November 28, 2004

Youth Movement Underlies the Opposition in Ukraine


Janis Pipars/World Picture News, for The New York Times
Supporters of the opposition candidate, Viktor A. Yushchenko, created a tent city in Kiev to protest what they deemed election fraud.
By C. J. CHIVERS

KIEV, Ukraine, Nov. 27 - It began with a call from the center of the opposition movement's stage in Independence Square - Ukraine's officially defeated presidential candidate said Monday that demonstrators would build a tent city and protest until he prevailed - and within minutes the tents appeared.

It continued all week, and much of it was the work of teenagers and university students, who have helped force the government and population of Ukraine to face a stark choice.

Before the Ukrainian opposition here reached its eventual great mass and overwhelmed Kiev, swift and sophisticated signs appeared of organization to ensure that the pro-democracy rally formed and grew, and almost all of it was young.

The youth movement in Ukraine has had many models, and it has learned its lessons well. For more than two decades, unarmed street movements challenged entrenched state power in the Soviet Union and in the breakaway republics it became. The protests ranged from far more dangerous days when Lech Walesa organized peaceful resistance in Poland to the rambunctious crowds that helped depose Eduard Shevardnadze in Georgia last year.

As the government of President Leonid D. Kuchma moved toward passing power to his personally selected choice in recent days, young Ukrainians, working in part through a somewhat cellular group that calls itself Pora, meaning It's Time, immediately occupied Kreschatik Street, a central retail boulevard adjacent to Independence Square.

Within minutes they pitched tents, posted unarmed sentries and produced mounds of food and winter clothing. Within hours they set up field kitchens and medical aid stations, circulated broadsheets outlining details for civil disobedience and urging the police not to shoot, and passed out a seemingly endless supply of posters, banners, ribbons, flags, stickers and badges that turned the ever expanding crowd into a telegenic bright orange.

The planning behind the youth occupation could not be missed. "We heard that Yanukovich would try to organize this fraud, and we were prepared for this kind of situation," said Mariana Savytska, 19, a Pora spokeswoman. "We decided we also had to do something, to raise the people's will."

The people who have swarmed the capital defy ready characterization.

They are students and intelligentsia, and they are westward-leaning citizens of urban centers who aspire for more extensive integration into Europe. But they include pensioners and war veterans, working-class men and women from western and northern Ukraine, people from a wide variety of professions and trades, including members of the police, more of whom appeared on the side of opposition on Saturday, some of their faces aglow with the surprise of their choice.

But in the first days a visible nucleus of young people acted with noticeable skill to ensure that the lines held until broader Ukrainian society stood beside them.

Their role was far from the only factor driving the peaceful uprising that has halted the government here. A senior Western diplomat in Kiev noted Saturday that the opposition was organized not just by skill or a faith in a candidate, but by the belief that it had the moral high ground and power of truth on its side.

But the influence of organized young Ukrainians in giving time, legitimacy and bargaining power to Mr. Yushchenko when he has needed all three, has also been clear. And the role of young people in general and Pora in particular has been one of the points of contention between the campaigns, and between the nations behind each side.

Mr. Yanukovich's supporters, and Russophiles, have portrayed the youth as naïve tools of the West, or as agents of foreign power, saying they have been seeded by the United States and other interests to interfere with Ukrainian political life.

Pora denies this flatly and says accepting foreign aid would undermine the group's local credibility. The American government also says that while it has provided $13.6 million in aid in recent years to encourage fair elections here, Pora has not been sponsored. "We provide zero money, directly or indirectly, to Pora," said an American diplomat in Kiev.

Mr. Yanukovich's supporters are unconvinced, and say money moves through American-sponsored non-government organizations to Pora, and that larger outside forces also have aligned to organize the youth here in ways helpful to the West. The degree of its organization, they say, cannot be coincidence.

"The money is not most important; there is enough money in Ukraine," said Mikhail Pogrebinsky, a political scientist and adviser to President Kuchma. "It is the moral support, the media support, the technical support that is more important."

Mr. Pogrebinsky said Pora had been trained by veterans of revolution drives elsewhere. Pora says it has 3,000 formal members among students in Kiev, and support from other groups throughout the country whose precise size and structure are unknown. "We organize people for actions, we have temporary members, we grow for an event and shrink," Ms. Savytska said.

The group's discipline is evident in its details. It works in cells, with different groups assuming different tasks - media relations, security, organizing demonstrations, logistics. It has rules - no public drinking, no drugs, no response to provocation. It unequivocally speaks in terms of non-violence, although in language reminiscent of Socialist times Ukraine's security services have sometimes referred to it as a terrorist group.

While its members have been buoyed by their success, that is leavened by a realization that they may yet fail. Among some there has been detectable worry, especially at midweek, when Mr. Kuchma's government seemed more bold. Some students speak of crackdowns should the opposition's effort to break the ruling clan's grip on power fail. "The reprisals will start, and people will be arrested," Ms. Savytska said.

But they also say that one fact has been proved. No matter how this crisis ends, the democracy movement has shown its maturity and skill in Ukraine, and will last. "If necessary, we will continue our struggle underground," said Olga, 18, a Pora member and resident of Tent No. 1012, who gave only her first name, citing concern about her safety.

The group's members said they expected that the political crisis would attract new people to demonstrate, and part of their task has been to keep them on the streets. One neophyte was Petr Pavlishin, 29, a road worker from Ternopil, who said he had never taken part in direct action before, but now lives on Kreschatik Street, Tent No. 93.

"I didn't get into politics before, but I just couldn't watch this," said Mr. Pavlishin, bundled against the cold. Beside him in the tent were cartoon of juice, a grapefruit and sleeping bags that Pora had provided to help coax him to stay. Ms. Savytska said the demonstrators at the tents were eating as often as seven times a day.

As the Parliament met Saturday to begin discussing a solution to the crisis, more people were arriving in Kiev. They said they had hitchhiked or come by bus, and said more demonstrators were behind them, waiting for rides.

Asked how long they would stay in the cold, they said they would try their best to remain. "As long as we can stand it," said Tania Yucherain, 20, a student from Lviv.

Ruslan Yatechin, 22, a bus driver who had been part of convoy picking up people on the highway to Kiev, used the terms of struggle. "Until we win," he said.


Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company | Home | Privacy Policy | Search | Corrections | RSS | Help | Back to Top