The widespread anti-government demonstrations in Ukraine could be the story of the year in Europe: proof that a poor nation can be guided by an overpowering need for freedom and fairness.
It all started with a seemingly inexplicable act of stupidity. On the night of Nov. 29, there were only a few hundred rebellious students left on Independence Square in Kiev -- the dwindling remnants of a protest against Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych's decision to halt a major trade deal with the European Union, seen as the first step toward Ukraine's membership in the bloc. Then Berkut, the Ukrainian riot police, attacked. The official reason was that the city authorities needed to set up a gigantic artificial Christmas tree in the middle of the square, and the demonstrators were in the way. Berkut used truncheons indiscriminately on young men and women. About 40 students required medical aid.
"After this, there was no way not to take to the streets," editor Katerina Kobernik wrote on the commentary website Slon.ru. "Kiev is not used to this kind of thing. In Russia, people may be jailed for peaceful protest. In Belarus, you can be packed into a police car and driven god knows where for clapping your hands. Kiev, though, is the territory of freedom."
"Bloody Christmas Tree" was suddenly a meme on social networks. No one was willing to own up to ordering the beating. Prime Minister Mykola Azarov said neither he nor Yanukovych had known of the attack in advance. Some of Yanukovych's erstwhile political supporters chose the moment to distance themselves from him. Serhiy Lyovochkin, Yanukovych's chief of staff, tendered his resignation. "After the cruel attack on the rally the authorities will be besieged and rejected at every level," Lyovochkin's wife, artist Zinaida Lihacheva, wrote on Facebook.
Two prominent members of Yanukovych's Regions Party, David Zhvania and Inna Bogoslovskaya, quit the party's parliamentary faction in protest against the beating. Both are aligned with Lyovochkin and with the wealthy businessman Dmitri Firtash. Television channels owned by other affluent Ukrainians, normally friendly toward Yanukovych, faithfully reported the night's events in all their ugliness. It appeared that Ukraine's elite was about to give up the president.
Yanukovich's camp could offer only a lame response. "This is the fault of those who were preventing the set-up of the Cristmas tree and a skating rink," said Regions Party member Mikhail Chechetov.
When between 500,000 and 1 million protesters flooded central Kiev on Dec. 1, their aim had broadened from EU integration to regime change. The exact attendance is difficult to pin down, because the city's hills and narrow alleys make it hard to assemble photographs showing the entire throng. "Out with the Gang" was the main slogan. "Our plan is clear," former interior minister Yuri Lutsenko told the demonstrators. "This is no longer a rally or a gathering. This is revolution."
At least 10 ambassadors from EU nations attended the rally. Although they could not openly express their support, it was clear where their hearts was. "Those who are responsible for the use of force must be punished," said Polish politician Jaroslaw Kaczynski.
Police on Independence Square abandoned their posts as soon as they saw the throngs coming. People climbed the unfinished Christmas tree and decorated it with Ukrainian and EU flags. Protesters overran the Kiev mayor's office. By the end of the day, hotheads who looked like soccer fans were attacking the presidential administration building on Bankovaya Street, driving a bulldozer at the police line and tossing paving stones. Police used tear gas and truncheons to clear the street in front of the building. By the end of the day about 150 people required medical attention, and Kiev, "the territory of freedom," had seen more political violence than it had in the last 12 years.
What the demonstrations lacked was a leader to harness all the energy that poured out into the streets. During the 2004 "Orange Revolution," "there were specific characters, potential beneficiaries, intermediaries and so on," publisher Leonid Tsodikov wrote on Facebook. "Today, much more energy is being generated, but no one is using it."
The three leaders of the parliamentary opposition -- Arseniy Yatsenyuk of the liberal Batkivshina party, Vitali Klitschko of the pro-European, populist Udar party, and Oleh Tyahnybok of the ultranationalist Svoboda movement -- tried to take charge, constantly making speeches to the assembled multitudes. They were, however, only riding the bandwagon. Only a few cities in radically pro-European Western Ukraine heeded their call for a nationwide strike. Kiev went on with business as usual, despite the permanent rally taking place downtown.
On Dec. 2, protesters were still occupying the Kiev mayor's office. Many had arrived from other cities to topple the corrupt Yanukovych regime. Exhaustion was setting in after days of non-stop rallying. Some slept on the floor, others partook of free food provided by their many sympathizers in Kiev.
No one was in charge. Chaos reigned as people drifted in and out of the building now labeled "Revolutionary Headquarters." Only a few thousand demonstrators remained in Independence Square, wrapped in Ukrainian flags and wearing badges saying "I Am Not Here for Money" and "I Will Not Leave until Yanukovych Resigns."
Yanukovych re-emerged after three days of silence to give a calm interview to four oligarch-owned TV channels. "All those who staged provocations need to be found out," he said. "Why did they have to do it, seizing the mayor's office, using children as a shield?"
Yanukovych appears to be waiting out the emotional outburst, hoping that things will calm down as they did before the riot police attacked the student rally. His hold on power is precarious: He knows now that even his allies will not approve the use of force. He can only hope that violence does not break out again. The slightest provocation will be enough to bring hundreds of thousands of people back into the streets.
No one in Kiev has a plan or understands what happens next. Yanukovych may compromise with the opposition, granting it a few ministerial posts and promising, as he had all along, that the deal with the EU will eventually be signed. Or else he may do nothing and hope the oligarchs, the police and the military do not abandon him. The oligarchs, for their part, may cut a deal behind his back, pinning their hopes on a new figure. But no leader has emerged who could credibly replace Yanukovych.
In Moscow, President Vladimir Putin is watching the Kiev events with apprehension. The raw power of the Ukrainian protests could re-energize the Russian opposition movement, which he successfully quashed last year. "The events in Ukraine resemble a pogrom rather than a revolution," Putin said. "The opposition is trying to topple the legitimate authorities. These are well-prepared actions."
Putin is wrong about the preparation. What's happening in Ukraine is a spontaneous outpouring of indignation with a rotten, corrupt, bungling regime very much like Russia's own. The main difference is that high oil prices provide Russia's leaders with enough money to keep opposition at bay, while Ukraine is nearly bankrupt. If Russia's already stagnant economy falters, Moscow could see similar outbursts.
Ukrainians know that the major modernization required for EU integration may be beyond their country's means. What they really want is freedom and a government they can trust. If they don't get their wish now, the yearning will still be there, ready to burst forth at the slightest provocation.
(Leonid Bershidsky, an editor and novelist, is Moscow and Kiev correspondent for World View.)