EDITOR’S NOTE: Brian Stuhlman is a native Missourian and a graduate of MU. For the past two years he has lived in Kiev, Ukraine, where he teaches at an international school. The country has made recent international headlines after thousands of people took to the streets — just a short distance from Stuhlman’s apartment — in protest of this year’s presidential election results. Here are some of his observations.
Ukraine, the city of Kiev in particular, has been thrown into social and political turmoil this week with this year’s presidential election, the most important election since 1991 when Ukraine won its independence. The elections, held on Sunday, featured a run-off between current prime minister and Russia-backed Viktor Yanukovych and opposition leader and Western-backed Viktor Yushchenko.
Announced Wednesday evening, Yanukovych won the election with a bit over 49 percent of the vote to Yushchenko slightly more than 46 percent. However, opposition leaders are saying the vote was tampered with, and they say the proof is that every exit poll across the country pointed to Yushchenko as the winner.
School was called off Tuesday, and since then I have been holed up in my apartment, staying out of the frying pan and keeping out of the cold, partly on orders from my concerned mother and partly on the suggestion of concerned friends.
I live about two miles from the main street, Kreschatyk, close to city center. Thursday I ventured downtown with my Ukrainian friend.
If you’ve been watching CNN or BBC or EuroNews or anything like that, you have seen pictures of supposed riots and possible civil war violence. Please realize I have found the media has inflated things a bit.
What I found was a party-like atmosphere, thousands of people coming together for a common cause. You could see trucks and wheelbarrows being pushed in, loaded with sleeping mats and food for the demonstrators, sent from all over the city to help support those actually on the streets.
Right now, four days after the initial demonstration, and even in temperatures reaching into the teens and 20s, there are from 15,000 to 100,000 people on Kreschatyk or at other spots in town, showing their support for Yushchenko. People draped themselves in orange, Yushchenko’s campaign colors, sang songs, listened to live music and speeches, and on occasion broke into chants of “Yu-Shen-Ko! Yu-Shen-Ko!”
I just found out the first major building we passed, not a half-mile from my apartment, was a building where officials were counting votes. Out-of-town buses that had brought demonstrators and counter-demonstrators from all over Ukraine lined the street for several blocks. Then, in front of the actual building itself, a newly constructed wrought iron-fence, lined with wooden planking and patrolled by armed men, keeps possible disturbances out. And enormous dump trucks lined the curbs, bumper to bumper.
People lined all four corners of the street, draped in orange banners and flags. As people passed, they would honk horns to show solidarity to the cause, what they call “the truth,” that the elections were rigged and Yushchenko is the true president.
My friend and I decided to go right to the heart of the matter, the Independence Square, which is called Maidan Nezalezhnastee and is the headquarters for the Yushchenko civil demonstrations. The parties have been held here for the past four nights.
The first thing we see is supporters, literally pouring in, still, from all corners of the city and country, all convening along the main street.
The next thing was the blocked street. About one block into the main street, roadblocks were placed. Lining the street from that point on were more than 50 parked buses. Covering seven or eight lanes of the main street in Kiev is now a “tent city.” Yushchenko supporters have literally pitched tents in the middle of the street, saying they will not leave until the election has been annulled and either a new election is held or Yushchenko is outright named the president.
As of Thursday night, there is even talk of Yushchenko-backed roadblocks being put up on major international highways until the vote is annulled and something is done.