockades we passed on the road to and from Odessa, we were never stopped, and we saw no other vehicle stopped.
On the road that leads to the West, things were a little livelier. Once again, there was a guy in camouflage. He claimed to be able to “tell the difference between our side and enemies.”
Roman, an Odessa native who came north to Kiev to help protect the capital, wonders why all of the people manning the blockades have high-protection body armor. “We didn’t have enough of at Maidan,” he says. “What are they doing here? Why don’t they go fight in the southeast?”
Those at “Camp Maidan” are convinced that they are carrying out a very important mission, and promise to stay in their posts for at least another six months. After the presidential campaign this month, there will be another election, in the fall, for the parliament. Maidan will once again be a central reference, a way to gauge how much the candidates elected by the population correspond to their own hopes.