Whether or not the throngs of protesters in Kiev succeed in ousting Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, they have proven one thing: Their civic sensibility is in many ways more mature than that of the political establishment.
Demonstrators occupying the city center have created what is possibly the largest self-organizing, self-sustaining revolutionary commune the world has seen since the 1968 riots in Paris. The Euromaidan -- as the protesters' camp in Maidan Nezalezhnosti, or Independence Square, is known -- is increasingly looking like a nation within a nation.
The protests began on Nov. 21 after the Ukrainian government backpedaled from signing an association and free trade deal with the European Union. Now they have swelled into a movement that attracts hundreds of thousands on weekends, and EU integration is no longer the central issue. The Euromaidan wants the president to go and the constitution amended to turn Ukraine into a parliamentary republic.
Yanukovych's attempts to apply force have failed or backfired. Early last week, riot police and athletic young men dressed up as city janitors managed only temporarily to remove some of the protesters' barricades in downtown Kiev. Rebel leaders, including heavyweight boxing champion Wladimir Klitschko, negotiated terms of engagement with the police that ruled out beatings and projectiles. After a pushing fight in which 20 people were injured, the police retreated and jubilant protesters rebuilt barricades, filling bags with snow and pouring water over them to create strong walls of ice.
Recognizing that the Euromaidan would not yield without bloodshed, Yanukovych made some unsatisfying moves toward compromise. At a "round table" meeting with opposition leaders, the president promised to refrain from using force, to release jailed protesters, to punish officials responsible for previous violence and, strangely, to fire the authors of the EU agreement, which he said went against national interests.
Protesters were displeased with the opposition leaders for listening to Yanukovich "like diligent students," as journalist Leonid Shvets put it on Facebook. The opposition leaders, for their part, found the president unconvincing. "We heard only slogans, calls and declarations," Vitali Klitschko, Wladimir's brother and head of the opposition Udar party, said after the meeting. "We are returning to the square to keep up the pressure on the government. I call on everyone who does not want to live in a dictatorship to take to the streets."
Yanukovych offered up some sacrifices, firing two officials for allegedly ordering police to beat up the peaceful students on Nov. 30. But he stopped short of touching prime minister Mykola Azarov or other powerful figures, including National Security and Defense Council chief Andriy Klyuev -- who, if leaked transcripts of the two fired officials' interrogations are to be believed, oversaw the violent attack on protesting students.
On Dec. 17, Yanukovych is flying to Moscow for further talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin that may win some money but will also further anger the protesters, who feel the Ukrainian president is "giving up" the country to Russia.
Politically, Ukraine appears to have hit a dead end. Yanukovich sees no reason to resign and no potential negotiating partner at the Euromaidan, because the opposition leaders do not really represent the protesters. The EU and the U.S., for their part, see no point in talking to Yanukovych anymore, but also no opposition leader to support. "I have heard it said on the square, 'We don't need a messiah,'" former Czech foreign minister Karel Schwarzenberg told Theinsider.ua. "Maybe a messiah is really not needed, but at least a driver is necessary sometimes."
For the protesters, any concessions from Yanukovych are too little, too late. Squeezed into the self-imposed straightjacket of peaceful protest, they can neither force a breakthrough nor leave without achieving their goals. They can, however, turn their camp into a makeshift model of the future they want for Ukraine. That, if nothing else, is working out surprisingly well.
The camp has an autonomous power supply from a network of generators, a well-organized food supply and an accommodation service for people arriving from other cities. When Yanukovych bused in supporters from Eastern Ukraine for a counter-rally, some of them went to Independence Square to eat because the protesters' camp was much better equipped. There is a smoothly-functioning volunteer medical team and a cleaning detail that keeps the camp as tidy as any I have ever seen. Entertainment includes top-flight concerts with impeccable sound and an open-air movie theater. An "IT tent" provides WiFi service and charging stations for mobile devices. At the camp's "open university," protesters can attend lectures by well-known academics and businesspeople such as Information Technology multimillionaire Yevgeny Utkin.
"It is an amazing anthropological phenomenon," Kiev public relations manager Alexandra Kovaleva wrote on Facebook. "It is a lively, self-organizing, well-functioning society."
Outsiders, too, have noticed the protesters' remarkable success at building their small nation. "This is a separate body, a separate institution of society that can organize and regulate itself," Russian journalist Arkady Babchenko wrote on Snob.ru. "It is a direct democracy."
The longer this unusual, starry-eyed commune exists in downtown Kiev, the more self-sustaining it becomes and the less it needs any kind of solution to the stalemate. When a sizeable part of the nation wants the government to disappear, but rejects violence, perhaps the best it can do is attempt to govern itself while it can.
(Leonid Bershidsky, an editor and novelist, is Moscow and Kiev correspondent for World View.)