Pieniążek: Anti-regime calls are the strongest

Michał Sutowski: Yesterday [December 1st] at protests in Kyiv you were hit pretty badly. What happened actually?

Paweł Pieniążek, correspondent of Political Critique’s Opinion Daily (Dziennik Opinii Krytyki Politycznej): We were on Maidan with the largest group of protesters when news arrived that something is happening on Bankova Street, that they are going to storm the Presidential Administration building.

Who is going to storm?

Good question. I was said that it might be some provocateurs but according to my observations those were rather regular protesters, among them many nationalists. The Administration building on Bankova Street was surrounded by Berkut – militia special units. Behind their lines there were two buses forming something of a barricade. Bottles, flares and cobblestones from a quickly dismantled sidewalk were hurled at them. The protesters were driving up with a bulldozer but they were unable to break the lines. Police threw gas. I kneeled down and tried to cover my face with a scarf. I saw people running, I got up, turned around – and I had Berkut on one side and a kiosk on the other. I took out my press card and shouted that I’m a journalist…

Did it help?

I heard, translating loosely, ‘So fucking what’ and I was hit over my head with a bludgeon by one of them. I curled up, covering my head, and was hit a few more times. Then there was a  gap as if they were letting me run away but I had to run along other Berkut officers so I got something of a path of health [running the gauntlet]. I ran through the crowd looking for a vacant ambulance.

Why vacant?

Because there was a lot of them but all were occupied with aiding the injured. There were lots of beaten and bloodied people, mostly journalists. Finally I ran up to the Ukrainian TV production truck where some girl took care of my head provisionally. After about twenty minutes some doctors from one of the ambulances dressed my head professionally. They said I should stitch it up as quickly as possible so I went to a hospital.

How did doctors treat the victims of police beating?

Very kindly. The doctor who was performing an X-ray of my head repeated constantly that people need to get out on the streets and finally get rid of that government, as one can’t stand them anymore. Later I calmly returned home. I must say that Polish diplomatic corps did everything as needed. For instance I had a telephone call from Marcin Wojciechowski, the [Polish] Foreign Affairs Ministry press secretary.

What is the scale of the protests? Estimates in Polish media range from a hundred thousand to half a million.

There is a talk of even 700 thousand people in Kyiv. Only fraction of them were on Maidan. A large crowd spread down whole length of Khreshchatyk [main street of Kyiv]. Yesterday party flags returned to the square that weren’t there at the beginning – mainly nationalistic Svoboda, slightly less of Yulia Tymoshenko’s Batkivshchyna, even less of  Vitali Klitschko’s UDAR. PR-wise nationalists are the most visible. They’ve hung their flags even on the famous Christmas tree. The tree that was the supposed reason why militia scattered the Maidan. They could also be seen on the occupied City Council building. One of the two – the other was voluntarily provided for the demonstartors by trade unions. At the City Council activists have organized something of an Occupy camp. They’ve set up a press centre, food point for the demonstrators, legal counsel point. This is also where the headquarters is situated coordinating the protests.

Which politicians appear among the demonstrators?

Vitali Klitschko but also Arseniy Yatsenyuk of Batkivshchyna and Oleh Tyahnybok of Svoboda Party, who is the most vocal, by the way, calling for taking over buildings. It’s worth noting that in subsequent days of protests the question of European integration somewhat fades from the central focus. There are less European flags but anti-regime calls ‘Down with that gang!’ are loud and clear.

And nationalistic calls?

They are frequent indeed. Most often it’s simply ‘Ukraine above all!’ but one can happen at the most radical one, recalling tradition of UPA: ‘Glory to Ukraine! Glory to heroes!’ sometimes with an addition ‘Glory to the nation! Death to enemies!’ One can also notice symbolism referencing Bandera. If the European Union won’t take more decisive gestures and concrete actions then pro-Union slogans will disappear even further. While foreign politicians are cordially welcomed, Jarosław Kaczyński [Polish politician] was treated with a lot of respect, Jacek Protasiewicz [Polish MEP] indifferently. But there are very few EU officials here. The other issue is that people know little about the European Union – it’s just a collection of positive associations, about wellbeing, about better jobs… Everyone sees there what they want, even the nationalists perceive EU as the lesser evil compared to the hated Russia.

Polish media talk a lot about government bands, provocateurs and so on. Are they visible?

When it comes to provocateurs, even if they were in fact present – it would appear they were during riots in front of the Presidential Administration building – they couldn’t achieve anything if not for actual social feelings. In my opinion majority of people on Bankova Street weren’t really different from regular activists from the City Council building or the trade unions. Many of them went there spontaneously for sure. However, when it comes to Yanukovych-paid titushki [thugs] I haven’t seen them today. There was a lot of them on Friday when anti-EU demonstration was taking place. They were drove in buses and dispersed through city parks in packed groups. They are being paid so they don’t join demonstrations for ideological reasons. Michał Kacewicz of Newsweek said that using titushki demonstrates how weak is Ukraine under Yanukovych, that it cannot control the situation on its own, but has to reach for some suspicious thugs to provoke fights. Titushki can also be used to frighten people – it’s enough for potential demonstrators to know that they are in town and that they may cause brawls.

What is the mood in Kyiv currently?

As usual in this kind of situations there is a lot of gossip and conspiracy theories of various level of likelihood. For instance that the storming of Presidential Administration building was initiated by provocateurs to discredit the demonstrations, that in the night there is a risk of attack and dispersal of Maidan, that during the night the government is transferring militia cadets into the city with dozens of buses. There is also a rumour that the bulldozer from Bankova Street was provided by some high ranking politicians or that the National Security Council has split into Yanukovych and Medvedchuk fractions.

And is there a fear of what might happen?

Not necessarily. People are determined to protest. Almost everyone I’ve met said that it’s even too calm, that standing on Maidan and listening to speeches isn’t enough, that tougher actions are needed. They’ve also said that they want to fight – to the end, because one can’t stand this regime anymore.


Interview was originally published in Political Critique’s Opinion Daily on Dec. 2nd

Translated by Konrad Zwoliński.


Paweł Pieniążek
Pawel Pieniazek is a Polish journalist. He is a contributor to major Polish media, including Tygodnik Powszechny, Gazeta Wyborcza, Krytyka Polityczna, and New Eastern Europe, and is a freelance contributor to Polish radio. In 2015 he was named as a Poynter Fellow in Journalism at Yale University.