Who are the martyrs, the villains, the heroes and does it matter? Reflections on the snipers from the Maidan and the disintegration of Ukraine

On the day when yet another ceasefire agreement was signed in Minsk with respect to the armed conflict in Ukraine, it seems appropriate to remember that day almost a year ago when things began to spiral out of control. It was on Thursday 20 February 2014 when more than 50 protesters against the so-called ‘pro_Russian’ president Viktor Yanukovych were shot dead on the Maidan in Kiev. The official and Western-supported narrative of what happened was simple: After about two months of peaceful protest on Kiev’s main square the police of the specialist Berkut unit opened fire on un-armed demonstrators.

At the end of that day, altogether 115 people were dead (including victims from previous days), including 13 members of the police. The internet went viral with pictures and video clips of bleeding victims, exposed to the whim of masked gunmen who knew no mercy. By the end of that week the Yanukovych-government had fallen, prompting the annexation of Crimea by Russia and the subsequent war in the East of Ukraine at the centre of today’s ceasefire.

But one can also tell the story of 20 February in many different ways. On the morning of the same day a trio of negotiators landed in Kiev: The three foreign ministers of Germany, France and Poland, Franz-Walter Steinmeier, Laurent Fabius and Radoslaw Sikorski respectively. They had come to negotiate new elections, opposition participation in government and a new constitution. While they were trying to hammer out a deal between Yanukovych – who in spite of all his faults was still the democratically elected president of Ukraine at the time, and the opposition, the shooting on the Maidan took its course. The opposition was at the meeting in the form of then opposition leader Arsenij Jazenjuk, Vitali Klitschko (current mayor of Kiev), und Oleh Tjahnybok, from the Svoboda party. A deal was indeed agreed and at some point Yanukovych phoned Russian president Putin and gained his approval. Negotiations continued until Friday and there was every indication that Yanukovych wanted a deal – and indeed a deal was signed between him and the opposition politicians that would have led to the immediate ratification of a new constitution and new elections after a ten months transition period in December 2014.

But events on the Maidan and in the streets had meanwhile got out of control, not least because police units had been told to withdraw. When Klitschko spoke to protesters on the Maidan on Friday the 21st he was shouted down. Yanukovych needed to go immediately, the message was, there was no space for transition as this would be a complete betrayal of the dead ‘martyrs’. The Maidan thus tore the carefully negotiated agreement to pieces. Police units deserted in droves and a general chaos seemed to prevail

Yanukovych by then was on his way out of the country (with the help of Russian president Putin). Some say he was really surprised by the developments on the Maidan. Others, that this was his (and Putin’s) strategy all along: to negotiate in a constructive way but at the same time foster chaos, so the world would see those protesters were in fact vandals and not to be trusted. This would then make Russian intervention the logical solution in order to hold a descent into more chaos. In line with the ancient dictum that in war, truth is the first casualty, one may never know. But what has also come to the fore in different ways is that it was not only or even mainly Berkut police units who did the shooting on the Maidan. Many deaths did in fact happen after the police units had been ordered to withdraw, regardless of the logic behind that order.

In one of the latest reports on the snipers, the BBC Four PM radio programme interviewed one of the ‘sniper’ protestors who agreed to speak, on condition of anonymity. Under the codename Sergey he recalls how the protester movement recruited people who could handle a gun, and he became one of them. He says he shot downwards and certainly not to kill, but acknowledges that there were likely to be many unknown snipers. An official investigation has thus far not thrown much light on events, arguably because the political will to get to the bottom of what really happened is missing – on all sides. This leaves the door wide open for all sorts of conspiracy theories, from claims that Moscow did indeed orchestrate the unrest in order to spark the separatist movement in the East, to the claim that the CIA sponsored the protesters. Sergey, now somehow disillusioned, reflects that ‘it is easy to shot, but living afterwards is the hard thing, but you have to protect your country’. Do you? And which country? And who are the heroes and villains in this piece of political theatre and real war?

Minsk, Belarus. Photo: Stefan Boness

The ceasefire agreed on 12 February 2015 will officially only start a few days from the date of that agreement (from 15 February) – thus allowing the conflicting parties to consolidate or extend their territorial gains or incur more losses in this so seemingly old-fashioned conflict in which territory seems to matter so much. The ceasefire may thus already be violated before it has come into effect.

And, rather ironically, the ceasefire has been agreed in the capital of Belarus, in Minsk. Belarus is usually being cold-shoulders by Western leaders and regarded as one of the last dictatorial bastions of ‘unreformed, communist’ rule. In contrast to the mayhem next door, Belarus suddenly seems like a bastion of peace and tranquillity, a place that provides ‘a glimmer of hope’.

Background sources:

Konrad Schuller, Die letzten Tage des Präsidenten Janukowitsch’, http://www.faz.net/aktuell/politik/ausland/europa/ukraine-konflikt-viktor-janukowitschs-letzte-tage-13388710.html

BBC PM Programme, 12 February, http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b051vr3b#auto

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