Daily Archives: December 3, 2013

Meet the Brains Behind Ukraine’s Massive Protests

Here’s a look at the politicians and street organizers driving Ukraine’s “EuroMaydan” protests (a movement supporting integration with the European Union) following President Viktor Yanukovych‘s decision to reject an EU trade deal under pressure from Moscow.

Yehor Sobolev, one of the “commandants” of Kyiv‘s EuroMaydan protests, has kept a watchful eye on Viktor Yanukovych since his early days as a financial reporter in the president’s hometown of Donetsk. In 2004, as a freelance journalist, he gained rare access to Yanukovych and his staff during the controversial election that led to the Orange Revolution and the first Maydan protests.

Sobolev went on to tackle censorship on Ukraine’s central television channels as head of Kyiv’s media labor union and became the co-host of the popular Vremya news program. He abandoned television, however, after fallouts with oligarchs Petro Poroshenko, the head of Vremya broadcaster Channel 5, and Rinat Akhmetov, who broke Sobolev’s contract just two hours after hiring him as a top editor at his Ukrayina station. (Sobolev’s wife, Marichka Padalka, is herself a popular television host.)

Sobolev went on to create an independent center for investigative reporting, but finally left journalism for good this year, with the formation of his political activist group, Volya (Will). One of his first actions was storming the Kyiv city administration this summer in a protest over the failure to hold a mayoral election. As EuroMaydan continues, Sobolev has proved an able strategist, mapping out blockades and urging cool heads.

“Throwing stones only hurts people and takes away our moral high ground,” he wrote in a December 2 blog post, one day after violent clashes between protesters and police outside the presidential administration building. “Give [the authorities] a chance to feel that no one need be thrown out. Show even Yanukovych himself that it’s possible to walk away. Lure ministers and regional leaders with the notion of joining the people before it’s too late. Between this and paralyzing the streets, the government will fall.”

Many EuroMaydan participants were chagrined when a group of masked demonstrators broke away from what had been a peaceful mass protest, using a truck and brute force to storm past riot police into the presidential administration building on December 1. The strong-arm tactics, which police met with truncheons and tear gas, have sparked rumors of a provocation aimed at steering the pro-European demonstrations off-course. And some suspect the ringleader may be Dmytro Korchinskiy, the 49-year-old leader of Bratstvo (Brotherhood), a political organization that describes its ideology as “Christian Orthodox national-anarchism.”

Korchinskiy wields both pen and sword: a published poet and philosopher, he was also the founder of the 1990s ultra-radical Ukrainian National Assembly (UNA) and the head of its paramilitary wing. During his time with the UNA, Korchinskiy was given to fierce pronouncements, saying death was the only path to self-discovery. For Bratstvo, however, he has adopted a more playful tone, describing politics as a “fun” vocation that falls somewhere between literature and music.

Websites reported eyewitnesses as saying Korchinskiy, with his distinctive mustache, was visible among the crowd that first stormed the presidential building, but soon disappeared from the scene. The Interior Ministry later announced that as many as 300 Bratstvo members had participated in the siege. Critics have taken to Twitter, calling him a “cockroach” in the alleged pay of pro-Russian strategist Viktor Medvedchuk. Korchinskiy has denied the claims, saying Yanukovych is to blame for the protest’s violent turn. “If the Ukrainian people only disliked him yesterday, today they hate him,” he said. “This is no longer a public protest, it’s an uprising.”

Some Maydan protesters are motivated by their longing for the West. Others, like nationalist Oleh Tyahnybok, are motivated by the loathing of the East. Tyahnybok is the 45-year-old head of Ukraine’s Svoboda (Freedom) political movement, which stormed Kyiv’s city administration building on December 1 and has since called for a national strike. “A revolution is starting in Ukraine,” said Tyahnybok, who has accused Russia of “waging virtual war” on Ukraine; he has called for a visa regime with Russia and argued against the introduction of Russian as a second state language.

Tyahnybok, who has had a long, slow-growing career, may also see the protests as a political opportunity. Tyahnybok first entered parliament in 1998 and eventually won reelection as a member of Viktor Yushchenko’s Our Ukraine bloc. But his nationalist views eventually saw him ousted from the bloc, and have routinely set back his political progress, with critics regularly accusing him of anti-Semitism.

In 2012, after failed presidential and mayoral runs, Tyahnybok reentered the Verkhovna Rada on his own terms, as the head of Svoboda’s parliamentary faction. But his support of the Maydan protests has not endeared him to many fellow lawmakers: during a December 2 interview, Tyahnybok showed head wounds he said were the work of parliament members irate over his role in the protests.

For a country with a famously fractious opposition, Tyahnybok is for now a team player, strategizing with mainstream opposition figures Arseniy Yatsenyuk and Vitali Klitschko. When it comes to Klitschko, the common ground extends beyond politics: Tyahnybok’s father was himself a celebrated boxer. But with Tyahnybok opposed to EU integration, it’s far from certain the opposition leaders will see eye-to-eye if the protests continue.

The best-known player not behind bars in Ukraine’s ongoing political showdown, Vitali Klitschko has a vested interest in keeping the protests going strong. The heavyweight boxing champion, 42, has made no secret of his presidential ambition, and launched his UDAR party in 2010 with the aim of running for the post in 2015. And the weaker Yanukovych looks, the stronger Klitschko appears.

Klitschko’s stance is firmly pro-European and anti-corruption; he has been a fixture of the EuroMaydan protests since the government’s decision to reject an EU trade deal on November 21. He has since called on Yanukovych to step down, and has introduced a draft resolution in parliament aimed at what he called a “complete resetting” of the Ukrainian state.  But he’s also played peacemaker, defusing potential protester violence and staring down drunken street critics — literally — from his vantage point of 1.98 meters. “If Klitschko does become Ukrainian president some time,” tweeted “The Guardian’s” Shaun Walker, “Putin is going to dread those joint press conferences.”

The Euro Maydan protests are about a lot more than the jailing of former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko. But the presence of lawmaker Arseniy Yatsenyuk, the leader of her Batkivshchina (Fatherland) opposition party, is a constant reminder of her continued influence on Ukraine’s political scene.

Which is not to say that Yatsenyuk is a place-holder. The 39-year-old party leader is one of Ukraine’s most powerful opposition politicians, having served as economy and foreign minister as well as parliament speaker.

As the leader of Fatherland, Yatsenyuk oversees the second-largest party in Ukraine and theoretically could represent a direct numerical threat to Yanukovych’s Party of Regions should his regime’s fortunes continue to fade. Yatsenyuk has called on Ukraine’s prime minister, Mykola Azarov, to resign as a “first step” toward a government overhaul.

Meet the Brains Behind Ukraine’s Massive Protests – Daisy Sindelar – The Atlantic.

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Thai protesters reach PM office after police remove barriers .

Thai police have changed tack, removing fortified barriers blocking anti-government protesters from entering the prime minister’s office. At least three people have died and 230 were injured in a week of protests aimed at ousting Thailand’s government.

Early on Tuesday police cleared the barbed wire barriers protecting Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra’s office from the onslaught of anti-government protesters. Footage from Thai television showed the protesters milling around outside the Government House.

Prime Minister Yingluck was moved to a secret location on Sunday after activists stormed the police sports club where she had been staying.

The Thai police’s change of strategy seeks to defuse rising tensions following a week of protests. City Police Chief Kamronvit Thoopkrachang told Reuters that riot officers have been ordered to stand down.

“In every area where there has been confrontation, we have now ordered all police to withdraw. It is government policy to avoid confrontation,” Kamronvit told Reuters. “Today, we won’t use tear gas, no confrontation, we will let them in if they want.”

Police clashed with protests attempting to break through the barricades to Government House on Monday. Officers used tear gas, water cannons and rubber bullets to repel the activists, who threw rocks at police.

The worst violence of the week came on Saturday evening when a group of protesters opened fire at a pro-government rally, killing at least four people and injuring dozens more. Around 70,000 supporters of PM Yingluck had gathered in the Ramkamhaeng area of Bangkok.

Yingluck’s government has refused calls by the protest movement for snap elections and has dismissed their demands as “unconstitutional.”

Protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban – a former politician for the opposition Democrat Party – has demanded that Yingluck resign to make way for the formation of a “people’s council” made up of “good people.” Thaugsuban called for a nationwide strike on Monday

He has accused Prime Minister Yingluck of being a “puppet” for her billionaire older brother Thaksin Shinawatra. Thaksim was ousted from government by a military coup in 2006 and subsequently fled the country after being found guilty of corruption. He now lives in exile in Dubai, but remains an important part of the current government.

Thai authorities announced over the weekend that Suthep was wanted for the charge of insurrection which shall be punished with death or life imprisonment.” An arrest warrant had already been issued for Suthep last week on charges of orchestrating the occupation of government ministries.

Thai protesters reach PM office after police remove barriers — RT News.

Islamist rebels seize part of ancient Syrian Christian town, take nuns captive .

Islamist fighters have captured the ancient quarter of Maaloula, a predominantly Christian town and UNESCO heritage site in Syria, and are holding captive several nuns and their mother superior from the St. Thecla Convent, SANA reported.

The state news agency said that attackers “committed acts of vandalism in the town’s neighborhoods and around the convent, attacking locals and targeting them with sniper fire.”

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights also said Monday that fighters from the al-Qaeda linked Nusra Front had captured the old quarter of Maaloula after several days of fierce fighting. However, they said they could not confirm information regarding the convent.

The Observatory also reported that four rebels were killed in fighting in the area on Monday. Over the weekend militants tried to seize the town, but were fought off by the local militia forces and Syrian soldiers.

Maaloula has a population of about 5,000 and is strategically important to both sides because of its proximity to Damascus. It is also close to the strategic central highway that links the capital to Homs.

Maaloula was the scene of heavy fighting in September when it changed hands at least four times, with government forces eventually gaining the upper hand.

At the time residents told RT’s correspondent Maria Finoshina who was in Maaloula that Islamist rebels resorted to looting, executions and forcing residents to convert to Islam.

Maaloula is home to many UNESCO world heritage sites, such as shrines and monasteries, and is one of the birth places of Christianity. It is also one of the few places in the world where Western Aramaic is still spoken, a biblical language similar to what Jesus would have spoken.

“In this town are situated some of the most ancient churches and shrines, which are sacred for Christian believers,” said the Russian Foreign Ministry in a statement in September.

Islamist rebels seize part of ancient Syrian Christian town, take nuns captive — RT News.