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13 Dec 2013 00:00
A protester breaks apart a statue of Lenin after it was pulled down during a mass rally called 'The March of a Million' in Kiev’s Independence Square on December 8. (Anatoli Boiko, AFP)
Thousands of riot police carried out a co-ordinated attack on barricades in Kiev this week – a determined and unexpected crackdown on protesters who have occupied the centre of Ukraine's capital for the past fortnight.
As temperatures fell to -13°C on Wednesday during the coldest night of the winter to date, columns of riot police closed in on Independence Square, hub of the protests that erupted after President Viktor Yanukovych pulled out of an association pact with the European Union that had been due for signing at a summit in Vilnius last month.
Shortly after 1am, battalions of police approached the vast square from all sides and began to dismantle the makeshift barricades that have been erected in recent days.
Ukraine's prime minister, Mykola Azarov, said the operation by police was a question of clearing the roads.
"No force will be applied against peaceful protesters. Do you understand this? Calm down!" he said as he opened a government meeting.
The biggest demonstration since 2004
The protests, which began when Yanukovych abandoned the pact with the EU, culminated on Sunday with the biggest demonstration since the 2004 Orange Revolution, with hundreds of thousands of people paralysing the centre of Kiev and the city's statue of Vladimir Lenin toppled and hacked to pieces.
The dwindling appetite for protest was given fresh impetus by a brutal crackdown on a relatively small protest a fortnight ago.
Few had expected a repeat from the authorities, especially after a day of diplomacy.
Earlier on Tuesday, Yanukovych had stated at a round table with Ukraine's three previous presidents that he would try to sign the deal with the EU by spring – ignoring financial pressure from Russia – as long as Europe gave Ukraine better financial conditions.
"We tasked the government to accelerate this work and involve as many specialists as needed," said Yanukovych during the televised meeting.
"When is the next summit? If it takes place in March, then we have to finish this work by March.
Ukrain offered financial help
Russia is believed to have offered cash-strapped Ukraine financial support and reduced gas prices, while threatening the country with financial woe if it goes ahead and signs the agreement.
"We want to achieve conditions that satisfy Ukraine, Ukrainian producers, the Ukrainian people," said Yanukovych.
Later he met for three hours with Catherine Ashton, the EU's top foreign representative, who told Yanukovych he should not use force.
Later she visited Independence Square and was escorted through the crowds by Arseniy Yatsenyuk, of jailed former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko's party, in surreal scenes as the crowd chanted her name.
Ashton remains in Kiev but this did not stop Yanukovych launching an assault on the square.
During the night Ashton said: "I observe with sadness that police use force to remove peaceful people."
The United States secretary of state, John Kerry, released a strongly worded statement: "The United States expresses its disgust with the decision of Ukrainian authorities to meet the peaceful protest in Kiev's Maidan Square with riot police, bulldozers and batons, rather than with respect for democratic rights and human dignity. This response is neither acceptable nor does it befit a democracy."
Riot police take charge
In Kiev city hall, which has been occupied by protesters for 10 days and declared the centre of revolutionary self-government, protesters had seen riot police dismantle tents outside but not attempt to storm the building.
A group of men outside sprayed the street with water from a fire hose in order to create a frozen ice rink that would be too slippery for riot police to attack from.
Mid-morning on Wednesday, busloads of riot police approached the town hall and parked outside, but eventually drove off, to much triumphant singing from the protesters.
Arkady, a 19-year-old student, said he had heard about the police attack on the radio at 3am and decided to come out.
"It's a bit scary but we have to be here," he said, hugging his girlfriend. "We need to get rid of the president and have fresh elections."
As dawn broke on the square on Wednesday prayers and pop songs were played from the stage, several thousand people were still in place. Opposition leaders called for a huge protest against the police action.
An exhausted Vitali Klitschko, the heavyweight boxer who has become one of the key leaders of the protests, said he was amazed by the police movements and was heading back to Independence Square despite not having slept.
"This was the most stupid thing the authorities could have done," said Klitschko, "to clear out the square when Catherine Ashton is in town. People here are determined not to live in a police state."
Klitschko said he planned to meet Ashton during the day and put his concerns to her about protesters injured and arrested during the police action.
There were no figures on injuries but Klitschko said several protesters had been hurt, while police said at least 10 of their officers had suffered serious injuries in the scuffles. – © Guardian News & Media 2013
Symbolic statues are sitting ducks
The best thing about statues is smashing them. This is true at least for crowds desperate to get some revenge on a figurehead of authority. All over the world and throughout recorded time, attacking statues has proved an eloquent political gesture.
In the 21st century, this ancient anti-art is alive and well. This month, crowds in Kiev who want closer links between Ukraine and the European Union pulled down a statue of Lenin and attacked it with mallets.
They could scarcely have picked a better symbol of the Russian overlords they fear – not least because so many statues of Lenin, Stalin and Marx across Central and Eastern Europe were demolished when communism fell. The very survival of Lenin's statue in Kiev seems to indicate the Ukraine government's desire to keep Russia happy at all costs.
Now this Lenin has belatedly joined all the other fallen communist statues, not to mention statues of the Shah of Iran, Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi that all came crashing down when the power they symbolised fell away.
There is a fatal attraction that draws angry crowds to bronze and marble figures of rulers. Most of the time in the modern world such statues go not only unmolested but also unnoticed – no one pays much attention, destructive or otherwise, to the Queen Victorias that can be found in most ex-British colonial cities. Yet the moment authority starts to crumble, statues offer themselves to be attacked. They are so symbolic and yet so still and passive. They are sitting ducks.
This goes to the very heart of what a statue is. No other kind of art is directly associated with power in quite the same way. The first public statues were set up in early towns in the prehistoric Levant, or eastern Mediterranean region, and represented ancestors. Maybe even then they were more feared than loved.
By the time of the first great civilisations in Mesopotamia and Egypt, there was an unequivocal connection between statues and power. Colossal statues of rulers, including Rameses the Great and Constantine, were put up to awe the people. To be a king was to be sculpted.
Because statues are power, they cry out for acts of lese-majesty – a crime against a sovereign power. Ancient Egyptian statues were vandalised and Roman emperors often had their marble faces broken by Christians. Artistic excellence is no defence. In 16th-century Bologna, a crowd pulled down a statue of the hated Pope Julius II and melted it down to make a cannon – no one cared that it happened to be a masterpiece by Michelangelo.
Kiev's Lenin has joined a great tradition of statues that became icons of misrule. The only problem is that future protests may not be so lucky.
In democratic societies and in an age of conceptual art, monumental figures of rulers are erected less and less. What will the revolutions of the future be able to trash that matches the eloquence of a tumbling Lenin – © Guardian News & Media 2013
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