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As the new authorities begin to tackle monumental challenges, activists on Independence Square consider packing up and going home.
KYIV, Ukraine — The comment would probably have provoked widespread fury only weeks earlier.
“The main task of the Maidan has been achieved, we were saved from dictatorship,” former boxing champ Vitali Klitschko told reporters on Monday, referring to Independence Square, the nerve center of the months-long pro-European protests. “The barricades have fulfilled their function and must now be removed.”
But there was little commentary from Kyiv’s chattering classes, who were busy following the chaos in eastern Ukraine, where the government’s “anti-terrorist” operation against armed, pro-Russian separatists was underway.
The relative silence may indicate that after months of turmoil, at least some Ukrainians are asking themselves whether it’s finally time for activists on the Maidan to pack up and call it a day.
After the overwhelming election of businessman Petro Poroshenko as president — and his ally Klitschko to the post of Kyiv mayor — on Sunday, there’s hope for at least some stability even as the new authorities face the monumental task of saving their country by dragging it out of an economic crisis and confronting the insurrection in the east.
For months, the Maidan’s non-stop speeches and boisterous demonstrations helped sustain the drive for reform by symbolizing the revolutionary fervor that’s swept Ukraine.
After fierce clashes between police and protesters that left more than 100 dead in February, it became hallowed ground, where priests led massive, heart-wrenching prayer ceremonies.
Today, however, the square mostly services curious passersby who pose for photos and catch some sun, its barricades and other fixtures more a living museum than a vehicle for change.
Only the disheveled, thick-knuckled “self-defense” members maintain a constant presence, milling outside their sweltering military tents and guarding increasingly empty donation bins.
Some of them are now considering moving on.
“If we see in his actions that he’s working for the country and the Ukrainian people, then no question — we’ll respect his command,” said Anatoliy Petriv, a 56-year-old from western Ukraine, in response to Klitschko’s comments.
But Petriv, who spent Tuesday afternoon slicing parsley and preparing a vat of borsch in a grubby field kitchen, said it wouldn’t be easy.
Both Klitschko and President-elect Poroshenko, a billionaire chocolate magnate, would still need to ask nicely — while also keeping in mind the Maidan got them where they are today.
“If they come with threats, we’ll answer accordingly,” Petriv added.
But even if the Maidan is dismantled, that wouldn’t mean its physical legacy would fade.
Since President Viktor Yanukovych’s ouster in February, activists and officials have been mulling over ways to permanently commemorate those killed in the clashes.
Currently, makeshift shrines festooned with candles, rosaries and portraits of the dead dot the Maidan. But Klitschko repeated earlier pledges by top officials that a proper memorial would be built “soon.”
Although supporters have long argued that the Maidan serves as a source of leverage that keeps the post-revolutionary authorities in check, some suggest moving on is more of a natural step.
Oleksandr Rudyk, a 19-year-old student in Kyiv who served as an election observer on Sunday, agrees that until now, the Maidan was the people’s “only instrument of influence” over politics.
But he adds that civil society needs to mature and find other ways to ensure political transparency and accountability.
“We need to start moving away from it step-by-step and begin to democratize the entire [political] process,” said Rudyk.
That may be hard for the people who have made the Maidan essentially their life’s sole purpose for up to six months now.
They are the small-town farmers and construction workers who left behind jobs and, in some cases, families, months ago in order to support the revolution.
Others — such as unemployed stragglers and disaffected youths — had even less before, and so they spend their days sleeping, cooking or cleaning in shifts.
Andriy Danish, an 18-year-old from a village near Kyiv, says he’s been on the Maidan since November 30, when riot police first attempted to disperse the protest — then in its embryonic stage — by beating mostly sleeping students.
Wandering through the Maidan Tuesday morning under a searing sun in thick fatigues, still clutching a baseball bat and a motorcycle helmet, he looked exhausted.
Although many of the men in his self-defense unit have already gone home, Danish said he’d remain “to the end,” the characteristically vague response typically given by many here still unsatisfied with the new authorities.
When might that be?
“I just want everything in Ukraine to be normal,” he said. “I don’t want anything else.”
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