Occupying and marching streets has long been a traditional way of public protest. But since the early days of Ukraine’s latest uprising, the foot-borne crowds on the central square received support from an extra arm which used a more inventive approach. Several hundred car owners united into an “Auto-Maidan” and started organising regular swift raids to stage rapid protest events outside the occupied squares. In their first missions, Auto-Maidan led about 1000 cars decked with national flags to protest at the doors of the luxury estates of the key regime villains. The primary destination was the infamous 137 ha Mezhyhirya property of the President Yanukovych, where activists visited several times, attempting to traverse multiple cordons of road police, heavy vehicles and armed forces. They also visited the estates of the General Prosecutor Victor Pshonka, vice-minister Andriy Klyuev, interior minister Vitalij Zakharchenko, and the notorious pro-Russian politician Viktor Medvedchuk. A highly agile open group, they called themselves “Maidan’s cavalry”. In addition to protests near the estates, they started mobilising in response to calls for help from protesters in danger and patrolling streets to guard civilans from the “titushka” government-paid goons.
Nobody was surprised when road police turned hostile to Auto-Maidan cars, detaining some of the activists, confiscating licenses and vehicles. But since last week, Auto-Maidan has been demonstratively put to fight a war of a new scale. On 23 Jan, Kyiv woke up to the news that around 4 AM dozens of Auto-Maidan activists were drawn in an ambush by a faked call for help. Video cameras installed in the car recorded how cars were blocked by the police, smashed by grenades, drivers and passengers battered and taken in unknown directions. Most activists were arrested; many disappeared and still missing. Since the day, Auto-Maidan has been facing traps on petrol stations, further faked help alerts and, finally, an another large ambush in the city of Cherkassy on 27 Jan, where Kyiv activists travelled to support local protesters. Strikingly, one of the scandalous laws voted on the 16 January explicitly prohibited “movement of cars in groups larger than five”, taking the war on Auto-Maidan to the level of national legislation.The covert and hideous nature of these atrocities combined with its massive scale raises questions about why this particular activity triggered such a disproportionate backlash. The stand-off on Maidan and the street battles elsewhere were violent, but even if people wore masks, the fighting remained relatively head-on and earnest. Auto-Maidan must have touched a deep chord, which was not in the reach of the stationary protest no matter how brave and numerous. Beneath any authoritarian rule is the basic expectation of personal immunity from public dissatisfaction; at the emotional level, people are irrelevant. Dealing with their standing crowds is different from the agonising uncertainty over what would happen tomorrow in front of one’s own doors. Peaceful but mobile protest ruined that confidence and revealed the current government’s weakest spot.
Viktor Medvedchuk, whose latest formal office as a Head of President Kuchma’s Administration ended in early 2005, but who remained active in Ukraine’s politics throughout further years, had been very discrete in his public statements, contributing to his public image of a highly shadow figure. He promoted Ukraine’s integration with Russia through the activities of his NGO and did not hide his personal links to Vladimir Putin, but had never highlighted any explicit participation in the current political processes in Ukraine. Yet, back in December 2013, when Auto-Maidan damaged the fence of his house, he wrote on his Facebook page: “Fools are bad, but active fools are even worse. (…). I understand they want a war? I can do that. I have enough power and possibilities to protect my views and values. And I will do just that.”
BBC Ukraine report on the first ambush for Auto-Maidan on 23 Jan:
Missing Auto-Maidan activists:
The story of Medvedchuk’s fence