Protesters defy lockdown as coronavirus threatens Ukraine-Russia peace push

Kiev, Ukraine – The streets of Kiev are empty. Restaurants, bars and shops are closed. Only a few passers-by can be seen on Maidan Nezalezhnosti, the central square in the Ukrainian capital, where thousands gathered during the EuroMaidan revolution in 2014.

The massive protests led to the overthrow of pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych and to pro-Russian uprisings in the eastern Donbass region.

Now, like in much of Europe, Ukraine is at a standstill, but the spread of the corona virus comes at a critical time for the country’s future and how it could solve the war that is still raging on the eastern edge. Movement restrictions could not only slow down the peace process, but also hinder a protest movement that passionately urges Ukraine not to legitimize two breakaway regions led by the Russian rebels, Luhansk and Donetsk.

Public protests and other gatherings are banned on the streets of Ukraine for a virus that has already infected more than 460,000 people worldwide and killed more than 21,000 people.

From left, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, French President Emmanuel Macron, Russian President Vladimir Putin, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel attend a working session during a summit on the Ukraine conflict in Paris in December 2019.Ian Langsdon / Reuters file

With 156 confirmed cases and five deaths in Ukraine, the government has closed down public facilities and restricted transportation inside and outside the country, according to the country’s health ministry.

However, Yaryna Chornoguz, 24, a military doctor who fought in the Donbass war, does not follow the rules. She is one of many demonstrators who are calling for President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, who took office last year, to reverse a decision to include representatives from Luhansk and Donetsk on a new advisory board tasked with developing peace solutions in Donbass.

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Like others, she fears that the new Council will oblige Kiev to conduct negotiations directly with the separatists and Russia, which is generally seen as a direct hand in conflict and feared by the demonstrators that they will withdraw from the talks and the rebels to take command.

“When I learned about the new Minsk agreement that would legitimize Russian deputies and turn Russia from an attacker into an observer, I understood that our new president had just spat on Ukrainian diplomacy for six years and years of our resistance to the Russian invasion,” Chornoguz told NBC News. “He has to resign and cancel the decision, otherwise he should be charged.”

Chornoguz’s friend Mykola Sorochuk (22) was killed in the Donbass war on January 22. “It was the Russian sniper who killed him,” she said.

She took her sleeping bag and protested in the Presidential Office building in central Kiev on March 13 when the advisory board in Minsk four days before the coronavirus blockage after talks between Ukraine, Russia and a group of other European nations.

Chornoguz’s friends, also war veterans, soon joined her protest. On March 17, 500 more Ukrainians came to the Presidential Office in direct violation of a ban on public gatherings to protest – but they left as fears of the corona virus intensified.

“A lot of people called me to explain that they didn’t show up because of the corona virus,” said Pavlo Bilous, 50, a protest organizer. “Some were afraid to get infected. Others were afraid to infect people because they felt sick.”

He added: “We are not afraid to come back despite the suspension. We don’t want to be healthy, we want to wake up after the epidemic in Russia.”

Despite the closure, around a dozen people are still on guard at night near the Presidential Office. No arrests have been made so far, but the Home Office has warned that the police and national guard will patrol the streets to arrest people who violate the blocking rules.

The official name for their protest movement is “Spring on Granite 2020”, and a Facebook page encourages others to join.

“I think a lot more people would have joined us,” said Viktor Pylypenko, 33, a war veteran and demonstrator from Donbass. “However, the corona virus is an important limiting factor.”

A Ukrainian soldier of the 93rd Mechanized Brigade in November 2019 at the Yavoriv Combat Training Center in the Yavoriv district in the Lviv region of Ukraine.Oksana Parafeniuk / NBC News File

The new advisory council proposes to give people living in Luhansk and Donetsk the right to vote over the future of the areas which, according to the UN high, were torn apart by a war that killed more than 13,000 people in January, Commissioner for human rights.

While Zelensky’s office described the decision to form the council as risky, his supporters defended it as a possible breakthrough that could break Russia’s influence over the occupied territories. The agreement states that the Council should be set up after consultations with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, France and Germany after Wednesday 25 March.

Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Dmytro Rezikov said in an interview with news website that no agreement on the new advisory board will be signed this week in Minsk due to Covid-19. Instead, the meeting is held via Skype and the signing is postponed.

Nevertheless, many in Ukraine still see the Council in surrendering national interests to the Kremlin.

“The so-called coordination council is a direct step towards Russia,” Pavlo Klimkin, former Ukrainian foreign minister, wrote on Twitter. “It is the recognition of the Donbass occupation authorities. While Russia is being turned from an attacker into a mediator like Germany or France.”

Despite the wave of criticism, the Ukrainian government continues to defend the decision.

“During the Trilateral Contact Group meeting in Minsk on March 11, the sides agreed to create the Council as the mechanism needed to bring about a full ceasefire and the long-awaited peace with representatives of the rebellious regions of Donbass to achieve, “he said Iuliia Mendel, a spokeswoman for Zelenskiy.

Mendel added that there would be no Russian proxy in the new council.

An armored personal carrier at the front line with Russian-backed separatists near the village of Krasnogorivka in the Donetsk region of Ukraine on March 10, 2020.Anatolii Stepanov / AFP – Getty Images file

To end the war, Ukraine, Russia, France and Germany signed the so-called Minsk peace agreements in Belarus in 2015. Ukraine agreed to lead reforms of local elections and decentralization with representatives of the occupied parts of Donbass. However, it demanded that Russia relinquish control of parts of the border that Ukraine lost in 2014. The Kremlin has so far refused to do this.

Although international watchdogs and journalists claim that Russia is an active participant in the Donbass war, the Kremlin has refused to send soldiers to fight in Ukraine.

A team of international investigators led by the Netherlands confirmed the work of open source news company Bellingcat in 2018 when it said that a Buk mobile missile that plunged Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 over the competitive part of Ukraine in 2014 dated Russian military came.

The trial of four men, three Russians and a Ukrainian accused of plane crash murder and killing all 298 people on board was adjourned until June 8. Russia has consistently denied any involvement in the attack.

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