Ukraine's Maidan protest unites different beliefs

By Maria Danilova

Associated Press

Published: Wednesday, Feb. 26 2014 12:54 p.m. MST

People walk at a memorial for the people killed in clashes with the police at the Independence Square, the epicenter of the country's current unrest, in Kiev, Ukraine, Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2014. Ukraine has been consumed by a three-month-long political crisis. President Viktor Yanukovych and protest leaders signed an agreement last week to end the conflict that left more than 80 people dead in just a few days in Kiev. Shortly after, Yanukovych fled the capital for his power base in eastern Ukraine but his exact whereabouts are unknown.

Emilio Morenatti, Associated Press

KIEV, Ukraine — For the past three months, tens of thousands of Ukrainians have been singing the Ukrainian national anthem on Kiev's central square, the Maidan, united in their dreams of change. The protest movement is a mixed bag of pro-Western intelligentsia and well-off businessmen, white-collar office clerks and student romantics, radical far-rightists, pop singers, poets and even priests. The one thing holding them together: anger against now fugitive President Viktor Yanukovych and his government.

Here is a look at some of the main groups driving the protests which removed Yanukovych from power last week.

ORANGE HEROINE LOYALISTS

Yulia Tymoshenko, the Orange Revolution heroine, former prime minister and Yanukovych's main rival, commands an ardent following of millions of Western-leaning Ukrainians. She was released from jail last week after spending 2 ½ years in prison on charges of abuse of office that the West condemned as politically motivated. While Tymoshenko was in jail, writing emotional letters to protesters, her ally Arseniy Yatsenyuk, a technocratic former economy minister, was a prominent leader of the protests. The party calls for pro-Western reforms and integration with the European Union. But it is also associated with the failed hopes of the 2004 Orange Revolution, which ousted Yanukovych from the presidency amid allegations of rigged elections. The new government was paralyzed by constant bickering among Orange leaders, allowing Yanukovych to return to power in 2010. The gold-braided Tymoshenko's release poses new opportunities but also new challenges for the party. Labeled Ukraine's "Joan of Arc," she is a divisive figure, adored but also distrusted for her alleged corruption and fierce hunger for power.

PUNCHING ABOVE THE CROWD

Towering over protesters, and over fellow opposition leaders, Vitali Klitschko — a 6-foot-7-inch (2 meters) tall former world heavyweight boxing champion — is shown in many polls to be Ukraine's most popular opposition politician. He leads the Udar — or Punch — party that entered parliament following 2012 parliamentary elections, presenting itself as a new pro-Western force untainted by the failures of the Orange government. Popular because of his sports victories and free from the stain of corruption, Klitschko announced that he will run in presidential elections scheduled for May 25. Though he is an unskilled orator and not widely view as an intellectual, Klitschko won the protesters' support for appearing at many confrontations and trying to prevent violence between activists and police. He once even was sprayed with a fire extinguisher. Now he will have to compete with Tymoshenko for the hearts of his people.

THE NATIONALISTS

The nationalist Svoboda (Freedom) Party has played a vocal role in the protests, seizing a government building in the center of Kiev that was later turned into a protest dormitory and sending scores of protesters to Kiev's Maidan from its base in the west of the country, which is the heart of Ukrainian nationalism. The party entered parliament in 2012 and teamed up with Tymoshenko's and Klitschko's parties to oppose Yanukovych. It is highly controversial. It stands firmly for EU integration and a Western future of Ukraine, but it has been accused of anti-Semitic and xenophobic rhetoric, including staging a Christmas skit on the Maidan that used Jewish stereotypes. The group's statements have drawn criticism from Israel and some watchdogs. Despite the controversies, top Western diplomats have actively engaged with Svoboda, shaking hands and posing for photos with its leader Oleh Tyahnybok. Svoboda members have died in the violence that prompted Yanukovych to flee. The party can be expected to seek government posts or political influence.

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