October 17 was a hard day for Ukraine's capital as thousands gathered near the Parliament to support Mikheil Saakashvili and his demands to Ukrainian government. Despite a tense atmosphere, current protest did not result in mass violence and now the protesters and officials seem to be leading a purely political confrontation.
Since Mikheil Saakashvili’s dashing return to Ukraine in September after being stripped of citizenship by Petro Poroshenko and briefly leaving the country, former governor of Odessa region kept arousing public interest and provoking quite dissimilar opinions about his role in Ukraine’s political life. While some tend to disdain the exuberant character of his political activities, others display eager support and willingness to partake in his endeavors. During the last month, Saakashvili has been touring the cities of Ukraine and publicly criticizing Ukrainian government for indulging in corruption and forgetting about people. Claiming to not hold any citizenship, he also applied for state protection, although no official answer has followed yet.
On a rally in Kharkiv on October 15, Saakashvili said that Ukrainian government might have plans on his assassination or deportation, adding that he has no fear of any possible dangers. Needless to say that these claims were foreshadowing the predictable force response from the police during the main protest act (“anti-corruption assembly”) scheduled on October 17 in Kyiv. Saakashvili had repeatedly announced his 3 key demands to Ukrainian government, namely to alter the procedure of Parliament elections, to create anti-corruption courts and to abolish the parliamentary immunity. However, later he added 4 further requests directly to President Poroshenko, requiring him to openly sell his businesses, start a “real” war against corruption, change the election law (as well as reappoint the Election Committee) and introduce fair and affordable utility tariffs.
The morning of final rally day started with people gathering in front of Verkhovna Rada (Ukrainian Parliament). Ukrainian media reported up to 2 thsd people (while the police counted 4,5 thsd) consisting of members and activists belonging to parties loyal to Saakashvili, as well as commoners and numerous supposedly paid participants. Although by early afternoon the attendance seemed to fall, around 3 PM a group of young people (allegedly belonging to “Donbass” Ukrainian volunteer battalion lead by Semen Semenchenko and several other military and nationalist organizations) approached the site, confronting the police and attempting to break through to the building, which provoked rumors about Rada’s possible siege. A part of adjacent Hrushevsky street was blocked by activists armed with shields. About 20 tents had been installed on the square in front of the Parliament.
Protesters installing tents
Saakashvili and his ally Mustafa Nayem (deputy and former journalist also known as one of the key organizers of Euromaidan in 2013) appeared in the middle of turmoil, guiding the masses and squeezing through the police chain. After taking the stage, Saakashvili began speaking about rally’s purposes, saying that people have gathered to “expel the goat of corruption, lawlessness and impunity, as well as a certain goat” (most likely hinting at the President lately being the main object of Saakashvili’s criticism). The protest had finally settled on the square with government quarter (part of Kyiv city center containing numerous governmental facilities) being surrounded by the police and National Guard. Numerous speakers from different political forces supporting the protest gave their speeches. Nearby residing Ukrainian military have scared the attendants by performing several howitzer volleys in honor of Malta president.
Howitzers firing shots
Tent city dwellers say they will not leave before deputies adopt the laws based on people’s demands, which, however, may take more than several days. Verkhovna Rada has already started discussing these projects, but the adoption process (in case of success) requires further approval by the Constitutional Court.
Prosecutor General of Ukraine Yuriy Lutsenko has already promised not to force out the rally (currently consisting of more than 60 tents and about 200 people), but said that metal detectors will be used to provide safety in the area. Activists and police have agreed on the acceptable distance dividing them. Head of the National Police says his employees have confiscated a large amount of weapons and explosives and will help maintain the proper work of Parliament for the time of significant votes. Police have also used loudspeakers to read out paragraphs from the criminal code concerning penalties for violation of civil order and causing material damage. Head of Verkhovna Rada Andriy Parubiy demanded the protesters to clear the Parliament entrances.
Opinions about political powers backing Saakashvili’s actions differ. Some experts tend to connect him to Ihor Kolomoyskiy, an influential Ukrainian oligarch and former PrivatBank owner currently residing in Switzerland. Political support provided by Yuliya Tymoshenko and various Ukrainian parties (including “Samopomich”, nationalist “Svoboda” and others) has helped Saakashvili to enter the country and avoid pursuit by the government, but current protests have revealed their relative reluctance in demonstrating explicit affirmation of his efforts, which may be a sign of their will to preserve their standalone status in the light of future elections (as well as showing their doubts about the rally’s success).